‘Mercy Street’ brings medical history and Civil War drama to PBS

Mercy Street” is a new PBS medical drama television series set in the American Civil War that follows two volunteer nurses at a what was once a luxury hotel in Alexandria, Virginia.  This the first PBS American drama in almost a decade and there’s plenty of history, scandal and scheming. That might sound soapy, but this drama strikes a good balance between the rich and poor and the free whites and the enslaved and free blacks so viewers have a chance to consider all sides of the Civil War experience.

As a PBS program, “Mercy Street” strives to be authentic and educational. The “Mercy Street” website offers links to additional historical information as well as the actual locations.

Alexandria, is just outside of Washington, D.C.  By 1862, it was occupied by the Union. “Mercy Street” is set in the historic Carlyle House and the adjacent Mansion House Hotel. The owner of both the house and the hotel was James Green, who was, according to the PBS website, “one of the richest men in town and made a deep historical footprint on Alexandria.”

Nursing was a relatively new vocation. Florence Nightingale had been sent to the Crimean War on Oct. 21, 1854 with a staff of 38 women which included 15 Catholic nuns. She arrived in November of 1854. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was a conflict between the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire, France, the British Empire and Sardinia. Besides giving birth to the Lady of the Lamp, the war also gave rise to the military legend of Charge of the Light Brigade.

In “Mercy Street,” the first episode begins with Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) getting an assignment from Dorothy Dix. Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was born in Maine, but was moved to Boston at age 12 and later went to Worcester, Massachusetts, in both cases to live with relatives.  She began teaching school at 14 and eventually returned to Boston and founded a school for girls. By the time of the American Civil War, she had already gone to court to get improved living conditions for prisoners in the East Cambridge Jail, researched the conditions in other jails and asylums across the nation and lobbied for better conditions for the mentally ill. After a setback to her efforts in the U.S., she went to Europe and looked at the conditions in public and private hospitals.  She returned to the U.S. in 1856 and when the war began in 1861, she was named the superintendent of nurses. She was responsible for setting up field hospitals, recruiting nurses and setting up training programs. She was by the time of the Civil War a formidable woman with connections in Washington, D.C. Dix was the first woman to serve in such a high federally appointed role, but her time in that position was short-lived.

In “Mercy Street,” Mary Phinney stands up to Dix on the subject of abolition, a socio-political movement that was strong in the Boston area. That seems to be the decisive moment and Dix assigns her to Alexandria. Once at the Green hotel, Mary finds herself neither welcome nor well experienced. She had nursed a few relations and her dying aristocratic husband, but she had never seen a large number of amputations. Phinney was an actual person whose full name was Mary Phinney von Olnhausen (1818-1902) who wrote diaries. The diaries were published posthumously as “Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars.”

Emma Green (Hannah James) is the other new nurse. Her father, James Green, Sr. (Gary Cole), was the owner of the hotel. The historical Emma Green was a Confederate sympathizer and the sweetheart of a Confederate spy, Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Stringfellow (Jack Falahee).  The real Emma Green did not become a nurse, but bringing Emma into the hospital adds to the North-South, Union versus Confederate conflict.

Like Emma, her younger sister Jane (Anna Sophia Robb) must put away childish things to deal with the war that surrounds them. Jane is in love with Tom Fairfax. Emma discovers him in the hospital and hides this from her sister partially due to his troubled mental state.

If Mary and Emma are new nurses, then Anne Hastings (Tara Summers) is an old nurse. Hastings worked with Florence Nightingale and always talks about their achievements as if she were on an equal level as Nightingale. One soon realizes why Dix didn’t make Hastings the head nurse. Dix was concerned with the moral rectitude of her nurses, concerned about the reputation of this new profession. Hastings is a schemer and intriguer. She is having an affair with Dr. Hale and is determined to undermine Mary’s authority. She also flirts with Dr. Foster.

Matron Brannan (Suzanne Bertish) is also an old nurse. She is on to Anne Hastings and Dr. Hale’s secret liaison and she’s practical. As an older woman, she seems alone, but she has a sense of humor and speaks her mind. She sees through the pretensions of Anne Hastings and Emma Green and the inexperience of Mary Phinney. Yet we sense she is more likely an ally of Mary Phinney.

Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) is an old-school army surgeon who is resistant to the new concepts and methods of Dr. Jed Foster (Josh Radnor). Foster has his own problems. He is only a civilian contract surgeon and he grew up in a slave-owning Maryland household. His wife wants to go West and leave the war behind while Foster feels that the war presents an opportunity to learn, research and make medical advancements. Managing both men is Dr. Alfred Summers (Peter Gerety), a career Army surgeon who has the rank of major.

There is a third covert doctor, a black laborer named Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III). He was formerly a servant in a doctor’s household and learned about medical practices of the day. African American doctors weren’t allowed to practice in Union hospitals until after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (Jan. 1).  He is attracted to an escaped slave who works as a laundress, Aurelia (Shalita Grant). Aurelia is, however, being raped by white men including the corrupt hospital steward, Silas Bullen (Wade Williams). Silas promises to help Aurelia’s family, but he doesn’t even pretend to be a gentleman or an honorable man when confronted by  Mary Phinney.

Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel created the series, using the memoirs and letters of the actual doctors and nurses at the Mansion House Hospital and consulting with historical and medical experts (e.g. James M. McPherson and Dr. Stanley Burns).

The second episode, “The Haversack,” concerns the small sturdy bag of a Confederate soldier and how its discovery changes things for members of the Green family.  The question of loyalty to people and causes comes up for all the main characters.

To better understand some of the medical practices of that time and even later, watch “American Experience: Murder of a President.”

“Mercy Street” is broadcast on Sundays 10/9c, but check local listings. After the initial broadcast, the episodes of this six-part series are available online.





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