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Real Life History of Mercy Street

Dr. Christopher HamnerWe asked Dr. Christopher Hamner, a history professor at George Mason University who studies War and American society, to preview the first season of Mercy Street and give us his thoughts on how well it captured the time and place of Civil War era Alexandria, Virginia. Read below and learn a little something! 


What does the show do well?

Scene from Mercy StreetThe producers made a great choice setting the series in Alexandria in 1862. It’s a place and a time that lends itself to exploring a lot of the really fascinating, complex things that define the Civil War era.

Alexandria was a unique city in a really unusual position during the Civil War. It was a place of strong contrasts: part Northern, part Southern; part free, part slave; part Union, part Confederate. It sat in Virginia, the most powerful state in the Confederacy, but it was occupied by Union troops for most of war. It was a Southern city, but it had more ties to the manufacturing economy of the North than the agricultural economy of the South. It held only a modest number of enslaved African-American residents on the eve of the Civil War, but it featured one of the largest slave markets in antebellum America. It was home to some of the Confederacy’s staunchest supporters, yet it was just across the Potomac from the seat of the Federal government. It’s a great backdrop to show how the struggle pulled Americans in so many conflicting directions at once.

The patriarch of the Southern family, James Green, is a terrific example. He experiences the tug of competing loyalties in very personal ways. His hotel has already been commandeered by the Union Army when the series opens. Green is willing to collaborate with northern occupiers if it means a chance for him to hang on to his family’s fortune. At the same time, Union authorities insist that he sign a formal oath of loyalty to the federal government. Green doesn’t speak with much affection for the cause of secession, and in one scene tells his son that their business has no long-term interest in slavery. But signing the loyalty oath is not just dishonorable; it’s also dangerous, since it invites attack from pro-Confederate neighbors. Green seems like a pragmatist who would be happy to remain neutral as long as possible and then align himself with the winning side, but Federal officials will not let him dither forever. The reality of the war, particularly in an area like Alexandria, forced people to declare an allegiance whether they wanted to or not.

Beginning the series in early 1862 is another excellent choice. The war was just about a year old at that point, and both the conflict and Americans’ attitudes toward it were starting to change in fascinating ways. The show begins before the bloody, well-known battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, but the war had already lasted longer than most anyone had predicted in 1861. At the end of the first year both Northerners and Southerners were starting to reevaluate how much they were willing to sacrifice in order to win. Watching individual characters making difficult choices against this complicated backdrop makes for some very compelling stories!

Both Union and Confederate characters make repeated reference to the fact that the fighting is sure to end in just a few more months. Why couldn’t they see that the war would be prolonged and brutal?

Scene from Mercy StreetIn hindsight, we know that the Civil War lasted four years and killed three-quarters of a million soldiers.  So it can seem surprising to hear so many characters confidently boast that the war will be over soon. But the expectation that the war would be short was widespread in both the North and South at the beginning of the conflict. One of the few things that Northerners and Southerners agreed on when the war began was that the other side was likely to surrender quickly. Each side held the fighting spirit and commitment of their opponents in contempt, with tragic consequences.

The timing of the series’ start helps underline that historical irony: even as characters assure themselves that the war is nearly over, the fighting is about to become heavier and much bloodier. In July of 1862, the second battle at Manassas would take place just 35 miles from Alexandria. Many of the casualties from that fight found their way to hospitals in northern Virginia and Washington, DC. I suspect the producers are saving that story—the story of modest hospital facilities hopelessly overwhelmed a thousand wounded and dying men—for a future season.

Why do so many Northern characters react negatively to Mary Phinney when she talks about abolition? Wasn’t the North fighting to end slavery?

Scene from Mercy StreetThis is another area where setting the series in early 1862 lets the show explore the complicated attitudes toward slavery, particularly in the North. At the beginning of the war, there was no one single cause that unified the North. The majority of northerners saw the war as fundamentally about restoring the Union. There were certainly some who saw slavery as a great moral wrong and who urged the immediate emancipation of every enslaved African-American. While abolitionists were extremely vocal, they formed a small group. Many were centered in Boston, where Mary’s character is from. From the opening days of those war abolitionists saw the conflict as a chance to root out the scourge of slavery.

But other Northerners saw things differently, particularly at the beginning of the war. The largest group of Northerners was ambivalent about slavery. They did not want the institution to expand, since that might affect their own economic opportunities, but many viewed African-Americans as less evolved than whites and did not support setting four million illiterate, semi-skilled workers free overnight. Some Northerners viewed abolitionists as dangerous extremists who had provoked the war through their refusal to compromise on slavery. Four slaveowning states remained in the Union after secession, and for much of the first two years Lincoln’s policy on slavery was ambiguous and evolving. Dr. Jed Foster, the hospital’s Maryland surgeon, is a good example of the breadth of Northern opinion on slavery early in the war: in one scene, he surprises Mary by informing her that he grew up on an estate that held African-Americans as slaves, dismisses her abolitionist ideals, and reminds her that the war is being fought to preserve the Republic, not to end slavery.

Officially, Lincoln’s policy through the spring of 1862 was to simply restore the Union as it had been on the eve of his election: that is, with the institution of slavery intact. But that, too, was beginning to change in 1862, something the series may explore in a future season.

There are a lot of African-Americans shown living and working in Alexandria. What was their status—were they free or enslaved?

Scene from Mercy StreetCivil War-era Alexandria is a perfect place to showcase the changing realities of slavery to great dramatic effect. Alexandria in 1860 was unusual for its mix of free and enslaved African-Americans: there were about 12,000 blacks still held as slaves in Alexandria when the war broke out, along with a sizable population of free blacks. (The free population fell in the decade prior to the war, however, as more families set out for new and safer homes in free states.) Some African-Americans were free, like Tom Diggs, the hospital assistant. Some African-Americans were enslaved, like Miles, the servant who accompanies his mistress to Alexandria in the episode “The Uniform.”

In 1862, there was a third category of African-Americans, in Alexandria and in other areas. They were the formerly enslaved African-Americans who had delivered themselves to free territory in the North or to Southern territory occupied by the Union Army. Aurelia Johnson, a worker in the hospital laundry, is one such escapee.

The legal status of those runaways was uncertain. Officially, the Lincoln Administration protected the property rights of loyal American citizens, and in 1862 enslaved African-Americans had been legally recognized as the property of their owners for decades. That’s the basis for the scene in which slavecatchers shackle escaped African-Americans to return them South. Union soldiers nearby tell James Green, Sr. that the Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law from 1850, prevents them from interfering.

At the same time, frustrated Northerners were beginning to reconsider their war policies as the conflict entered its second year. It had become clear that slave labor was a powerful engine of the Southern war effort, and Northerners increasingly suggested that the struggle should become not just a war of reunification but a war on slavery. Union General Ben Butler laid out the first version of this new policy in May 1861, when he refused to return three escaped African-Americans laborers who had delivered themselves to Fort Monroe in Norfolk, Virginia. The law required him to return the men as property to the agent representing their owner. But Butler refused on the grounds that the men had been building Confederate fortifications and were therefore “contraband of war.” That was an old legal term used to describe illicit goods used in support of an enemy’s war effort that Butler now used to describe human beings.

Butler’s ironic term stuck, and runaways who made it to Union lines became known as “contrabands.” Their exact legal status, however, remained uncertain until very late in the war. In the interim, calling them “contrabands” allowed Northerners to put off dealing with the messy human reality created by the war.

Was Civil War medicine really that harsh?

Scene from Mercy StreetMany of the hospital scenes depict doctors behaving in ways that range from curious to cruel. Surgeons plunge their hands directly into patients’ wounds, sometimes operate without anesthetic, and display a generally indifferent attitude toward sterilization. Though the procedures can be difficult to watch—especially for the squeamish!—they accurately capture the somewhat crude nature of Civil War-era medicine.

For soldiers wounded in battle, amputation was the primary option for treatment. That was due in part to the limits of medical technology, and in part to the weapons of the Civil War. The soft lead bullets used in combat pulverized bone, and in many cases left surgeons little choice but to remove the entire limb.

Combat wounds were horrible, but the real killer during the Civil War was infection. Physicians’ understanding of disease in the 1860s was rudimentary. Pus, which we now know to be a sign of infection, was thought to indicate that the wound was healing properly. Doctors didn’t yet understand that diseases were caused by microscopic bacteria, or that antiseptic agents could kill germs and prevent the spread of disease from patient to patient. The first antibiotics were over a half-century away, so doctors had no way to treat infection once it set in. Surgeons often amputated patients’ arms and legs to prevent gangrene from spreading, as Dr. Foster does to a soldier in one episode in order to save his life.

In the Civil War, nearly two soldiers died of disease for every one killed in battle. As horrifying as that statistic seems, it was a substantial improvement over previous conflicts: during the Napoleonic wars just a half-century earlier, four soldiers died of infection for every one killed outright in battle.

And as bad as the procedures appear in the series, Mansion House Hospital would have been spared some of the most grisly scenes. The hospitals improvised on the battlefields themselves were even more grim: hundreds of screaming patients, constant amputations (often without anesthetic), filthy conditions, piles of bloody limbs hauled away in bushel baskets, and rows of corpses lined outside. Given its location, Mansion House Hospital would have seemed comparatively placid to the surgeons who accompanied the armies into battle.

Tom Fairfax appears to be suffering many symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Did PTSD exist during the Civil War?

The diagnosis “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” arose in the 1970s to describe a variety of symptoms common to soldiers who had been in combat. But the condition seems as old as battle itself. Each war has its own name for the condition: what Vietnam-era soldiers knew as PTSD would have been familiar to World War II GIs as “combat fatigue” and to the doughboys of the Great War as “shell shock.” Sufferers experience a combination of sleeplessness, nightmares, violent outbursts, flashbacks, feelings of guilt, and difficulty concentrating, along with physical symptoms like trembling, anxiety, and an irregular heartbeat. Tom exhibits all of these during his stay at the hospital.

During the Civil War, physicians called the condition “soldier’s heart,” a name that came from their suspicion that the distinctive heart palpitations were caused by the physical pressure of tight knapsack straps during long marches. But there was no understanding of the underlying psychology of the condition, and medicine had little to offer the soldiers who bore invisible scars from their time in battle—as Tom’s experience tragically underlines.

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