My thoughts (and others) on Mercy Street; debunking some MLK myths; King and R. E. Lee–why???; Marie Antoinette’s scandalous love letters


Well, we all saw Mercy Street last night, right? I think I had a stronger reaction to it than it seems many of my colleagues did. There has been general praise for the historical accuracy, but disappointment in the storytelling. That is worrisome (yet non-historian reviews have been positive in this regard), considering that some of the reviewers have seen far more than the first episode. But my response is very different, as I can honestly say that I liked it so much that I watched it twice last night. I feel that they have not only done an exceptional job of recreating the time and place, but they’ve developed some storylines that have potential for the main characters to evolve in story arcs that can reflect some important Civil War historiography. Christian McWhirter pointed out four of the main ones here (though there are others), the most obvious of which is how the war transformed many female nurses, as 19th century gender roles collided with wartime needs and realities. The early scene of southern belle Emma Green getting dressed was brilliantly filmed, and will likely set up a strong contrast to where her character is by the end of the series. (One big quibble about the writing, did we really need to have two of the characters looking in a mirror and speaking aloud words that reveal what they are thinking ? Writers, we don’t have to be handheld to figure out a character’s motivations! )  I was very excited, however, to learn that the first season is set during the Peninsula Campaign. In this first episode, the new and abolitionist nurse Mary Phinney (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who nails the demeanor of a New England abolitionist, though not the accent) seems to be the only white person in the hospital that sees the war as an emancipationist crusade, and this is appropriately so. Will others begin to feel differently after the failure of McClellan’s campaign and as the military optimism of spring 1862 turns to the crestfallen days of the summer? I’ll be very interested to watch and see, as many of you know that my book is about that very subject. But there is far more going on here than just that, so I am still optimistic about this series, especially since Kevin Levin has seen the whole thing, and his review today is laudatory. (I think I can speak for us all when I express anguish about an upcoming storyline about John Wilkes Booth and an attempt to kidnap Lincoln that is anachronistic. That is going to be super frustrating). Anyway, if you missed the premiere, you can watch it here. Also, check out this short video conversation between lead actor Josh Radnor and Ken Burns. Like Radnor’s character, Dr. Foster, I’m already addicted. Don’t let me down, Mercy Street.

Of course today is MLK Day, and we are likely to see a lot of crazy social media posts (and elsewhere) in which people misappropriate his legacy and beliefs for their own agenda. Thus, it might be a good idea to pass along this piece from CNN that sets out to debunk 5 myths about the man. (#4 here might ruffle some feathers).

And add this one to the list: King’s struggle for racial equality was not limited to the problems of the South. When he took his fight to the North, he discovered “a new level of hatred.”

Down in my state of Alabama, today is not just about MLK, it is about Robert E. Lee, too. Arkansas and Mississippi do the same thing, and it continues to be a travesty. At least some leaders in Arkansas (including the governor) and Mississippi are speaking up about it and calling for a separation of the holidays. The response, of course, is that it saves state funds to combine the two holidays. OK, here’s an idea, why not just ditch Lee Day altogether?? I’ll refrain from pointing out all the obvious reasons why we should.

And lastly, on a less weighty and more salacious note:

Have researchers found proof that Marie Antoinette was having an affair with a Swedish Count? Infrared scanners have revealed content of letters between the two that seem to indicate some steamy passion, and one historian is convinced that the Count fathered two of her children. Juicy.

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