Way Back Wednesday: PBS’ show Mercy Street Meets Liberty Hall

As we taunted with our facebook/instagram (@libertyhallmuseum) post earlier this week, because obviously you’re following us, this weeks blog post is how PBS’ new show Mercy Street ties into Liberty Hall Museum. Inspired by real people and events, Mercy Street goes beyond the front lines of the Civil War and into the chaotic world of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia.  The staff at Liberty Hall fell in love with the show immediately as there are so many parallels between the show and our history.

Just as Mary Phinney leaves her Boston home to work as a nurse in Alexandria, VA during the Civil War, our own Christine Kean Griffin did the same! Except she came from Elizabeth, NJ and she worked on hospital boats.  As we mentioned in our blog post from 2 weeks ago, Christine married Captain William Preston Griffin in 1849 and took a 9 month honeymoon through Europe (sound familiar yet?).  Unfortunately, he dies in 1851 and she decides to dedicate her time in the nursing profession, particularly during the Civil War.  She is a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission which was led by Frederick Law Olmsted (you may know him as the architect behind Central Park).


Private citizens, including Henry Whitney Bellows and Dorthea Dix, created the U.S. Sanitary Commission (U.S.S.C) in the spring of 1861.  It was organized, funded and run by civilians.  The War Department officially sanctioned the U.S.S.C on June 9, 1861.  The U.S.S.C. staffed field hospitals, raised money, provided supplies and worked to educate the military and government on matters of health and sanitation.  The U.S.S.C. was disbanded in May of 1866.

Christine was stationed on the hospital ship U.S.S Daniel Webster and we know that she nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers.  The biggest battle she was a part of was during the Peninsula Campaign which is known as the Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks (depending on if you’re Union or Confederate) which took place on May 31 – June 1, 1862.  In several letters, referring to the 72 hour period, she described scenes of horror, heroism, and exhaustion as she and other commission nurses tended to thousands of casualties.

Daniel Webster

U.S.S Daniel Webster

PeninsulaCampaign Map

Peninsula Campaign


 Fun facts about her time in the U.S.S.C :

  • She befriended the Woolsey sisters, Eliza and Georgeanna, who after the war wrote a book in which Christine is referenced often.  They write about how their hoop skirts were in the way of the hospital beds (they were on a ship after all!) and Christine very sternly told them to take their hoops off. If you know anything about that time period and hoops, that was a big no-no!!
  • While Christine volunteered for work with the U.S.S.C, her sister, Julia Kean Fish worked to raised money to manage the organization.  .
  • According to Kean family legend, Christine got to sit next to President Lincoln at a dinner! (which made her the “cool” aunt among her nephews and nieces)

Christine remained involved in public health issues for the rest of her life, serving as President of the Nurses’ School at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.  She is credited with designing a standard nurses cap.


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