Some thoughts on Mercy Street

First, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and are entering 2016 with optimism and happiness.

The last two Sundays have witnessed a new Civil War drama premiering on PBS dealing with an often overlooked part of the war. Mercy Street deals with the happenings in the Mansion House Hospital, a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. It offers a lot for those interested in the war and its effects on civilians and medicine, especially in a community along the border.

Having watched the first two episodes, I can say that it is definitely a departure from what I’m used to in terms of Civil War television programming. That said, I am drawn to this show, as it offers a compelling story line, a great cast of characters, and a portrayal of Civil War medicine that will illustrate the horrors of the conflict, from grizzly wounds to PTSD. Three of the main characters are based upon historical figures, while legendary nurse Dorothea Dix was also portrayed in the series’ first episode.

Going forward, the series intends to provide a lot of great drama and intrigue. Some observations I have seen thus far include the conflict over slavery and racial attitudes, as Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the show’s main character, is a strong-willed woman, with a commitment to the abolitionist cause. This is in contrast to other characters who treat African Americans with little regard, or open hostility. In addition, slave catchers have already attempted to apprehend a suspected runaway. African American characters usually appear behind the scenes, but they are portrayed quite well and provide their own dynamic to the story, as they seek to make sense of the events around them, while seeking their freedom, if enslaved, or striving to survive and maybe achieve a better station in life under Union occupation.

The Green family, whose hotel was confiscated and turned into the hospital are indicative of the conflict in Confederate society, as while the patriarch seeks to make the best of the situation of Union occupation, and seems ambiguous to slavery, his daughter appears to have much stronger leanings for the southern cause. While the Greens deal with their situation, there is conflict in the hospital between the physicians over methodology, as well as the nurses, who bristle and Mary’s appointment by Dix as the head nurse in the hospital, despite other nurses in the facility having more experience. Her abolitionism and previous marriage, which ended in her husband’s death, are sources of criticism from both groups.

With an interesting story, grizzly scenes depicting the horrors of America’s bloodiest conflict, and a great cast of characters, set against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, Mercy Street is a show worth watching by anyone interested in the war and the medical side of the conflict. Be sure to either watch it on your local PBS station on Sunday evenings at 9PM Central, or record it for later.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Mercy Street

  1. I have to disagree a bit with your analysis of the show. I came home late tonight and caught part of tonight’s show. My wife was watching it. Having watched Doughton’s Abbey with her on occasion, it reminded me of that kind of drama. I wasn’t convinced by the characters’ portrayals tonight, and thought it a bit contrived. I would have preferred fewer English accents and “proper English” spoken and more of the nitty gritty of what it was really like in so far as the medical part. A bit too clean and cultured for my taste. I teach U.S. history to a gifted middle school, am just starting to work with the issues of slavery, whether John Brown was a martyr or terrorist, and moving onto the causes of the war (including Dred Scott’s decision) and probably won’t watch it again. That being said, I do appreciate your take on the show, your analysis,and your past posts.

    • Gary,

      You raise an interesting point that I’d not completely considered. The dialogue did come off as too prim and proper, with some of the characters seeming “forced.” That said, I wonder if that is because it is a PBS product and, I believe, part of the Masterpiece domain within PBS. Considering the success that Abbey has had, I can’t help but wonder if they are attempting to bring some of that into this series to make it come across as a Civil War variant of the show, which I hope not. What will be interesting is to see how the show develops going forward. I do feel that the story attempting to be portrayed in the series is an important one worth exploring, but hope that the issues surrounding slavery will come into a more prominent position. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for following and reading the blog.

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