A Paean to PBS’ “Mercy Street”: The One Show That Got the Civil War Right

The short-lived show offered the best screen portrayal of the war the country has ever seen

(Courtesy of PBS)
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Days before President Trump proposed eliminating federal funds for public broadcasting, PBS cancelled Mercy Street, the ambitious period drama they debuted with high expectations in 2016. PBS stated that it could no longer afford the expensive production and high- caliber cast—especially after losing a major grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Sadly, this means we will forever have only 12 episodes of a show that was quickly becoming the most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War.

Hollywood has a long history of inaccurate portrayals of the conflict, and of slavery. Starting with influential films like D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and continuing with Gone with the Wind in 1939, films long embraced a “Lost Cause” Civil War interpretation, in which slavery had little to do with the war’s causes and both white and black Southerners fought valiantly against marauding, unprincipled northern invaders.

Even as the Civil Rights Movement motivated scholars to correct such distortions, evil Yankee soldiers repeatedly appeared in 1960s and ’70s movies and television, perhaps reflecting Vietnam War-era cynicism about the use of military force to suppress a rebellious population. Further, the enslaved community continued to remain largely on the periphery of the Civil War on film.

As social and cultural historians increasingly went beyond the war’s military aspects, popular 1980s TV miniseries like “The Blue and the Gray” and “North and South” were soap operas in period costume, focusing on the war’s impact on white families. Even the watershed miniseries “Roots” (1977) ignored African-American contributions to the war. The exceptional 1989 film Glory revealed that black men had fought for the Union—yet white Union soldiers were still mostly portrayed as unprincipled foils. 

More recent, Ken Burns’ influential and enormously successful 1990 PBS documentary “The Civil War” helped reshape people’s perceptions of the war, presenting slavery as the war’s root cause. Yet it focused mainly on military events, tending to glorify southern armies and their leaders. Even Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Lincoln was criticized by many scholars in 2012 for seeming to ignore African-Americans’ role in procuring their own freedom, simplifying emancipation as merely the result of legislative action by benevolent white men.

Then came “Mercy Street,” executive produced by Academy Award-winner Ridley Scott. Set in a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, the series explored the war’s impact on northern and southern soldiers, white civilians, and free and enslaved African-Americans. Though its characters are only loosely based on real-life figures, creators Lisa Q. Wolfinger and David Zabel seem grounded in current Civil War scholarship—and dedicated to presenting it to audiences that might never read a book or watch a documentary about the Civil War.

Recent scholarship focuses on the dark side of the war—and “Mercy Street” demonstrates that not all war deaths are gloriously heroic. A soldier commits suicide while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the impact of which on Civil War soldiers is a relatively new scholarly inquiry. Another soldier is shot while stealing alcohol, and a third killed while assaulting a woman. The show dispenses with the cliché that Civil War medicine involved barbaric amputations without sedation, portraying well-educated doctors (Josh Radnor and Norbert Leo Butz) willing to try radically innovative procedures. Still, the main characters engage with the war’s most tragic victims and families searching for lost or missing loved ones. Here also are the war’s venereal diseases, prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics, shirking cowards, incompetent bureaucrats and those seeking only to profit from the conflict. Here is war.

Nor are the women of “Mercy Street” just conniving Southern belles or the mere objects of soldiers’ lust. Instead, they are strong characters dedicated to making a difference. Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a white northern abolitionist learning that the moral universe is more complex than she imagined. Emma Green (Hannah James) is a young Southerner gaining self-confidence while increasingly questioning her slave holding family’s values. Meanwhile, Alice Green (AnnaSophia Robb) spies for the South because she wants to be useful to a cause for which her boyfriend died, and the hospital is lorded over by Anne Hastings (Tara Summers) a manipulative, strong-willed veteran nurse of the Crimean War. One episode even focuses on the little-known fact that women often disguised as men to enlist as soldiers. The second season added Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a formerly enslaved African-American woman dedicated to educating and preparing runaway slaves for freedom, even as smallpox ravages their camp. The female characters in “Mercy Street” contribute to the war effort on both sides, transforming their own lives in the process.

Yet the treatment of slavery and the enslaved on “Mercy Street” may be its most important accomplishment. Instead of focusing on the physical brutalization of the enslaved, the show makes it clear that slavery was an abomination beyond hard labor and beatings. White owners often separated lovers and spouses and children from parents. While whippings were horrific, as one character explains, losing his family “is a pain I ain’t never going to get free from.” 

History shows that enslaved men and women resisted the complete domination of their lives not primarily with the violence common in other recent shows and films, but through subtle manipulation, feigned ignorance, and the creation of a world and relationships of their own. “Mercy Street” reflects that, accurately showing slavery dying away in stages and at different times for different people. In this PBS-portrayal, as in real life, emancipation is not the result of one revolutionary moment.

"Mercy Street" also makes clear that African American efforts helped change the war into one of liberation. “Here we are in this struggle,” Charlotte Jenkins explains to free black man Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), “and we have to be part of the victory.” If not, “someday when they write the books they will say our freedom was won for us by white people. . . . We have to be actors in our own story, . . . not secondary players in theirs.”

The role of African Americans in the Civil War and emancipation did indeed get written out of history books, and American popular culture. “Mercy Street’s” impressively nuanced treatment of racial issues sets the record straight. No other Civil War drama has done so much to depict the truths of slavery and emancipation, and done it so well.

But the show is not flawless—and were PBS (or another network) to fund a third season, there would still be room for improvement. The show had yet to explore the motivations for northern men to fight for the cause of Union. And despite an impressively raw and accurate scene in which a southern preacher defends slavery as a holy cause, another inaccurately showed Southerners as far too willing to give up slavery. Melodrama and overwrought dialogue plagued the show’s first season, too, and it inaccurately brought John Wilkes Booth in on an assassination plot too early in the war.

Perhaps such problems explain why “Mercy Street” did not garner much attention from Civil War scholars. But the show steadily improved during its second season, conveying historical knowledge and current scholarship through a riveting drama built on touching love stories, sharp wit, and some entertaining lowbrow humor. It is time for historians to champion the show.

Given PBS’s history of profound funding problems, its cancellation of the show despite respectable ratings is no surprise. Nevertheless, it is not too late for corporate sponsors, or perhaps even another network, to come to the rescue of a show with limitless stories to tellTelevision and movies shape popular perceptions of historical events more than any other medium. “Mercy Street” is too important to let die—especially in an age that needs reminders of war’s human costs, and that America’s greatness has long been shaped by more than just the hands of white men.

Glenn David Brasher is a history instructor at the University of Alabama. His book The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans & the Fight for Freedom (UNC Press, 2012) won the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.

Editor's Note, April 19, 2017: This article originally misstated the name of "Mercy Street" creator Lisa Q. Wolfinger. It has been corrected in the text above.

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