It’s pretty much dead on thirty years since I first came across Dorothea Dix and her work as Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union side during the American Civil War. Oh dear, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it? I was only a young kid at the time, honestly! I took Love and War, the second book in the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, with me on a school trip to Paris during the Whit half term week of 1987. Dorothea Dix appeared in that when Virgilia Hazard, the sister of one of the main characters, became an Army nurse. Thirty years. I wish that thought hadn’t occurred to me!
Dorothea Dix appeared briefly in this too – but only early on. However, several of the main characters were also “real life” nurses during the American Civil War – Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the New England abolitionist on whose books the series is based, and Emma Green, the Southern belle with mixed loyalties, were both real people (although Mary was rather older and less glamorous than she’s presented in this), and Anne Hastings, the British nurse who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is based on a real person named Anne Reading.
The hospital in which it’s set was real as well – the Mansion House Hospital in the beautiful town of Alexandria, Virginia, where Robert E Lee grew up (although filming took place in nearby Petersburg, which looks more 19th century than Alexandria). I stayed in Alexandria whilst visiting Washington DC in 2009. It’s just seven miles from Washington. Had Maryland seceded – of the eight states classed as the Upper South, four joined the Confederacy and four remained part of the Union – then the Union capital would have been surrounded by Confederate territory. There were many people in the Upper South with mixed loyalties, and the situation in Alexandria, a Confederate town occupied by Union forces little more than a month after the war broke out and a destination for many escaped slaves, was complex.
I started off by thinking that all the characters were rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Mary insisted that the war was about emancipation, and was reluctant to treat Confederate soldiers. Emma went wandering round the hospital in a white crinoline, clutching a parasol. Many characters obviously both felt that they were on the side of a Glorious Cause, and that everyone on the other side was a baddie.
However, it became apparent that the whole idea was that people started off feeling that way but soon came to realise that life and war are not that simple, and that most people were just caught up in a terrible situation way beyond their control. A Union doctor, from a slaveholding family, pointed out that blood was neither blue nor grey (/gray) but red: it was a bit preachy, but hospital dramas do inevitably tend to be a bit preachy. One of the black characters had more medical knowledge and ability than most of the white characters, but didn’t always even dare to show it: presumably, in time, the prejudiced white characters will come to respect and admire him.
Many of the all-time great historical novels, films and TV series are set during wartime, and it’s always difficult for them to strike the right balance between showing the horrors of war and having the soap opera/period drama element too. That’s particularly difficult when the setting is a hospital. This was sometimes a bit simplistic, sometimes a bit stereotypical and sometimes a bit preachy, but it really wasn’t bad. And it’s been so long since there’s been an American Civil War (I’m actually not very keen on that term, because I don’t see how Union versus Confederacy can be classed as a “civil war”, but it seems to be the generally accepted term, and the PC brigade go berserk if anyone uses the far more historically accurate “War Between The States”) drama on TV. Sadly, this was cancelled after the second series, but that still gives us two series to watch. I shall be keeping on watching 🙂 .