That was my reaction to one scene in this week’s Mercy Street, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know which one. If for no other reason, this was my favorite episode. Yet other storylines were well executed too, and Charlotte Jenkins delivered her best line yet. We even got some battle action thrown in for good measure. I’m definitely high on Mercy Street.
The battle sequence introduced this week’s most interesting patient. The engagement takes place during the Battle of Chantilly (the last action in the Second Manassas Campaign, in which Stonewall Jackson’s attempt to cut off the Union retreat was thwarted). The scene is visually striking, taking place at night with bursting shells illuminating the sight of troops clashing in a bayonet charge. This isn’t totally inaccurate, there was some late evening fighting (though not totally nighttime) and hand-to-hand combat during Chantilly (or Ox Hill), but both were actually rare in the Civil War and thus the scene perpetuates some myths/stereotypes about the war. (We’ll forgive them.) The most disturbing image is of a man burning alive while screaming and lunging for help. We later learn he was left for dead for several days, spent time suffering in a field hospital, and finally arrived at Mansion House. Because he’s badly burned and incoherent, it is unknown whether he is a Reb or Yank. Dr. Foster and staff save his life, while Lisette puts her anatomical sketch talents to use recreating his face so that he might be identified. A group of women come to the hospital searching among the wounded for loved ones. Recognizing her husband in the sketch, one woman rushes tearfully to the victim’s bedside as the hospital watches the emotional reunion. Turns out he’s not a soldier, he’s the Quaker we met earlier in the season and was somehow set afire while on the battlefield bringing water to the the wounded and dying. Yes, the scenario is a bit contrived, but carries an emotional punch.
Other bits of drama play out among our various characters. McBurney gives Hastings the assignment of caring for an old friend that has a toe likely needing amputation. Claiming he has bad luck due to a pocket watch he carries because it is a family heirloom (and which he believes caused the death of other family members), the officer tragically dies when placed under sedation. McBurney is livid, shouting at Hastings that he will now ruin her career. The good news: this means Hastings will stop sucking up to him, instead using her conniving ways to get McBurney out of the hospital, and as the body is carried away, the despicable Silas Bullen steals the cursed watch. Meanwhile, the Chaplain refuses to speak to Emma and she finally confronts him. He explains that in his youth, his temper and rage caused the death of someone, and he made a promise to God to control his impulses and dedicate his life to his faith. Thus, he feels killing the man that shot at them last week broke an oath to God and was precipitated by his feelings for her. Less silly but no less melodramatic are the scenes between Foster and Lisette. Feelings from their past linger, strengthened by the emotional reunion her sketch talents facilitated. Eventually, she invites Foster to her bed, promising that Phinney will never know. Our boy does the right thing and rejects the offer, but takes it to heart when she encourages him to not lose Mary because of his emotional timidity. Finally, the episode featured yet another death, when Matron Brannan gets a letter she does not have the strength to read, knowing it is about her son. Hastings reads it to her, detailing that he was killed trying to steal alcohol. The scene is a heart wrenching reminder that not all war deaths are honorable.
McBurney causes trouble for more than just Hastings, shutting down the school that Charlotte Jenkins runs in the contraband camp. He did so, Jenkins explains to Samuel, because she “may have mentioned a slave rebellion in Haiti” and thus he feels she is encouraging a violent uprising among the black population. (The event she alludes to, of course, is the Haitian Revolution, perhaps the largest and most successful violent slave rebellion in history, and which was a source of southern white paranoia in the early 19th century). As Jenkins vents her frustration at whites, Samuel reminds her that “some of them are dying for us,” to which she replies, “you can’t really see it that way.” Expressing her doubts as to how the war will actually impact them, Jenkins delivers one of the series’ best lines. “We got to make a change for ourselves,” she asserts, “or all we are going to do is change hands.” This is a reminder that at this point in the war (summer, 1862), emancipation was not assured, and there were thousands of blacks behind Union lines with uncertain statuses. It was still possible the war could end with slavery intact, and thus Jenkins’ call for black agency counters the popular perception that emancipation was something that was simply bestowed upon African Americans. Indeed, their own actions played a crucial role in turning the war into one that served their own purposes.
Inspired, Samuel later gets a chance to reopen the school. McBurney discovers the case study that Hale and Samuel worked on in last week’s episode, and is set to punish them both because it is unthinkable that a black man would be involved in an autopsy of a white. Hale initially wants Samuel to “play the role of the dumb negro” by lying that he added his name to the paper without consent, but the doctor does the right thing and tells the truth to McBurney. Foster saves the day, however, by concocting a doozy. The whole report was a ruse, he tells McBurney, to get Samuel accepted into medical school. Doing so, he argues, would win the favor of influential abolitionists that could write letters to superiors to help McBurney get transferred out of the hospital and back in the field. “A bit Machiavellian,” the head doctor asserts, asking Samuel to do his best to make it happen. Samuel promises he will, as long as McBurney reopens the contraband school. Nice, but an all the more appropriate scene because it involves a black man, with help from sympathetic whites, playing upon and using the goals of those in power in order to secure his own designs. Emancipation, it could be argued, was secured via similar means.
And then there is the Green family. Junior is out buying a Gatling gun with money he steals from his father, coming up with the idea of transforming the family factory into a munitions facility for the Confederacy (yeah, that’ll work). Meanwhile, Mr. Green attends a reception in DC, and thanks to a British Duke staying in their house (who desperately wants to see a battle and may be a total phony), as well as the beguiling charms of his daughter Alice, he meets with a British ambassador. When the diplomat indicates slavery is likely a sticking point that will keep the brits away from helping the South, Green suggests that they tell the Jefferson Davis administration that gradual emancipation is a condition the Confederacy must meet in order to procure help. (This reminds me of that ridiculous line in the Gettysburg movie when Longstreet says, “we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter.”) If this storyline continues, I hope it is in the form of the Davis administration making it clear that a plan for gradual emancipation is out of the question, as slavery is exactly what the South is trying to preserve. (It should be noted, that just before the summer of 1862 when this episode takes place, Lincoln tried to entice the Border States into a program of compensated gradual emancipation, which they flatly rejected).
Which brings us to the scene that thrilled me and that I was watched like this:
As you know, since the start of this season I’ve hoped that Pinkerton’s investigation of the Green family would involve the questioning of faithful family slave Belinda. In actuality, the famed detective heavily relied on information that he gleaned from slaves, runaways, and “contrabands,” and even had an African American operative working for him in the rebel capital. Thanks to their help, he busted spy rings, learned about Confederate fortifications, and even gathered information from a free black man in Virginia that played a role in the planning of the Peninsula Campaign. To a large degree, these facts are unknown and unexplored, even within the community of Civil War scholars and buffs. As the Green family plotted and connived this season, Belinda has witnessed it all while staying devoted to the family. Thus, I hoped that the show would ultimately get around to having Pinkerton question the enslaved woman, and that her information would break the case. Such a development would say much about slave “loyalty” and explore a little known facet of the Civil War.
Pinkerton finally shows up at the house while the family is away, requesting a conversation with Belinda (I almost leaped out of my seat when he did so). She is reluctant, explaining she has known the children their whole life and loves them “like they are my own.” Pinkerton feigns sympathy, but tells her that Lincoln wants to free the slaves. If he is killed (by spies like the ones the family has harbored), the next president might end the war with slavery intact (still a legitimate scenario in summer 1862). If so, all runaways behind Union lines might be returned to their owners, and “things would go back to the way they were before.” Does she really want that, he asks, promising he only wants to catch Frank Stringfellow. This leads to an off camera conversation in which Belinda apparently opens up to Pinkerton. When the family returns, the information he gets leads to catching Mrs Green in a lie, proving the family’s guilt. Thanking Belinda, he promises to come back soon with men to help him make an arrest.
After he departs, the family erupts in an argument in which all their lies, deceptions and animosities get openly aired. Turning on Belinda (whom Alice has repeatedly insulted by alleging that she stole the money missing from Mr. Green), they express shock that she shared information with Pinkerton. Mrs. Green begins to swoon and asks Belinda to bring her the laudanum. This request suddenly rips away the mask that the enslaved woman has worn for years, as she haughtily responds, “get it yourself!” As the family looks on in stunned disbelief, Belinda (channeling Charlotte Jenkins) disdainfully tells them she had wanted to keep them out of trouble, but they were too good at bringing it on themselves. She then storms out.
Folks, this is perhaps the most real moment that Mercy Street has thus far given us, and one of the better ones ever depicted in a movie or TV show involving slavery. Belinda has not yet fully thrown off her lifetime of deference to a family that she helped raise, but this is her first step toward independence, and it is one that many supposedly “loyal” house servants took by degrees during the Civil War. The letters and diaries of white southerners are filled with descriptions of their slaves becoming more haughty and disobedient as the conflict progressed, leading to their refusal to work and ultimate flight to Union lines if/when the opportunity presented itself. This created a “moment of truth” as historian Eugene Genovese long ago described it, when white masters learned that the enslaved people they had long considered loyal demonstrated that it had all been an act, and that they desired freedom irregardless of how well or poorly they had been treated as slaves. Belinda does not yet seem ready to abandon the family (and in fact at this point in the war she would not have obtained freedom if she did, as Green’s loyalty oath means she would not qualify for emancipation under the Second Confiscation Act), but the Emancipation Proclamation is coming.
This excellent episode ends with Emma Green deciding that her dysfunctional family is no longer where she belongs, as the affirmation she receives at the hospital for her increasing self reliance and initiative is more satisfying than anything she receives at home. She then moves into the Union hospital, leaving behind her southern family. We can hope that Belinda is only one step behind.