“The New Nurse” – Review of Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

In case you haven’t heard yet, PBS is featuring a new historical mini-series set during the American Civil War! It’s called Mercy Street and the first episode premiered last Sunday.

In this beginning presentation – The New Nurse – the viewers are introduced to the cast of characters who are interacting at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, during the spring of 1862. The new nurse arrives – sent by “Dragon Dix” – and we follow her through the day as she tries to learn her role, avoid too many confrontations with the surgeons, and overcome prejudices. (A summary with no major spoilers!)

There are many historical scenes enacted in this first episode, and I was surprise at the authenticity in the program. Quotes, clothing, medical scenarios, and civilian impressions were masterful and the cast of character leaves me anxious to view the next episode.

“Ooh, that’s a real quote!” I thought as I watched the new nurse – Mary Phinney – make a comment as she was attempted to clean a very dirty soldier. It might be Mary Phinney saying it, but her line comes directly from Louisa May Alcott’s experiences in Hospital Sketches. Also, I believe Nurse Hastings quotes directly from Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing during her “instructive lecture.” To a Civil War diary/primary source fanatic, it was fun to recognize the quotes. I wonder how many other lines were “real”, but I just haven’t studied them yet…

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Maybe it’s only because I’m a girl and maybe it’s because I love the little details of pretty dresses and dashing uniforms, but I always note costuming in historical productions. While other films have fallen short in the clothing attempts, I was pleasantly surprised by Mercy Street. Now, I’m sure some “stitch Nazi” (that’s a re-enactor’s term for someone who’s obsessed with perfect, perfect, perfect clothing) will find problems, but to a semi-educated viewer it looked really good. The shoulder seams were off the shoulder on the ladies’ dresses, the pinner aprons were excellent, the men’s waistcoats were fantastic in material and pattern…and, hey, the exhausted wounded soldiers actually had dirty uniforms. Bravo!

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Now, to be honest, Mercy Street is not for the fainthearted in medical scenarios. There are a couple parts that are realistically gory. (Gross!) Other situations were only heard or announced. (I didn’t feel well when I thought about the announced surgery on a dislocated eye socket – for better or worse, I have a vivid imagination.) That disclaimer having been said, though, the medical stuff looks excellent and authentic. Bone saws are sharpened, morphine is injected as a new procedure, chloroform is administered, an artery is tied after being found with a tenaculum, and a plaster cast is applied to an injured leg. Yes, these details and brief views of wounds are going to make the viewer grimace, but it’s authentic. War and its aftermath are not beautiful.

I’m really impressed with the active role of civilians in this presentation. Not only is a New England matron volunteering as a nurse, but a Southern family, civilian contract surgeon, and African American hospital workers are featured in this introduction episode. It was brief, minor scene, but I liked when Emma Green goes to the hospital in her hoopskirt with her parasol and basket of flowers. Naïve and very young? Yes…yet her march down the alleyway crowded with Yankees was brave, ladylike, and very Southern. Anticipating more conflict between the civilians and military in the coming episodes…

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

The cast of characters in Mercy Street is wonderful. Civilians, Military, Medical, Contraband, Free African Americans – all working together or conflicting with each other. The confrontations felt real; the conflict is there and just beginning. I could thoroughly sympathize with the characters and feel their struggles. Many different viewpoints are also shown, and I hope that will provoke some good questions in the minds of the viewing public – at least leave them with the impression that there’s not always one clear-cut reason for actions.

Overall, I was very pleased with the first episode of Mercy Street and would highly  recommend this beginning presentation. I sincerely hope the next episodes continue to show the high quality authenticity in words, mannerisms, appearance, and actions. If the series continues like this, it just might be the presentation I’ve been waiting years to find – something historically accurate, realistic, and with plenty of emotion.

Mercy Street, Episode 1

Mercy Street, Episode 1

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Civil War in Pop Culture, Civilian, Medical and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “The New Nurse” – Review of Mercy Street, Episode 1

  1. edward mc laughlin says:

    This looks a great series well done pbs not sure if this is avaible in the UK ?

  2. Betty Callis says:

    It is a great show..I have been waiting for it. BUT…the volume on that show had to be turned up ALL the way to hear. The other stations would blare at that level. So I called and emailed PBS in Nashville where my station is located. They got back to me yesterday and said it was because my Viseo TV is not on stereo…and that it had something to do with their program for the deaf. None of that makes sense to me ….my TV is on stereo and I do not think that goes along with th other reason they suggested but did not go into. I saw on FB that someone in South Dakota had the same problem. PBS told me that unless we could figure it out, other NPR/PBS may have NO sound at all..no matter the volume level. Has anyone else had that problem?

    • Let’s hope they get the technical trouble fixed before Episode 2 starts this Sunday!

      • Betty Callis says:

        After asking about it on FB, it seems like some people from around the country are also having this problem. The lady from NPR/PBS left a message today that I would need to go to my TV turner and turn the stero on. Now come on….that has been on for 8 years. This has to be a problem from their end…after all she briefly mentioned some changes they had made in their program for the deaf. It is such a good show…I hate this. Take care, and stay warm.
        I should tell you how very much I enjoy ECW. It is great ! Thanks for sharing all this wonderful history!

  3. Dale Fishel says:

    I thought it was well done also. Will hopefully be able to follow through viewing the entire series. I highly recommend it! Thanks Sarah, your review is excellent.

    • Thanks, Dale. It’s fun to hear how excited viewers are. I’ve had several acquaintances contact me recently to make sure I knew about the program. Seems like “Mercy Street” is off to a good start collecting fans among history enthusiasts.

  4. joe truglio says:

    I enjoyed it for its historical values. However, I fear it will degenerate into soap opera. I can do with less romance and more descriptions of the difficulty of Civil War medical practices.

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