Mercy Street–Another Review

MercyStreetPosterwSawboneBecause I’m doing my master’s thesis on a topic related to Civil War medicine, I was asked to review this PBS series, but just could not find the time to do so until now. I sometimes had to binge-watch a couple of episodes. This thesis stuff is difficult—especially the “thinking about it” part. Nevertheless, I have seen every episode, and perhaps one review will suffice instead of six.

Basically, it’s a hospital drama. I was afraid of that, but not in a bad way. I love hospital dramas! And cop shows! It is just that no one should get his or her ideas about hospitals, cops, or the cities in which they are located from Chicago Med, CSI New Orleans, or Mercy Street. Homicide, from Baltimore, might be the only exception. Just sayin’.  I used to live in Baltimore.

The writers of Mercy Street tried mightily to get every small detail correct, and they were amazingly successful. The costumes are lovely to look at, and I have not read one review that complained about them in the slightest. Personally, the lace that adorns the necks and bodices of the Green women take my breath away. The men’s clothing shows the same attention to detail. None of the enlisted soldiers have uniforms that fit worth a darn, and from what I have read, that was the truth. They look sloppy, dirty, and oftentimes bloody.

20150955edc71747eeaThere is nothing pristine about Mansion House Hospital in any way, and again, that agrees with what I have read in my copious research. The special effects concerning the wounds, the amputations, and death seem very realistic rather than glorified simply for shock value. William Hammond is mentioned as the Surgeon General, “Taps” is not played, as it was not written until later, and the ball scenes, including the quick attempt at “Dixie” on the piano were satisfying as well.mercy-street-history

So far, so good.

Here are my questions–can we take the rape scene between Aurelia and that nasty old Silas Bullen as something more than what it is, due to the historical context of the series? Haven’t men been exploiting women in such a barbarous manner for forever? Isn’t it happening now? Won’t it continue, despite the best efforts of law enforcement and religion?. Is the beating and near lynching of Samuel Diggs an isolated case of violence, or have we not been reading today’s headlines? Should we take the efforts of PBS, fine and honorable as they are, and learn history from them? My answer to this last question is a firm “No.”

mezzanine_707.jpg.resize.800x450I prefer to just enjoy Mercy Street for what it is–a pretty darn good hospital drama. This way I am not setting myself up for disappointment. I am, however, waiting to see if the newest Dr. McDreamy Jed Foster ever gets over his scruples and puts honorable moves on pretty Nurse Phinney (fingers crossed!). I hang on the snarling words of Miss Hastings, and laugh as she winds poor Dr. Byron Hale around her witchy fingers. He is such an easy target, that one! I am waiting to see if, maybe next season (if there is a next season!) handsome and smart Samuel Diggs comes back to Alexandria in a blue Yankee uniform to rescue Miss Aurelia and help her find her son. And I hope against hope that silly Miss Emma realizes that Frank Stringfellow is a cad and a bounder! Maybe she could hook up with Dr. Hale . . . he deserves better.mercy-street

Just because something says “Civil War” on it does not mean it is from God’s hand to our digital screens. I only wish I was in Frederick, Maryland. The Museum of Civil War Medicine (a wonderful, lively place!) hosts a Sunday evening get-together at the Museum to watch Mercy Street. Now that sounds like fun! All the best Civil War medical minds working today are clustered around the screen to check for accuracy, and the rest of the audience can laugh, cheer, and jeer the historical hospital drama that is Mercy Street–“RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES” of both today and the 1860s.

Dr. McDreamy indeed!
Dr. McDreamy indeed!



26 Responses to Mercy Street–Another Review

  1. Great review Meg! I too have decided that I am just going to sit back and enjoy the series for it’s entertainment value! Since I work in the Civil War history business, I am happy to see that the show is at least raising awareness about the medical and civilian impacts of the war in the NVA area. On a side note … There is a lot of chatter here in the Fredericksburg and Culpeper area about the show’s seemingly unfair representation of Frank Stringfellow, a local ‘hero’!

    1. My my my! That poor, mis-understood Frank Stringfellow! I say Fiddle-dee-dee to all the naysayers and promise to just let things play themselves out. How many times has a “villain” turned out to be the “hero?” And in this day of neo-Confederate thinking, perhaps it is all in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just watch it & enjoy!!

  2. Good review. Mercy street is basically a soap opera . It’s amusing. It’s not serious. It’s fluff. The alexandria location is a mistake. To be truly dramatic it should take place at camp letterman, and dr letterman should be involved . Perhaps that is yet to come as letterman came later . I would love to see the mercy street characters operating at the front lines of Chancellorsville or Gettysburg. What if they were somehow involved in the death of stonewall Jackson ? That might be plausible . But having Jw booth try to blow up the hospital when Lincoln visits ?? Not as much . Maybe. I don’t think booth was activevthiscearly in the war . Although superficially historically accurate, the mercy street producers need to get the characters involved in real historical events to be exciting: Marye’s heights, bloody lane, McPherson woods, the wheatfield, Hampton roads, the hundley. There are so many possibilities for exciting historical fiction, it’s a shame to waste the show on soap opera.

    1. Robert–Letterman started with McClellan’s forced in early July of ’62. I was/am hoping he makes an appearance–that would be super! Here is what I thought when McDreamy trephined the soldier’s skull. He was threatened with his actions being brought to the attention of Surgeon General William Hammond. I have read a ton of stuff about Hammond–he is one of my favorite folks lately–and I am of the opinion that Hammond, had he been told of the operation would have sent for Dr. Foster to talk to him about how the operation went and the continuing condition of the patient, or Hammond would have swung himself into a buggy, crossed the Potomac, and checked it out for himself. Yay Hammond!

      And I agree–it would be great to see the whole Mercy Street bunch ordered by Letterman to Antietam post haste, and then go from there. Maybe we have come up with something, good sir!

  3. Hey now, I LOVE the Alexandria setting — it sheds light on the whole occupation aspect of the war, which has been woefully under-dramatized. What with the oaths, the spies, the conflicting loyalties, the new issue of “contraband,” the war profiteering, the absurd situation of having your new “national capital” 100 miles away, while your old one is within eyesight across a river, yada yada yada.

    Also, I live in Alexandria, and my great-great-great grandpa was in the VA 17th infantry, so perhaps I’m biased 😉

    1. Did your GGGGgrandpa survive the war? What battles did he fight in? Was he an officer or enlisted man? Did he own any slaves?

      1. GGG Grandpa survived indeed. Fought at 1st Manassas (the Brigade was under Longstreet before he got promoted), Seven Pines, 2nd Manassas, Antietam, and Five Forks, among other minor battles. He was in Pickett’s Division, but (lucky for him!) they were detached guarding a bridge somewhere in Richmond during Gettysburg. He was a private. His military registration card lists his occupation as “Carter,” which I gather to mean he drove a horse or donkey-pulled cart around Alexandria, delivering food or supplies to local stores and whatnot. So I considered it unlikely he was a member of the slave-owning class. Probably just joined up with the other boys out of peer pressure and boredom. Glad he made it out!

      2. Those are some serious battles . Congrats . All my ancestors were still in Europe (Ireland and Italy) during the civil war . I enjoy reading about the Irish brigade and the garibaldi division. In fact I like to read about all the immigrant units. The Germsns on first day of Gettysburg were prominent.

    2. I am partial to Alexandria as well. Alexandria is where Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was killed while, admittedly, probably illegally seizing a large Confederate flag from the top of the Marshall House Hotel. I keep listening for a few words of this in the series, but it was over a year ago, Mercy Street time. Besides, the folks who run the Alexandria historical societies are just wonderful, as are the folks at Fort Ward.

      Perhaps I am biased as well.

      1. I’m teaching both my kids how to ride their bikes at Fort Ward, and lucky for my, my five-year-old keeps me company there when they have little reenactments and camp events. Lovely place and a credit to the city of Alexandria for maintaining it.

  4. I believe the daily hospital activities and routine situations portrayed are accurate and well done. I particularly appreciate the inclusion of the Confederate soldier’s psychological case (1862 PTSD?), STDs and the transmittal of the infection to the head doctor’s finger. I have always wondered in our current time of precautionary body fluid and germ avoidance protocols how more Civil War era infections and similar conditions were not transmitted to the doctors and other medical personnel handling the treatments where direct unprotected personal contact was involved. My major dislike has been with what I consider contrived major happenings such as the rape, attempted lynching, and the possible attack with explosives upon the hospital and President Lincoln that appears probable in the next episode. I believe interesting fictional portrayals of the routine events could carry the series on their own merits but the fictional major story lines are unrealistic situations gratuitously added to generate higher interest from current day television viewers.

    1. i agree but no doubt the series is written for non-civil war buffs and has to be “exciting” to the lay man. plenty of exciting real historical civil war events that could be dramatized and fit with the storyline.

  5. Quite amazing how they resolved several complicated sub-plots in only one hour of the sixth episode. They did however sow a few seeds for new fictional story lines if the series is continued in the future. The real 1862 war was still young as the last episode ended and the soon to be coming casualties from Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before year’s end would have overwhelmed the personnel of any real life small hospital located in Alexandria, VA. Telling just that story authentically through fictional characters would have been enough of an interesting saga for me but I have a suspicion there will be much more drama if the Mercy Street series is extended.

    1. I would watch it even if it continues as a soap opera, you are correct about what would elevate mercy street to something special: send them to the front. Second manassas, Antietam , Fredericksburg , Chancellorsville and the granddaddy of them all Gettysburg

  6. Well, let’s hope for the best & maybe Mercy Street will come back around! At this point, the only thing I would change is the theme song. With all the terrific music that is Civil War-oriented, they came up with the most boring, forgettable music ever–imho. Where’s Ashokan Farewell when it’s needed? Or even a Dixie/Battle Hymn Mashup–any suggestions

    1. Any appropriate music performed on period instruments or sung by an artist such as David Kincaid who strives for authenticity would do, Meg. Thank you for posting your interesting review and comments. We look forward to seeing more from you if the series is indeed continued.

      1. I have been hors de combat lately due to writing my thesis. Chris M. has suggested I share my journey here on ECW, and I may take him up on it. Not that I am asking for pity—although I will take sympathy from anyone! When every word matters so much, as is true in this type of intense academic writing, even being sure the footnotes are perfect is a formidable task. Primary sources don’t always have everything required in the Chicago Manual of Style.

        This particular post has generated a lot of “water cooler” talk, and that has been a blessing in itself! So has letting myself just enjoy Mercy Street, and not get so worried about minutiae. I think I told someone that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

        The Civil War can be a terribly serious topic. At the same time, it is filled with comedy, jokes, anecdotes, great quotes, lessons to be learned, and it offers a continued barrage of questions.Maybe that is why we love it so well, to paraphrase General Lee.

      2. The theme is modern “dramatic” music. the show regrettably is directed to a mass audience of reasonably intelligent people – this is PBS – but not fanatical civil war types like us. the whole show is updated to appeal to modern sensibilities. even so its better than nothing. It aint ken burns, or Glory, or even Gettysburg or Gods and Generals. will they ever film Last Full Measure? I doubt it. Jeff Daniels made such a great Joshua Chamberlain : “Charge!!” I am also enjoying the civil war fiction of Ralph Peters who is a right wing nut job and Fox commentator, but his civil war books are a good read.

  7. Robert–dare we admit that we read books by right wing nut jobs? Let me hide my copy of Killing Lincoln before I continue! Sometimes I just think I want to read Gone With the Wind and not care–I suspect this is thesis-itis.

    I just finished looking for q specific quote in Jonathan Letterman’s Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac, and was reminded once again that I should do a book review for it. Check it out–it can be found free on line, or in several reprints that are copies of the exact pages published in 1866. What a great man, and what a good read!

    1. Meg: I draw the line at reading bill O’Reilly drivel. “Killing whomever”. I am also a fan of JEFF Shaara although I have read the last 3 civil war books yet: chain of thunder, fateful lightning or smoke at dawn. I have been reading a lot recently on the overland campaign . Would love to read Shaara treatment of that. I remember he covers the wilderness in Last Full Measure, but I don’t recall anything about spotysyvania or cold harbor in that book. I need to check and Reread now that I am more familiar w overland.

  8. I was disappointed in last night’s episode when the sign went up over the hospital entrance identifying it as “Union Hospital.” I have never seen the word “Union” used to describe any governmental or NGO institution, as they were always considered “U.S.” For example, there was the U.S. Sanitary Commission, not the Union Sanitary Commission. Otherwise it is a good hour of television. I also hope to see the hospital staff go into the field, especially after 2nd Bull Run, close enough to Alexandria for a hospital wagon to carry them there.

  9. OK–I went over the episode from last night, and it is as I suspected–the new Union Hospital” sign replaced the cloth signed that said “Union Hospital” as well.I am not sure they had names, exactly–the one at Gettysburg was called Camp Letterman, and the hospitals in Washington City were named for people.Here is a link to Union hospitals in Alexandria at the time––I see no appreciable pattern.

  10. Mercy street not renewed for third season on PBS unfortunately. The star who played the lead union doctor got a network starring role in a high school show on NBC. What a waste . I didn’t know who he was but apparently he was previously on another popular network show – how I married your mother or something like that . I still feel mercy street missed the boat by not going into the field during major battles. The closest they came was when the doctor treated burnside for indigestion if I recall. RIP mercy street.

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