Today we’re pleased to welcome guest author Paige Gibbons Backus, the Historic Site Manager for Ben Lomond Historic Site, a Civil War hospital museum located in Manassas, Virginia.
The Civil War is arguably one of the most studied subjects in American history. As a result, when the producers at PBS aired Mercy Street, a Civil War period drama set in the hospitals of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1862, there was already a line of historians and Civil War enthusiasts ready to criticize its historical accuracy. However, it is important for readers to keep in mind that this show was created with the general public in mind—for an audience without much knowledge of the Civil War or period medicine, and not for historians. While I have several issues with the show myself, when looking at the film historiography of the Civil War, Mercy Street by far has a better interpretation of the war than other television series, such as North and South, that come immediately to mind.
First of all, Mercy Street is an ambitious project for PBS. Alexandria in 1862 was a complicated place. Union and Confederate soldiers, male doctors, female nurses, Alexandria residents, and both free and enslaved African Americans were all living within the city, which undoubtedly created gender, racial, and political conflicts. In all of the previews and the premier episode of the series, Mercy Street primarily follows Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a New England nurse assigned to the Mansion House Hospital and Emma Green (Hannah James), a young Confederate woman whose family owns the Mansion House Hotel.
While this storyline provides audiences insight into the gender and political conflicts of the Civil War, Mercy Street also follows several different storylines: from Dr. Jed Foster’s morphine addiction; Anne Hastings’ (Tara Summers) and Dr. Byron Hales’ (Norbert Leo Butz) conspiring against Nurse Phinney; Silas Bullen’s (Wade William) abuse of a contraband laundress, Aurelia Johnson; James Green’s (Gary Cole) attempts to operate his business within an occupied city; and Thomas Fairfax’s (Cameron Monaghan) struggles with PTSD—and this list doesn’t even cover all of the storylines!
While I applaud PBS for trying to provide general audiences is insight to all of the levels of conflict of the Civil War, many of these storylines are not given the attention that they deserve, and as a result are oversimplified, making it easy for audiences to generalize and ignore the significance of the gender, racial, and political conflicts of the war.
While the storylines in Mercy Street are oversimplified, I will applaud the creators for paying attention to some historical details. Throughout the first few episodes, a few surgical procedures are filmed, including the emergency surgeries and a trephination (drilling a hole into a skull to alleviate pressure). I was very excited to see that Mercy Street did not fall into many of the prior myths associated with surgery during the Civil War: there were no soldiers biting bullets and anesthesia, including ether and chloroform, were used. Additionally, the small mention of key events, people, and issues—such as the battle of Williamsburg, the rounding up of contrabands, Dorothea Dix, and PTSD—can help place the series into a wider context of the war.
However, despite getting these few details correct, the creators tended to overlook historical detail and common sense for the sake of drama. For example, where were these wounded soldiers in Alexandria coming from? Throughout the hospitals of Alexandria, disease was much more prevalent than combat wounds—where is this representation? If a wounded soldier was brought into a hospital, do you really think he would have been allowed to bring a flag and staff with him? No. Think about the space it would have taken up and the inconvenience it would have caused.
Finally, I do not understand why it is so impossible for a costume designer to create historically accurate clothing for a television series. With so many images and fashion books available during the 1860s, there is no excuse for the disregard of historically accurate costuming.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a television series focusing on the Civil War, let alone one that focuses on Civil War medicine. Mercy Street is not perfect—they try to cover much more than can decently be covered in six episodes and so miss some key historical details. However, I doubt there will ever be a historical drama that is perfect in the eyes of historians and enthusiasts. The series does a decent job providing insight to viewers about the complexity of the Civil War than miniseries in the past. If nothing else, hopefully the realistic surgery scenes and drama of the series will at least spark an interest in viewers to learn more about the history of Alexandria or medicine during the Civil War.
Paige Gibbons Backus is the Historic Site Manager for Ben Lomond Historic Site, a Civil War hospital museum located in Manassas, VA. She has a B.A. in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and a M.A. in History from George Mason University.