Tag Archives: television series

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.

Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!

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“Roots, 1977 Promotional Poster,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

In the last several decades, African Americans have become avid genealogists, turning eagerly to Ancestry.com and DNA testing, joining clubs and traveling to the National Archives in an effort to fill in their family trees. Henry Louis Gates credits the original 1977 television series, Roots, for initiating this interest, saying that after watching the series, African Americans were stricken by a massive case of Roots envy.”

This week on Muster, Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson and Dr. Erica L. Ball, authors of the upcoming book, Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017) talk about history, slavery, and black genealogy in anticipation of The History Channel’s May 31st premiere of a four-part remake of Alex Haley’s 1977 classic series, Roots. After the first episode of Roots, stay tuned for The Roots of Our History, a documentary about the series.

What do you recall about the original 1977 Roots series?

Prof. Jackson: I remember watching the 1977 Roots for the first time when I was about eight years old. I am one of seven children and we grew up in mostly white communities, so my parents insisted that we read or watch the latest contributions to African American history. Together, we all sat around the television and watched Roots as a family. At age eight, I was sort of traumatized by it! But as I look back, I realized how it and books I read influenced the way I valued American history and my history in particular.

Prof Ball: I remember being quite taken with the 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. I loved watching James Earl Jones as Alex Haley conducting his search for his family history! Those scenes remained very vivid for me over the years. Roots may well have influenced my decision to pursue this type of work myself. Who knew?

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“Alex Haley,” Image courtesy of the Alex Haley Museum, 2013.

How would you describe the research Alex Haley did in researching his ancestors’ stories in Roots?

Prof. Jackson: This summer, Matthew Delmont’s new book, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated will debut. His book tells the long, remarkable, and complicated story of how Roots came to be. Delmont explains how Haley’s research was years in the making. I’m excited about Delmont’s work and the understanding it will give to many people who wonder, “how did Haley do it?”

Assuming he managed to get past the scandal surrounding plagiarism accusations, if Alex Haley were doing genealogy work today, I imagine he would have a show on PBS where, like Henry Louis Gates, he would employ the use of DNA testing, census data, and local archives to conduct his work.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the original 1977 mini-series?

Prof. Ball: [T]he greatest strength of the original Roots was its success at representing people of African descent as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, etc., rather than an undifferentiated mass of slaves. While earlier popular representations of slavery invariably characterized black people as happy with their lot, Roots made it clear that black men and women asserted their humanity and resisted and negotiated the institution [of slavery] as best they could. This was a profoundly important achievement.

The original series’ deficiencies really tell us about the historical moment in which the series was produced. For example, a number of scholars critiqued the original series for creating white characters who were not in Haley’s book, in an effort to draw in more white viewers and make them feel comfortable watching a show with a majority black cast. What is interesting to me is how these all these new white characters were positioned on a spectrum from pro-slavery, like the Reynolds plantation master’s niece Missy Anne, to conflicted about slavery (slave ship Captain Thomas Davies), to pro-racial equality (impoverished couple George and Martha Johnson). It’s a remarkable snapshot of white American racial attitudes in the late 1970s.

What conversations did the 1977 Roots mini-series generate? How do you imagine today’s viewers will take to the remake?

Prof. Jackson: The original Roots made television history in igniting and sustaining the conversation on racism, genealogy, identity, belonging, heritage, and so on. When Roots debuted, critic James Baldwin argued, “It can be said that we know the rest of the story–how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country.” The exact same thing could be said today. This year we are facing the end of an Obama presidency, a contentious national election, and a Black Lives Matter Movement. My hope is that viewers will watch and then take it further by beginning the long and hard work of facing our national past, present, and future.

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“LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

The 1977 Roots series was commended for its honest treatment of slavery. How do you hope to see slavery portrayed in future media? What work remains to be done in television and films about slavery?

Prof. Jackson: I am completely taken by WGN’s new series Underground, which tells the story of several runaway slaves and the dangerous path they embark on to obtain freedom. Shows such as Mercy Street, the YouTube series Ask a Slave, and Nate Parker’s highly anticipated Birth of a Nation tell the story of American slavery in new and exciting ways. The study of slavery in America and the Atlantic world cannot be exhausted. It is completely possible to create complicated, multidimensional characters that operate outside of our expectations. There are many stories to be told, stories that involve pain, loss, and violence, but also stories that emphasize resistance, humanity, survival, love, and if done right, even laughter.

Professor Ball, you have written about African American manhood. How did the original Roots reflect gender and masculinity, particularly LeVar Burton’s portrayal of Kunta Kinte? Like African American history, scholarship on gender is in a very different place than it was in 1977. How do you anticipate this being reflected in in the upcoming 2016 series?

Prof. Ball: The original series was very much about black masculinity. The black male characters are multifaceted and complex and they embrace their roles as members of black families and communities. And both LeVar Burton and John Amos invested the role of Kunta Kinte with such depth, humanity and inner strength. All of the key male characters fulfill their roles as strong but caring heads of households who do the best they can to protect their families under the most difficult of circumstances.

The trailer suggests that the 2016 version will move beyond the family circle to incorporate other stories. For example, I noticed clips about a black Union soldier on the battlefield. This is very important, as that story doesn’t often get portrayed on screen.

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“Cicely Tyson as Binta and Maya Angelou as Yaisa in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

What role, if any, did slave narratives play in the creation of the 1977 Roots? Has more historical awareness been brought to this historical source in recent decades?

Prof. Ball: We know that Haley read voraciously. And although I don’t have any evidence for this, I would not be surprised if he had read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, first published in London in 1789. Equiano’s narrative includes a gripping account of the middle passage that details his confusion and horror, the stench of the hold, the violence and the suffering of those being forcibly transported from Africa to be sold in the Americas. Roots does a wonderful job of capturing that experience and presenting it to the modern public.

The trailer suggests that the producers will make use of the all of the wonderful new studies of slavery that have appeared over the past forty years. Thanks to work by scholars such as Deborah Gray White, Stephanie Camp, and Jennifer Morgan, historians know much more about the experiences of enslaved women than they did in the 1970s. And thanks to Jean Fagan Yellin’s success in authenticating the work, Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860/1861) is now a standard text in African American history and literature courses. I hope that this new body of scholarship will inform depictions of women in the 2016 Roots. From the looks of the trailer, women exercise a bit more agency and exhibit more complexity than in the 1977 version.

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“Leslie Uggams as Kizzy in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

Education plays an important role in the ep. IV of the 1977 series, when Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy secretly learns to read. Can you comment on the role of education in Roots?

Prof. Ball: The original Roots certainly characterizes education as something that has radical possibilities. Education is so radical that Kizzy is ultimately sold away from her parents for possessing this forbidden knowledge and using it to help the young man she loves try to escape. But Kizzy doesn’t just know how to read and write. She also knows a few Mandinka words she had been taught by her father, Kunta Kinte. These words are passed down through generations until, as Alex Haley tells it, they were passed on to him. This story – whether fact or fiction – offers an important lesson about the importance of remembering that we all have a history worth knowing and preserving for future generations. This, I think, is a lesson worth repeating.

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“Roots Promotional Poster Featuring Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of The History Channel, 2016.

The new mini-series features an all-star cast, including Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls). The lead role of Kunte Kinte is played by Malachi Kirby (EastEnders).

KCJ Headshot hair down
“Kellie Carter Jackson,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Kellie Carter Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Hunter College, CUNY. Carter Jackson’s research focuses on slavery and abolition, historical film, and black women’s history. Her manuscript, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, is the first book-length project to address the politics of violence and black leadership before the American Civil War.

“Erica L. Ball,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Erica L. Ball is a Professor of American Studies and Chair of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her work interrogates the connections between African American expressive culture, gender and class formation and popular representations of slavery.


Baldwin, James. “How One Black Man Came to be an American: A Review of ‘Roots’.” New York Times. September 26, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-roots.html

Ball, Erica L. To Live An Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Middle Class. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Ball, Erica L. “To Train Them for the Work: Manhood, Morality, and Black Conduct Discourse in Antebellum New York.” In Timothy Buckner and Peter Caster, eds. Fathers, Preachers, Rebels, Men: Black Masculinity in U.S. History and Literature, 1790-1945. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011: 60-79.

Delmont, Matthew. Making Roots: A Nation Captivated. Oakland: University of Cailfornia Press, 2016. https://mattdelmont.com/2015/09/08/new-book-making-roots/

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. London: Middlesex Hospital, 1789. Documenting the American South Database. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/equiano1.html

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of An American Family. New York: Dell, 1976.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “There’s No Reason to Compare Anything in Modern-Day America to Slavery.” Quartz. May 29, 2015. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/414794/slavery/

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “Why American History Should Begin with Slavery.” Quartz. September 8, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/261193/why-american-history-should-begin-with-slavery/

Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley: And the Books that Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 161, 206.

NPR Staff. “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots.” NPR Talk of the Nation. May 8, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/08/152273032/henry-louis-gates-jr-a-life-spent-tracing-roots
Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. Warner Brothers, 1977.

Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. The History Channel, 2016.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, ed. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, with “A True Tale of Slavery” by John S. Jacobs. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2009.