PBS’s Mercy Street Shows No Mercy to Traditionalists

By Jen Simone ‘18

Spoilers ahead. 

Warning: This show is probably not enjoyable for those with hemophobia. Also, if you like to view the war as a clear-cut conflict between two distinct ideologies, this show is not for you either. 

I don’t know if it’s just me being cynical about public disinterest in history, but I was shocked to read that the premiere episode of PBS’ Mercy Street, titled “The New Nurse,” got 3.3 million viewers. Are there really that many people interested in Civil War Era history? There is a great chance that many people unintentionally left PBS on after Downton Abbey, but it wouldn’t shock me if they find themselves intentionally keeping it on again next week. The show was compelling and includes everything a drama should—intensity, romance, and controversy. Most importantly, though, I believe this show has the potential to significantly increase public interest in the Civil War and reveal to the public the true nature of the war.

Hannah James as “Emma Green” in Mercy Street. Image Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS.

The show is about a Civil War hospital operating in a mansion in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. The producers certainly did not make this show to answer common questions about the Civil War, but rather to make people start thinking. No character’s belief in the show was left uncontested and many myths were broken. The topic of the show itself is daring, for it is not about the military history of the war, but rather the medical history mixed with civilian life.

The environment created by the set is one that makes all viewers feel grateful that they are watching this on TV and are not one of the characters. Viewers are welcomed to the Mansion House Hospital by the shrieks and screams of suffering patients, the sound of sawing, the sight of a man without his legs, and numerous voices yelling, “Nurse!” The romanticized vision of the typical Southern Civil War Era town was immediately shattered: though beautiful wood furniture and lace curtains still remain in the houses, contraband slaves fill the streets nearby and the stench of deteriorating bodies fill the air.

The main character of the series is the recently widowed Mary Phinney, who has come to serve as the new head nurse at the Mansion Hospital. Her character contributes to many arguments throughout the show, for she is a “noisy abolitionist” who is troubled by the fact that the Mansion Hospital, a Union hospital, accepts Confederate patients. She argues that the war is about freedom from slavery, while another character, Dr. Foster, argues that the war is about preserving the Union. We all know that this argument is not one just created for dramatic effect.

A similar conflict arise when Emma, a young woman and one of the Confederate sympathizers of the show, brings water to a distressed patient that the others were neglecting. “Whatever he was out there,” she said, “in here he’s merely thirsty.” That sentiment reflects one of the biggest arguments concerning the war today. Were all soldiers equally as honorable regardless of which side they fought for? Do all become equal in death? Dr. Foster would certainly agree with Emma, for, as he stated, “Blood is not gray or blue.”

In addition to providing insight on gender roles during the era, excitement for a war they foresee ending soon, and romance, Mercy Street depicts the atrocious reality of injuries caused by battle. I’d say one of the most intriguing moments was when Mary Phinney attempts to remove the shoes of a patient who then informs her that he is not wearing shoes and that his feet are just extremely dirty. Another eventful scene involves a patient pulling a gun on a doctor, expressing that he is scared that chloroform will kill him and that they will throw out his arm after they amputate it.

Of all of the scenes, one really stood out to me, for it embodies the war and its effects. Mary Phinney walks up to a boy who is gripping a Union flag and urges him to finally put it down. He explains that he promised his father who died in battle that he would never let it go, but she continues to urge him to let go until another patient informs her that the dried blood “glued” the flag to his hands. As if that is not disturbing and saddening enough, we then learn that the boy is merely fifteen years old. How horrible that a fifteen-year-old has to write a letter home to his family about where he would like to be buried? As heartbreaking as it is to watch this young boy, understanding the sorrow the war caused a single person and those he knew can help reveal the horror of the war to the entire nation.

Although I am sure people will pick apart the show for tiny historical inaccuracies, I am astounded by the effect the show has had on me and how much I enjoyed it. Even when someone finds that a dress pattern was inappropriate for the time period, I will still support this show if it continues to be anything like the first episode. I believe Mercy Street has unbelievable potential to inform people of the complexity of the Civil War and in my opinion, most importantly, how it tore this nation apart.

This is the first in a series of posts on the new PBS series Mercy Street. Starting next week, the Gettysburg Compiler will be releasing weekly posts as part of a “Mercy Monday” feature that will cover issues of medical history, gender and race relations, historical memory, and other themes depicted in Mercy Street.

3 thoughts on “PBS’s Mercy Street Shows No Mercy to Traditionalists”

  1. I haven’t watched the show because I write fiction about the time period and don’t want to mix my ideas with the shows. 🙂 I wrote a novel about a morphine-addicted veteran years ago so when I heard that the show featured someone addicted to morphine my writer’s insecurity kicked in! LOL, but maybe in a few years I’ll watch it.

    I can forgive a few inaccuracies if the overall story is interesting. For research I re-enacted for a few years. Some people were too intense and some too slip-shod in their presentations. I love accuracy but lets be real–we can never really remake history. I like to think about what time sounded like back then. Thanks for this post. I enjoyed it.

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