The Baroness Von Olnhausen Nurses At Alexandria
One of the women who responded to Dorothea Dix's call for volunteers was Mary Phinney, who had married a German emigre, Baron Gustav von Olnhausen. On her husband's death she moved to Illinois, and from there went to nurse at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria. After the war she traveled in Germany, then returned to a nursing career. Her picture of conditions in the hospitals is doubtless exaggerated, yet that many of the doctors were incompetent and corrupt and that the regular medical service looked with disdain on women nurses is abundantly clear.
Miss Dix, who had been appointed by the President head of the army nurses, took me from Washington to Alexandria to the Mansion House Hospital. She told me on the journey that the surgeon in charge was determined to give her no foothold in any hospital where he reigned, and that I was to take no notice of anything that might occur, and was to make no complaint whatever might happen. She was a stern woman of few words.
There seemed to be much confusion about the Mansion House-which before the war was a famous hotel-and every part of it was crowded. She left me in the office and went in search of Dr. S. The sight of the wounded continuously carried through on stretchers, or led in as they arrived from the boats that lay at the foot of the street on which the hospital stood (this was just after that awful Cedar Mountain battle [August 1862), seemed more than I could bear, and I thought Miss Dix would never come. At last she appeared, with Dr. S., who eyed me keenly and, it seemed to me, very savagely, and gave me in charge of an orderly to show me to the surgical ward, as it was called. It consisted of many small rooms, with a broad corridor, every room so full of cots that it was only barely possible to pass between them. Such a sorrowful sight; the men had just been taken off the battle-field, some of them had been lying three or four days almost without clothing, their wounds never dressed, so dirty and wretched. Some one gave me my charges as to what I was to do; it seemed such a hopeless task to do anything to help them that I wanted to throw myself down and give it up. Miss Dix left me, and soon the doctors came and ordered me to follow them while they examined and dressed the wounds. They seemed to me then, and afterwards I found they were, the most brutal men I ever saw. They were both volunteers, and one was a converted Jew who was constantly proclaiming it.
So I began my work, I might say night and day. The surgeon told me he had no room for me, and a nurse told me he said he would make the house so hot for me I would not stay long. When I told Miss Dix I could not remain without a room to sleep in, she, knowing the plan of driving me out, said, "My child" (I was nearly as old as herself), "you will stay where I have placed you." In the mean time McClellan's army was being landed below us from the Peninsula. Night and day the rumbling of heavy cannon, the marching of soldiers, the groaning of the sick and wounded were constantly heard; and yet in all that time I never once looked from the windows, I was so busy with the men.
One of the rooms of the ward was the operating-room, and the passing in and out of those who were to be operated upon, and the coming and going of the surgeons added so much to the general confusion. I doubt if at any time during the war there was ever such confusion as at this time. The insufficient help, the unskilful surgeons, and a general want of organization were very distressing; but I was too busy then and too tired for want of proper sleep to half realize it. Though I slept at the bedsides of the men or in a corner of the rooms, I was afraid to complain lest I be discharged. I was horribly ignorant, of course, and could only try to make the men comfortable; but the staff doctors were very friendly and occasionally helped me, and some one occasionally showed me about bandaging, so by degrees I began to do better. The worst doctor had been discharged, much to my joy, but the other one, despite his drinking habits, stayed on. After the morning visit it was no use calling upon him for anything, and I had to rely on the officer of the day if I needed help. I know now that many a life could have been saved if there had been a competent surgeon in the ward.
At this time the ward was full of very sick men and sometimes two would be dying at the same time, and both begging me to stay with them, so I got little sleep or rest. Moreover, I had no room of my own. Occasionally a nurse would extend the hospitality of the floor in hers, and I would have a straw bed dragged in on which to get a few hours' sleep. This, with a hurried bath and fresh clothes, was my only rest for weeks. It was no use to complain. The surgeon simply stormed at me and said there was no room;, while Miss Dix would say, "You can bear it awhile, my child; I have placed you here and you must stay." I was at that time her only nurse in the Mansion House. Later she succeeded in getting rid of all the others and replacing them With her own.
Alexandria, March, 1863
I thought it best not to trouble you with an account of how we have been living lately,-everything cut off, nothing but coffee (so poor and with hardly ever milk) and dry bread for breakfast; for dinner bread and meat (and such meat! always the tail or neck or some other nasty part), and at night coffee and bread again. Being hungry is nothing to being so insulted. We knew we had a right to all our rations; and while Dr. S. was here we always urged Mrs. B. to ask him, and so put us out of the power of these cooks. They hate us because we are decent women and will fight for the soldiers' rights, thus cutting off their resources. For some reason she never would; she thought he would believe us selfish or something.
One day it was past all bearing. I was positively so hungry I could have eaten cat's meat. I sat over the fire after supper, tired and hungry and wondering if the good I did was balanced by my suffering (more from insults than anything else), when all at once it struck me to go to Dr. Page myself. it was eight o'clock; I found him alone, and he listened to all my story. He seemed so surprised at it, said we had not even one privilege we were entitled to, called the Steward-who is just the meanest, hatefullest (oh, help me to a word, I don't care if it is profane) man that ever lived-and told him that in future we were to draw our own rations and have our own cook. I felt so elated, and when I announced it next morning the women actually embraced me. . . .
When our own battles were settled, then it was time, when good feeding had given us a little strength, to put in for our patients; so last Sunday morning I opened fire. Dr. C. has that department, so I attacked him; but. he was mad when I told him the patients would starve only for the nurses, who had to buy everything the sickest men ate. He denied it, and said he knew his nurse did not do it. So she was called, and said she did; then the others were called; and, at last, we had about every nurse and doctor in the house growling and snarling. Dr. C. said they had everything according to the new diet table; some of the doctors denied it and some of them backed him up; at last we all adjourned to some underground room (the bread-room) to read the table list, when it proved that they got nothing in the quantity even that was ordered there; and as to quality, Lord help them! How I wish you could have heard the row! It went on all day; even in the evening everybody was called up and talked to; and the result is that it has been a little better this week, though far from the mark, and soon (if it grows less every day) it will be back to the old standard, for that wretch H. or somebody will miss the money and get it back if possible.
So you see our path is not all rose-leaves, and you can see, too, one of the many impositions put upon the noble fellows who are throwing away their lives for such men as these. Are all men naturally bad? That's going to be the only religious question I shall study in the future. I guess this war will make me religious, for one. I am getting a good deal more patient and forgiving than I used to be, but I'll never forgive the Rebels who kill them.
"Diary of Mary Phinney"
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