The Young and the Gangrenous

Bandages, Blood, and Bickering, Oh My! A Civil War is brewing within the walls of Mansion House Hospital, the setting of the new PBS drama Mercy Street. Taking a page from the highly regarded Downton Abbey, the producers have created a Civil War soap opera with a cavalcade of characters that spend most of their time on screen either arguing or philosophizing about the war or medical knowledge. Then, as the series progresses (I watched all 6 episodes from season 1), it becomes Grey’s Anatomy meets Real Housewives of Alexandria meets Melrose Place (thanks to a ridiculous plot line involving John Wilkes Booth and an attempt to blow up Abraham Lincoln).

In the spring of 1862, as George McClellan slowly trudges his way up the Peninsula, Dorothea “Dragon” Dix orders a wealthy abolitionist nurse by the name of Mary Phinney, Baroness Von Olnhausen (our protagonist, who goes by five different versions of her name in the pilot alone) to work at the newly created hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. As Phinney travels across the Potomac to Alexandria, she sees wounded soldiers everywhere, a salesman selling prosthetic limbs, and a wheelbarrow full of sawed off arms and legs. When she is not rolling bandages, Phinney is either assisting in operations, preaching emancipation as the cause of the Civil War, setting up her own commissary, scribing letters for dying patients (including a color bearer, who is still holding a flag because his blood has congealed to the point that it created glue) and even has a spare minute or two to hold an intervention. She also gets to be front and center for a very compelling early scene, in which a soldier threatens violence in order to prevent an amputation.

Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) (PBS)
Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) (PBS)

The hotel, now confiscated by a bunch of rascally Yankees, was owned by James Green, who still lives next door with his wife, two southern belles (Emma and Alice) and a disabled son who usually spends his time moaning about his time running a coffin factory rather than fighting in the war. Inside the hospital, Dr. Jedidiah Foster (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame, though, here, it could be How I Met Your Morphine) argues with those who do not approve of his experimental treatments, particularly his attempt to treat soldier’s heart, a Civil War version of PTSD, on Tom Fairfax, a love interest of Alice Green. Nurses, particularly Irish Matron Brannon and Anne Hastings, the most bombastic nurse to ever appear on television, argue over who has authority based on their pedigree (we have a lot of Florence Nightingale vs. Dorothea Dix). Confederate civilians, most notably Emma Green, who decides to volunteer as a nurse, complain about the lack of medical care given to the few Rebel patients. Surgeon Byron Hale stomps around the hospital, bickers with Foster, and schemes against Phinney. We have a mysterious dentist with a secret (and a strange relationship with a Confederate patient that teased a potential gay relationship that never materialized). Union officers and patients misbehave, as they steal from the Confederate civilians, assist former slaveholders in confiscating their runaway slaves, and even dare to hide a prosthetic limb from a disabled patient. Additionally, there are a few prominent African American characters, including Samuel Diggs, a free man with a bounty of medical knowledge (he can tie a ligature like no other), and Aurelia Johnson, a contraband who has to deal with a hospital steward’s unwanted sexual advances. We also have Henry Hopkins, a doting chaplain who writes letters and is always willing to offer his thoughts on whatever topic is brought up in his particular scene. Thus, there are so many characters, and I have not even mentioned several other contrabands, runaway slaves, vomiting nurses, fainting physicians, and the oodles of patients that move in and out of Mercy Street.

Mercy Street sets (PBS)
Mercy Street sets (PBS)

The real heroes of the show are the set decorators and production designers, who have meticulously reconstructed the medical world of the 1860s. The show, shot on location in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, makes use of the same terrain that Stephen Spielberg masterfully used to shoot his Oscar winning 2012 film, Lincoln. At the same time, the costume designers and make-up artists have graphically produced gangrene, damaged limbs, numerous head gashes and gunshot wounds, and the blood-splattered hoop skirts and wallpaper to go along with it. The producers wanted to transport viewers inside a hospital and they have certainly surpassed my expectations.

The surgeons here are not sawbones carelessly operating and tossing limbs to and fro. Rather, they showcase the medical profession and routinely comment on their vast experiences and knowledge garnered before and during the war that makes them the only worthy surgeons to work inside the former hotel. A level of professionalism amongst the medical staff mirrors the current state of Civil War medical scholarship and bucks the Hollywood trend of turning surgeons into serial cutters. During one lengthy sequence, Dr. Foster performs his first amputation. Nurse Phinney reads aloud from the manual, step-by-step, and Foster cuts with precision. The artificial blood oozes, the flesh tears, and the bone, sawed with such care, produces a medical symphony for the eyes.

"Savage Station, Va. Field hospital after the battle of June 27," June 30, 1862, James F. Gibson, photographer. (Library of Congress)
“Savage Station, Va. Field hospital after the battle of June 27,” June 30, 1862, James F. Gibson, photographer. (Library of Congress)

As a historian, I thought the show worked, especially since the writers are well aware of the recent trends in Civil War scholarship pertaining to medicine and the challenges disabled and distraught patients faced on a daily basis (and they have some well-regarded historical consultants with Shauna Devine, James McPherson, Jane Schultz, and Anya Jabour). As a television fan, I found the show to be a bit of a medical quagmire, and at times, boring. The Civil War can make for fascinating and compelling stories, but here, it has been infused with drug addiction, rape, espionage, attempted abortions, and romantic relationships that make it like many other dramas on television or various streaming platforms. As seen earlier, the show has too many characters and the producers and writers have not effectively found a way to create compelling drama for each of them (other than have them appear, fight with someone, and then go do a medical procedure or chore). The dialogue (“The Lord does not recognize uniforms.” “Men Fight. Women Pray.” “Pain is good.” “Are there no sinning Yankees in these beds?”) produces symptoms of sighing and eye-rolling. The show portrays most of the Union soldiers and officers as corrupt, heartless dogs. In fact, there may be only three sympathetic characters: James Green (the Confederate father who actively questions the appropriateness of the institution of slavery and whether he will sign a loyalty oath), and the two prominent African Americans, Aurelia and Samuel, though they are underutilized characters. In the end, while Mercy Street gives viewers an effective medical portrait, the show is not compelling enough to warrant another visit inside the American Horror Story: Mansion House Hotel.

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I had a similar reaction to The Knick, in so far as sometimes the drama could overshadow the medicine (at some point in the middle of the two seasons, I realized there was at least one episode with no patients). I did feel that there was a manageable number of characters, however, with consistent storylines, unlike what appears to be the case here.

Will Hickox

One aspect of the show that bothers me is that it depicts treatment of wounded men (so as to concentrate on all that dramatic blood and guts) instead of casualties caused by disease, the greatest killer of the war.
Will Hickox

Heather Munro Prescott

I’ve only seen the first episode but so far I like it better than the Knick. The opening with Cherry Jones as Dorothea Dix was really well done. I wish they did more with her character.

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