Well, just as I finally had a day this week with enough time to write a review of the season finale of Mercy Street, news came out that PBS has cancelled the show. It seems that ratings were not the issue. Scheduling around the large and active cast’s other commitments, as well as funding, seem to be the culprits. The producers are holding out hope that another network will save the show, so who knows? Perhaps Amazon, Netflix, or someone else could wind up coming to the rescue. I sure hope so, because this season was far superior to the first one, establishing the series as an important pop cultural depiction of the Civil War. In fact, I will be so bold as to proclaim it was marching toward becoming our most important movie or TV show involving the Civil War. Thus, seeing it end now before it reached its full potential is all the more distressing.
True, the final episode contained some disappointments and interpretive problems. Major McBurney’s character and storyline dissolved into silliness (though it was good for some real laughs). I had hopes that his OCD and PTSD would be taken seriously, but with Hale and Hastings doing everything they could to gaslight him into thinking he was losing his mind, it was clear the writers mainly wanted to use McBurney for comic relief. Another failure was how they handled James Green’s dealings with the British envoy. When told that slavery would be a sticking point to British intervention, Green assures the envoy that slavery would gradually be eliminated by the Confederacy. NO!! (Slap to the forehead). This is one of the ridiculous assertions of the Lost Cause, and it has no basis in reality. Any suggestion of freeing slaves at this point in the war would have been met by firm resistance, as holding on to slavery was in fact the sole purpose for secession and the establishment of the Confederacy. That the show’s writers would have Green utter such words was disappointing and perpetuates Lost Cause mythology. (To be fair, when Green says it, his son gives him a look that suggests he knows better. But this should have been made explicit). Thankfully, this storyline was saved in the end when Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, ending all hope of British intervention. This is somewhat accurate. Still, the writers remained on shaky ground as Green bemoaned that after Lincoln’s proclamation, the Confederacy would now be seen “as one thing, and one thing only—slavers. And no amount of diplomacy will overcome that.” True, but the Confederacy had always been about that!
Those problems aside, this episode dealt with the enslaved and slavery exceptionally well. As I had hoped all season, Pinkerton’s investigation of the Greens reached fruition because of his questioning of slaves, though this week it was not Belinda, it was the two men that Jimmy let escape earlier this season. That southern blacks were such an important source of information for the Federals, and Pinkerton in particular, is not widely explored outside of academia, so this was exciting to watch.
Even more exciting was that instead of focusing on the physical brutalization of slaves as we normally get in TV and movies, Mercy Street often made it clear that slavery was the abomination that it was for more than just the fact that slaves were worked beyond endurance and beaten. That was never more true than in this last episode, as it focused on how the institution often separated lovers and spouses, as well as children from parents. In perhaps one of the series’s finest moments, Belinda explains to Emma and Mrs Green that she was long ago prevented from marrying the love of her life because the man’s owner would not allow it (because the babies would not be his property). And yet for twenty years she was able to share fleeting moments with her love as he managed to slip away to see her weekly. As tears slid down their faces, the Green women clearly realized that a woman they had known intimately their entire lives had a secret life apart from her world as a slave, and that perhaps they had never really known her at all. Brilliant. Powerful. Better than almost anything we saw in the recent Roots remake.
Tying into Belinda’s story is one involving the efforts of Charlotte Jenkins to procure a minister to perform a wedding ceremony within the contraband camp. This allows her to explain the historical fact that slave marriages could not be made legal, were often broken apart because of the selling of spouses away from each other, and that newly freed slaves desired to make their marriages legal. This is all true, and as anyone that has researched slavery during the Civil War can attest, making their marriages legal was one of the first concerns that newly liberated slaves attended to once behind Union lines. Emma Green gets involved with wrangling the chaplain into doing the honors, and this helps the two of them reconcile. But more joyously, it leads to a very moving scene at the end of the episode as several slaves get legally married, including Belinda and her long time love, and they all celebrate the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Further, the episode took us to the Maryland plantation home of Dr. Foster, as he and Samuel went out to deliver a prosthetic leg to his brother. This was filmed at Richmond’s historic Tuckahoe Plantation (which is the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson). The scene allows us to see that slavery died away in stages, not as the result of one revolutionary moment. Foster’s mom discusses how her slaves have become disobedient and impudent, but she fears “if I punish them they will run away, or worse.” This dynamic is extremely accurate. Further, it turns out that one of the enslaved women is suffering from a difficult pregnancy, springing Foster and Samuel into action. Once the baby is delivered and the mother out of harm’s way, Foster’s brother immediately wants to sell the child, which seems all the more cruel when it is learned that the white man is in fact the father. Exasperated, Foster screams at his mother, “This is over! All of this!,” referring to the world of slavery and such cruelties (which, again, have been depicted without the show having even one scene of a slave whipping).
There are other small but very realistic moments in these plantation scenes. One is Foster’s memory of growing up playing with one of the enslaved men on the plantation, and he struggles to recall the details of a game they played in which they were running from some bad men on horseback with guns. The black man initially feigns ignorance, but when he later discovers how sympathetic Foster is, tells the doctor that the men they were hiding from were in fact slave patrollers. Shaking Foster’s hand, the enslaved man reveals that even with slavery crumbling, he had been timid about running away before then from fear of the unknown, but now thinks he’ll see what else is out there. Another scene takes place at the dinner table, as Foster and his mother discuss the fate of slavery. Listening intently is a slave woman who is clearly curious as to how the white folks think the war will impact her life, though she feigns disinterest so that Foster’s mom will continue to speak freely. It is a small scene, but a realistic depiction of how the enslaved gathered information they quickly spread along the grapevine. How did slaves learn information about the progress of the war and its impact on slavery? The same place they had learned much of the information that kept them well informed their entire lives—the mouths of their owners. This clandestine gathering of information was a form of slave resistance, and it it very rare they we see it depicted so well, or at all.
Which leads me to the episode’s best moment. At the start of the episode, Samuel is still intent on leaving Alexandria and his work in both the hospital and the contraband camp in order to study medicine in Philadelphia. Charlotte Jenkins tries to stop him from leaving because of her affection for him, but also for bigger reasons. Telling him that his pursuit of a medical degree is important, she insists that it can wait until after the war. At the moment, helping prepare the runaways behind Union lines for freedom and playing a role in shaping the war must be their first priority. “Here we are in this struggle,” she says, “and we have to be to part of the victory.” If not, she warns him, “someday when they write the books they will say our freedom was won for us by white people. . . . We have to be actors in our own story, Samuel, not secondary players in theirs.”
Wow. I am guessing I don’t have to tell many of you how big a line that was when viewed in context of the long trajectory of Civil War historiography. Due largely to the Lost Cause, the role of African Americans in the Civil War did in fact get largely written out of the history books until late in the 20th century. It has only been relatively recently (as in the last 30 years or so) that many historians have begun placing blacks on the center of the Civil War stage, exploring the crucial roles that they played in their own liberation. Personally, Jenkins’ line pretty much perfectly sums up what I humbly tried to accomplish in my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation.
But the line is not just accurate from our perspective of hindsight. Indeed, many African Americans made the exact same point during the war, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. African American newspaper editors, ministers, abolitionist speakers, and military recruiters encouraged their race to not only shape the war to their own purposes, but also to help save the Union in order to demonstrate that they warranted citizenship in it.
Mercy Street told many stories in this short second season, and much of it reflected current Civil War historiography (particularly the new exploration of the war’s non-glorified “dark side.”) If for no other reason than that, the show should be saved. The potential for the large and varied stories and truthful Civil War history it could explore is almost limitless, and if the show continued, I really think it could become far and away our most important pop cultural depiction of the Civil War. At the end of the episode, Foster is reunited with Phinney as she lays gravely ill in her bed. Reading the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation together from a newspaper (by the way, the episode also nicely revealed the problematic nature of the openly biased newspapers of the time), Foster tells her that the world (and the war) is changing and promises she will see it. I sure wish we would have gotten a chance to see just how well the show would have explored all those changes.
But think about everything I just wrote about how slavery was handled in just this episode alone. What other pop cultural depiction of the Civil War has done so much with slavery, and done it so well? North and South? Please. Glory? A groundbreaking film, but it focused on black troops and could not go down as many paths as a TV series. Gettysburg? Um, no. There is only one black man in the whole film, and he never says a word while two white men very briefly discuss race and slavery. Lincoln? Free State of Jones? Those movies told their stories well, but as Jenkins said, blacks were only secondary players.
For this reason above all, we must #SaveMercyStreet.