Mercy Street’s Season Two Premiere: Radical Medical Procedures, Rebel Spies, ‘That’ Pinkerton, and the Plight of the Contrabands

Mercy Street header depicting three characters and a battle scene

Season one of PBS’s Civil War hospital drama, Mercy Street, took historical accuracy seriously, often reflecting recent historiography. Even its annoyingly inaccurate storyline involving John Wilkes Booth’s plot to blow up the hospital during a Lincoln visit was loosely based on actual events. The season ended with a cliffhanger involving the brutal stabbing of one character, and in the last moments, a fuse was snuffed out that would have blown up Lincoln and the hospital. The second season picks up where the first left off, throwing the audience back into the world of a federal hospital in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, during the summer of 1862. (Filming in Richmond, the cast and crew reportedly fell in love with Virginia’s capital city and its many historical sites and museums). The first episode is an effective concoction of romance, humor, and dramatic storylines situated within solid historical context.

Not surprisingly, medical drama is front and center. Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen writing a letter to the family of a deceased patient, and readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will recognize elements of “the good death” in how she describes the soldier’s final moments. Phinney also finds time to share a tender kiss with Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), in a contrived, but effective, romantic plot line that has been building since last season. More dramatically, last season’s stabbing victim, the despicable Silas Bullen (Wade Williams) endures two medical procedures that were radical for the time. The first requires experimentally pulling his intestines out to find and repair the damage. The other procedure is even more cutting-edge and is required after a second attempt on the patient’s life causes a rapid loss of blood. Foster recalls a doctor he met in London, James Blundell, and his draining of blood from one person into another. I’m not a medical historian, but a quick online search of reputable sources verifies the accuracy of the scene, as Blundell was one of the first to perform a successful blood transfusion. Impressively, the staging of the scene looks much like an 1829 illustration accompanying an article Blundell wrote for a medical journal.[1]

Drawing of a blood transfusion
Illustration from “Observation of Transfusion of Blood,” by James Blundell in The Lancet, June 13, 1829. Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

The wounds are the result of the plot to kill Lincoln. At the end of last season we saw Confederate sympathizer Frank Stringfellow (Jake Falahee) commit the crime because Bullen stumbled upon the conspirators in the hospital’s basement. Frank is betrothed to Emma Green (Hannah James), eldest daughter of the wealthy family that owned and ran the building as a hotel before it was transformed into a hospital by Union troops. Last season Emma tended to the facility’s Confederate wounded, but she has now decided that, despite the current lack of rebel patients, she wants to continue “to be a part of what is going on here.” This reveals that she is quickly evolving from the spoiled and defiant rebel she was in early episodes. Her character development is important; the war transformed nineteenth-century gender roles (debatably, only temporarily), especially among volunteer nurses. When Emma discovers that Frank is involved in the dastardly plot, she quickly and decisively ends their relationship despite having recently shared a carnal moment with him. Emma Green is no shrinking violet.

Meanwhile, Frank gets closer to Emma’s younger sister Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), who the war is also transforming. Determined to leave behind her comfortable southern belle life in order to support the Confederacy, she gets involved in Frank’s spy ring, helping him cover his involvement in the assassination plot. Later, she clandestinely communicates with shadowy figures and a woman (harkening to true spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow) who asks her to steal papers from a high ranking officer living in her family’s occupied mansion house. As Northern Virginia was indeed filled with female spies, this all comes across as realistic (even if Alice and Emma’s Virginia accents do not).

Hot on the trail of the conspirators, however, is a new character who could add pizazz to the show, Union Spy Chief Allan Pinkerton. (Yes, “THAT Pinkerton,” as he humorously says whenever introducing himself). Civil War enthusiasts will appreciate the character’s pomposity as portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne, and smirk at his comments about how much General McClellan relies on him. We are aware that his Confederate troop strength estimates were well off, playing a role in Little Mac’s timidity and failure. (In fairness, Pinkerton gave inflated numbers to McClellan largely because that’s what the general wanted to hear). Yet Pinkerton did successfully uncover spy rings, so he was not completely incompetent. Despite his comical arrogance, the show depicts him quickly uncovering the plot. “Someone is trying to kill him again,” he remarks, alluding to Pinkerton’s true-life thwarting of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln when he first arrived in Washington. Small details like this show that the writers did their homework.

Pinkerton dispatches his men to arrest Frank. When they do, as we might find out in episode two, the trail will lead to the Green household because of Alice’s involvement. There, the family is celebrating the return of their father (Gary Cole), who had been arrested for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. His son (Brad Koed) subsequently signed the oath to obtain his father’s release, but the patriarch’s sense of honor only causes him to become enraged at his son’s “unpardonable act.” It turns out, however, that Emma’s efforts are what actually secured the release. Her personal request to Lincoln results in an executive order (yes, one of THOSE) releasing the southern gentlemen.

Yet it is through the crime investigation that the show has one of its best opportunities to address the complexities of race relations during the period, and I hope this is highlighted in future episodes. Pinkerton often succeeded thanks to the aid of an African American community eager to help the Union cause even before the war transformed into one of liberation. He relied on interviews with runaways to glean information about rebel troop dispositions and fortifications, and to root out southern spies. Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell) a slave in the Green household, has just started working in the hospital’s kitchen. Might Pinkerton interrogate or even use her to gather evidence against the family that she is ostensibly loyal to, and in which she is beloved? If so, it would be a powerful storyline revealing much about how supposedly “loyal” slaves desired freedom, were willing to betray their owners, and helped the Union cause.

For now, the biggest new storyline involving African Americans is the contraband camp near the hospital, and the arrival of former slave Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a new character patterned after real life heroine Harriet Jacobs. Fortunately, it appears that this storyline will receive even more attention in future episodes. She has been sent to “educate, support and fortify” the contrabands, as she boldly tells Dr. Foster. The confident woman immediately finds evidence of a smallpox epidemic in the miserable conditions in the camp. Here, the show is accurately influenced by Jim Down’s seminal book, Sick from Freedom, as white characters express the belief that the illness is only a “negro disease,” and that its lethal arrival demonstrates that blacks “weren’t meant for freedom.” Jenkins rightfully insists that there’s nothing racial about the disease, it is the camp’s terrible conditions causing it to spread. Foster is skeptical and thinks the illness in the hospital itself is typhoid. His apparently cavalier attitude about the contraband camp immediately makes Phinney regret their kiss, and she claims she will not let him “beguile” her again. (I wonder if I’m the only one that instantly thought of the overlooked Clint Eastwood Civil War movie, The Beguiled?) The episode’s ending reveals that Phinney is ill, but is it typhoid or smallpox? Hopefully the writers won’t let her condition cause the epidemic storyline to stray too far from the African Americans. It is praiseworthy that Mercy Street is examining the deadly contraband camp conditions that blacks often encountered on the path to freedom.

All of these events in the first episode take place just after the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The weeks afterwards saw a major shift in federal policy, as Congress and Lincoln became convinced that the campaign’s failure revealed that they needed to deprive the South of its slave population and do more to utilize southern blacks on behalf of the Union. As a result, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of disloyal owners. This means that Green’s loyalty oath would prevent Belinda and his other slaves from becoming free. I’m anxious to see if the show gets this correct and if it becomes the catalyst that pushes her into helping Pinkerton. Further, just weeks after the campaign, Lincoln presented a version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Previews of future episodes of Mercy Street reveal this season includes an exciting battle scene (perhaps Second Manassas, which should provide the hospital with an overload of wounded), but it is how well the show handles its race and emancipation storylines that will ultimately determine its accuracy and value.

After each episode, I’ll post a short review on my blog, History Headlines (https://historyandthenews.wordpress.com). Follow the journey!

[1] James Blundell, “Observations of Transfusion of Blood,” The Lancet, June 13, 1829.

Glenn David Brasher

Glenn David Brasher is an instructor of history at the University of Alabama, and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) which received the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter, @GlennBrasher.

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