Mercy Street Was a Backdoor Counter-History of the Civil War

The fact-based PBS drama asserted that race, not union or states’ rights, was the real reason behind America’s bloodiest conflict.
  • Hannah James, Gary Cole, Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star in Mercy Street  (PBS)
    Hannah James, Gary Cole, Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star in Mercy Street (PBS)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Mercy Street
    Season 1
    Watch on Amazon Prime

    The further away we get from Mercy Street, the more obvious what a brave and solitary show it was. Brought to life in 2016, only to be cruelly snuffed out one year later, this PBS series was presented to viewers as a fact-based historical drama set at a makeshift army hospital during the Civil War. It was much more.

    Set at a Virginia mansion captured by the Union Army a few miles from the White House, Mercy Street was praised for its historical authenticity, and not just in its bloody surgical re-enactments. Mercy Street was a rare drama that tried to interweave story and history, putting its characters through wrenching, transformative change while the country did likewise. 

    During the Civil War, no change was more momentous than the destruction of the chattel slavery system. Through compelling characters and storylines, the writers of Mercy Street not only reminded us that slavery was the reason for the Civil War, but showed how slaves contributed mightily — I would argue crucially — to eventual Union victory.

    To many longtime PBS viewers, Mercy Street felt like a mashup of familiar TV genres with Downton Abbey aspirations, all period wardrobe and old-timey dialogue, with a few bickering doctors thrown in. To me, the show was an absorbing counter-narrative of African-Americans participating in their own liberation and proclaiming their emancipation long before Abraham Lincoln did. 

    The fact that Mercy Street debuted in the midst of a racially charged, factually-challenged political campaign seemed almost providential. Sadly, it was not the Lord but the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that was principally responsible for putting the show on the air, and what the Sloan giveth, the Sloan could taketh away. That it did, just days after the second season finale aired, six weeks into a new presidency and five months before Charlottesville.

    Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher) in <i>Mercy Street</i> (PBS)

    Right from the get-go, Mercy Street established itself as a show where the war of ideas was not too far removed from the war of munitions. The series opens with young Yankee widow Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) presenting herself to the head of the U.S. Nursing Corps, Dorothea Dix (Cherry Jones). It is 1862 and the war both sides thought would be short and sweet is proving to be anything but. 

    The sheer level of carnage has already upended what was, before the war, an all-male nursing profession. Now Dix, a formidable reformer and organizer, has been charged with recruiting thousands of women to handle the staggering number of wounded and diseased.

    The interview should be a breeze, but alas it is not. Dix is already suspicious of her candidate’s actress-good looks (the real Dorothea once said the ideal nursing candidate should be older than thirty and “homely of face”), and she is offended at Mary’s impertinence for freely expressing her views on abolition. Politics, declares Dix, has no place in the hospital. But the point is non-negotiable for Mary, as it was for the real-life Phinney.

    Fine, then, says her new boss. I know exactly where to put you. Mary is to report to Mansion House, a captured rebel plantation in Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington City.

    This isn’t some TV screenwriter cooking up conflict for conflict’s sake. Phinney and Dix represented a genuine clash among Northerners early in the war. By mid-1863 much of the Union Army was deep inside Confederate lines, where they could witness the inhumanity of the slave system up close while thousands of self-emancipated slaves spilled into their camps. Slowly, many Northerners became convinced that the country could never be united again until the institution that propped up the Southern way of life was destroyed. 

    In Mercy Street, we see how that destruction actually happened: not with the stroke of a pen or the blast of artillery, but from millions of ordinary people, black and white, imagining a world where slavery did not exist.

    Most movies and TV shows set in the Civil War era spend little time in the infirmary, but that was where the majority of men died, not on the battlefield. Mercy Street faithfully re-enacts the techniques of the period, which were heavy on the amputations and morphine, light on the hand-washing. (Bear in mind, though, that this wasn’t an HBO show, and that most of the bonesaw action and attending shrieks are kept at a distance.)

    With so many patients to see, suffering from every imaginable malady and wounds impossible to imagine, the military had to augment its career medical corps with civilian doctors. Many of these were young hotshots who saw the thousands of incoming patients as an opportunity to innovate with new life-saving techniques. 

    All of this, however, was too much for the hospital’s beleaguered chief surgeon, Alfred Summers, an old-school army doc who was waiting on retirement when the war broke out. As played by Peter Gerety with his usual cheery fatalism, Summers gets some of the best lines in this series. Admittedly, that’s not saying much for a show where comic relief consists of two men fighting over a wooden leg.

    Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Alfred Summers (Peter Gerety) in <i>Mercy Street</i> (PBS)

    Too much of Mercy Street’s first season was spent on a long-running rivalry between another career army surgeon, Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz), and the upstart Jed Foster (Josh Radnor). Likewise, the tension between Mary and two rival nurses got more screen time in Season 1 than perhaps was necessary. 

    I found myself more interested in the fate of another medical innovator lurking around Mansion House — Sam Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), a freeman who reveals a surprising prowess with the needle and scalpel, and perhaps dreams of putting it to use in a country that will one day respect his abilities above his race.

    Civil War Pop blogger Christian McWhirter wrote in 2016 that Mercy Street was “a solid, if slightly disappointing, stab at serialized Civil War fiction.” He pointed out that despite its inclusion of black characters and slavery-driven storylines, the show was “primarily focused on white people.” McWhirter was more excited by Underground, a WGN series set just before the Civil War that told the stories of African-Americans liberating themselves from slavery via the chain of human connections popularly known as the Underground Railroad. 

    McWhirter noted that Underground was premised on the idea that “narratives about African Americans resisting and escaping slavery are interesting to anyone, regardless of race or background. This was a solid assumption, proven by the show’s ratings.” What was not a solid assumption was that WGN would stay in the scripted drama business.

    As for Mercy Street, I won’t deny that Season 1 could have used less predictable storytelling and more actors of color. In its defense, those concerns are addressed in Season 2, when the calendar flips to 1863 and African-Americans assert themselves in surprising and powerful ways that will eventually tip the balance in the Civil War.

    As 2017 ended, Americans were debating whether Confederate monuments deserved their places of prominence in parks and town squares. As someone who prefers addition to subtraction and multiplication to division, I thought this was the wrong conversation to have. Why go to the trouble of removing a statue when you could post a sign nearby explaining that this famous person believed in the supremacy of the white race? Instead of killing off a TV show that calls out one of our greatest historical oversights, why not double the episode order? Who else was doing a show remotely like Mercy Street? Who else will?

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: PBS, Mercy Street