I’m a little behind with my recaps/reviews of Mercy Street, so I’ll catch up on two episodes at once. I don’t want to recount everything that happened in these two episodes or critique the episodes. Instead, I want to touch on some historical points from each episode, though I’ll get into some storytelling aspects, too.
These two episodes, I’m happy to say, really expanded on what I thought was best about the first episode: an examination of the Civil War era that considers more than the slavery question and delves into some of the sticky moral quandries of Confederates, Yankees, enslaved blacks, and free blacks. There’s an acknowledgement that actual experiences were extremely varied, even in the same place at the same time.
In episode 2, we see more of Silas Bullen, the nasty piece of work who’s apparently in charge of the hospital’s kitchens. Not only is he lying to and raping Aurelia (the black laundress who took her own freedom by running away to Washington City); he’s also profiteering off of the food he’s meant to be preparing for the wounded men. When Mary intervenes with the intention of getting the men a proper meal, Bullen is violent with her. What I liked about this was that we see a little of the dirty underside of war–on the Yankee side. We also see a little of this when Mr. Green, the owner of the hotel that is now a hospital, deals with the Union army officers in charge of the city of Alexandria. What he does isn’t dishonest per se, but it’s a pretty good illustration of the kind of uneasy existence between occupier and occupied: the Union Army took over his hotel as a hospital, and now he’s started a coffin business to bury the dead men coming out of the hospital.
It’s important to remember that Northerners had friends in the South (and vice versa) and that they oftentimes sympathized with Southerners (and many Southerners were Unionists; look at Andrew Johnson). Copperheads (peace Democrats) were prepared to make peace on the basis of the Union “as it was”, i.e., with slavery intact. Loyalties were divided, interests overlapped, and it wasn’t always possible to delineate who was for what.
Later, we a disagreement between Aurelia and Belinda (the Greens’ former slave). They argue over the meaning of freedom now that they’re both free. In many stories, it’s assumed that freedom itself is the end-point, and what comes afterwards in some happily-ever-after. It was all too easy for the social structure of slavery to continue on under a different name. Add to that the fact that freed blacks often lacked education and experience, and it could be difficult for freed people to establish new lives. Aurelia is taken advantage of by Mr. Bullen in one sense, and Belinda is taken advantage of in a different way by the Greens (she isn’t being paid wages). Samuel Diggs, an attendant at the hospital, has been able to create a life for himself, though it’s circumscribed. He has the talent to be a doctor, but, being black, that isn’t an option for him. It’s interesting to see these three characters clash over their views of what it means to be free–because then, as now, it oftentimes means different things to different people. This all comes to a head when a boy visits the hospital with his mistress (Dr. Foster’s mother), and Aurelia encourages him to run, to just walk away from his mistress and take his freedom for himself. He hesitates, but eventually, he does it.
The boy’s mistress, Mrs. Foster, is Dr. Foster’s mother, and she’s a Southerner. She has brought her son, Dr. Foster’s brother Ezra, to be treated. He’s been wounded in the leg, and she hopes Dr. Foster can save the limb (he can’t). In the meantime, she’s very hard on Dr. Foster for being a traitor, and she blames him when he says the only way to save Ezra’s life is to amputate. To her, he’s a traitor to the South who doesn’t care enough about his brother to try to save his brother’s leg. Families, especially in border states, were torn apart. Friends ended up on different sides of the war, too (look up Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock). One couldn’t simply draw a line on a map and say that everyone above this line was for the Union and everyone below it was for the Confederacy.
But maybe the most interesting part for me was the medical side of things (this show is set in a hospital, after all). First, we have the harrowing amputation scene. I’m glad they showed the use of anesthetic; contrary to popular perception, anesthetics were used during most operations during the Civil War. They spent quite a gruesome amount of time on the operation, but luckily I have a strong stomach. The detail they went into with the operation itself was great–with slicing through the skin and folding it back and tying off the veins and sawing through the bone and all. It was ugly, but it was mesmerizing to watch. We also see Dr. Foster under the influence of morphine, administered using a hypodermic needle. We got a hint of this in the first episode, but it was more front-and-center here. Now, opium abuse had been known in Europe for a long time at this point (see Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater), but morphine and the needle were new, and the scope for recreational use and abuse was exponentially increased. We also get to see another kind of medical issue: “soldier’s heart”. Tom, the young Confederate we first met in episode one, is suffering from the after effects of battle. He says (it may have been episode one) that he’s “seen the elephant”. That was a phrase used about and by those who had seen battle and been traumatized by it. Tom, sadly, seems to have a bad case of it. He lashes out at his fiancee, Alice Green, and seems unable to focus or reconcile himself to life after battle. I mentioned this in my last post, but this kind of affliction was only beginning to be recognized as “a thing”. Either earlier wars didn’t elicit this kind of reaction in soldiers (the Civil War was much bloodier and death was more mechanized than in any previous war), or people were just beginning to give it a name. (I think it’s probably both.)
All in all, I’m enjoying the view we’re getting of life during the Civil War in Alexandria. I said I wouldn’t critique, but I will say Mercy Street has it’s moments of melodrama and that it’s view is slightly myopic in that our characters’ lives aren’t interwoven with the events of the war, which are mentioned mostly in passing only. The first is more problematic than the second, but neither keeps me from enjoying the miniseries. I’ll recap episode 4 at some point; episode 5 is this weekend.