On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”

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Photo Illustration from The Daily Beast, depicting Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Please allow me to weigh-in on a suddenly hot topic:

Like many of you, I am a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So the news about its creators working on a new series called Confederate caught my attention, as it did many others. When the news broke that this is what they are working on, a backlash of reactions appeared on social media.

The new show will create an alternate timeline/universe in which the South successfully seceded, and thus slavery has survived into our current time-period.

HBO says:

The story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

Put me down on the side of the people who are outraged about this ridiculousness.

Of course the controversy probably has the creators and producers all the more excited about the project, and in their response to the criticisms one producer called the show’s content “weapons-grade material.”

I think a lot of the criticism of the show is a knee-jerk response. Games of Thrones has had a lot of sexual violence, needlessly gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a lack of diversity. So, many people immediately felt the show’s premise would create an offensive “wish fulfillment” for Alt-right crackpots and/or Neo-Confederates.

I don’t buy that.

It is clear these guys intend to show why it was important that the United States won the war, ended slavery, and preserved the Union. It actually will probably only anger Neo-Confederates to see it theorized that had the South won, slavery would have continued to thrive—as we know that one of the Lost Cause’s main contentions is that not only did the South not secede to defend slavery, but that they would have gotten rid of it on their own. Hogwash

Lord knows I don’t mind anything that annoys the people that still buy the Lost Cause myth.

I further suspect that the show will theorize that had the Union not been preserved, the colossus the United States became in the 20th century would not have been around to turn the tide of two world wars, and triumph in the Cold War (or did we? Hmm).  I’m guessing in this alternate history, Germany wins WWII, and/or that Russian communism has gone global.

And lastly, it is clear that the show’s creators hope that by creating this alternate world, they will be able to explore racial issues in an open and honest way, making it clear how the legacy of slavery in the US still permeates and defines our society. Surely, Neo-Confederates and Alt-right folks won’t find comfort in that.

So I don’t think these guys have in mind some kind of Harry Turtledove-like nonsense. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that.

Yet I am still mad about this, in fact, a bit enraged.

Because this is HBO, and because it’s the creators of Game of Thrones, this show is likely to be pretty good TV, if not great. The studio has enormous resources and a track-record of producing amazing shows. Further, because of the controversy, the audience is likely to be huge.

And THAT is what makes me mad.

Why not use those resources, those talents, and that built-in audience to tell a REAL story about “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall” to mass audiences in a quality way?

History has enough amazing, untold stories out there, that I simply cannot understand why we need to create an alternate universe to make the point that it is a good thing that the Confederacy lost, that the Union was preserved, that slavery was ended, and yet that its legacy still shapes and defines the political, social, and cultural fabric of modern America.

As you all know, I am a big champion of Mercy Street, and to a lesser degree Underground. Neither show was cancelled because of a lack of audiences, and in the case of Mercy Street, the funding woes of PBS was the primary culprit.

Keep in mind, we still live in an America in which large numbers of people (probably a majority) still have no clue as to what really caused the Civil War (and/or actively deny the facts) and of what went on during slavery. Doesn’t the current national debate over Rebel monuments and flags tell us that we still need more mass education about what the Confederacy stood for? Why explain that to people within the context of a fantasy world?

Imagine if you can, an alternate realm in which HBO uses its creative talents and resources to produce shows like Mercy Street and Underground, telling stories that are all the more compelling and impactful because they are true, reaching far larger audiences than PBS and WGN combined.

It isn’t like HBO does not already have a very fine track record of producing powerfully engaging history movies and mini-series, and in fact have a much anticipated project in the works based on Harriet Tubman. (What’s taking so long on that?)

Further, the Game of Thrones show-runners admit to being “history nerds” that came up with the idea for this new show after reading Shelby Foote’s description of the “lost orders” before the Battle of Antietam. It got them to thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events, and that led to the show’s concept.

But guess what guys, historians have long been arguing for the importance of contingency, and they do it in the context of solid historical facts. So could you. The “lost orders” story was compelling to you BECAUSE IT REALLY HAPPENED.

In fact, I just talked about the lost orders in my Civil War course this summer, and the class all agreed that you just can’t make stuff like that up. I’m guessing the vast majority of Americans have no clue about it.

So here’s what I am saying: Give us a show set in the late 1850s or during the Civil War, filled with real-life characters—or perhaps even better, in the 1870s during Reconstruction. Do your research and you’ll find a treasure-trove of real life events that you could fictionalize into truly compelling and thought-provoking TV, accomplishing all the goals you have in mind for Confederate, and yet it would be all the more powerful because it’s all so true.

All good historians know that the 19th century is filled with “weapons-grade material” still waiting to be told to mass audiences.

PLEASE go mine those stories and drop this inane idea.

Now I am going to the theater to see the new hit movie,  Dunkirk . . . you know, a true story.

 

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Why Mercy Street is too important to let die

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Well, today I am mainly posting just one thing, written by me, but I hope that you don’t see it as self serving. Smithsonian Magazine has graciously agreed to help add their weight behind my plea for the saving of PBS’s Mercy Street. In the article I wrote for them I did a brief review of the way that the American Civil War has historically been portrayed on film and television, concluding that Mercy Street was becoming our most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War, and thus is too important a show to let die. I hope you’ll give it a read and help share it on social media.

(And thanks to rockstar historian Megan Kate Nelson for helping edit the piece so I could make my best plea).

The show is about to premiere in the UK, one of its creators, Lisa Q. Wolfinger just won a Gracie Award for her production of the show,  and we’ve recently gotten some indication that she has had meetings with some cable networks about possibly saving the show.

Obviously, I am very passionate about this, so please share the article on your social media and lets #SaveMercyStreet.

A couple of historical houses in the news; Prestigious award for PBS’s Mercy Street; Glenn Beck wants to prepare students to battle their college history profs; History of the White House Easter egg hunt

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A few quickies on a Good Friday afternoon:

Did you see the awesome story about a woman that recently visited the house that she was born in, as it is now on display in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture? The institution has it on display because it was originally built in 1853 as a slave cabin on Edisto Island, South Carolina. 86 year old Isabell Leggett Lucas was born in it and lived there with 10 other family members until she was 19 years old. Be sure to watch the video linked above to see her and her family visiting the museum!

And speaking of historic homes, but in a less inspiring story: The Shaifer House just outside of Port Gibson, Mississippi was recently pillaged by criminals that were apparently after the house’s structural beams, as well as bricks. What the heck?? This site is one of the most pristine and isolated locations associated with a Civil War military campaign. It is pretty difficult to get to, as it is on an unpaved dirt road that turns into a major mud bog after heavy rains (Trust me, I know. Several years ago some friends and I did a rather stupid thing and drove down the thickly mudded road in my Honda Accord after a heavy rain, even though we had been warned by locals not to risk it. Luckily we made it there and out, but it was touch and go. Bad decision, great memory). Built in 1823, it is along the historic road that Grant’s troops took after they landed south of Vicksburg, and the site of the first rebel resistance they faced as they marched northeast toward Jackson, with a view of  swinging back west and thus taking Vicksburg from the east. It was also the site of a Union hospital after the battle. It is a lovely historic site and a real treasure that is basically untouched by the modern era, and one of those places where you can really feel like you’ve taken a time-machine. That it is difficult to reach makes it all the more of a rewarding experience to visit. The people that did this need to be strung up by their entrails. If you have any info that might lead to an arrest, please share!

Mercy Street is not dead yet. A couple of weeks ago, show creator and producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger won a prestigious Gracie Award for producing the show (the award is named after the incomparable Gracie Allen), which celebrates and honors “programming created for women, by women, and about women.” Now one of Wolfinger’s hometown news channels has done a segment on her award and Mercy Street, so check out the interesting interview here. We also learn that she is busy meeting with cable executives to try and save the show. (As I have mentioned before, I have my own plea for saving the show that will appear soon on a higher profile site than my blog, so continue to stay tuned). #SaveMercyStreet.

Oh goodness, Glenn Beck and David Barton are at it again, trying to peddle their fake history nonsense. They have started a two week program, where for $375 students can get armed with everything they need to “set their ignorant professors straight on the ‘real’ history of America.” Beck promises, “Your kids will be challenged to go and find the documents to make the cases that they’re most likely going to have to make in college with their professors. I guarantee you the professors at college will have the wrong answer.” Um, bring it. You remember Glenn Beck, right? He is the guy that was such a nutcase that he got kicked off of Fox News, and didn’t even have to sexually harass someone to get fired. (Oh wait, do you get fired for that on Fox News? Depends on your ratings, I guess).

We will be treated to yet another White House Lawn easter egg hunt on Monday, but how did this tradition get started? Smithsonian has the answer. 

Review of Mercy Street finale and why we must #SaveMercyStreet!

Mercy Street GIF Recap

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.

Mercy Street 2:5 review: Pinkerton finally talks to the right source and it leads to a “moment of truth.”

Pinkerton finally comes callin’ on Belinda

YES!!

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:

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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.

Mercy Street GIF Recap

Look at those reactions! Beautiful.

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.

Mercy Street, season 2, episode 4 review: Love and sex are in the air, but so too are some missed opportunities.

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This week, Emma and the Chaplain see some action. In more ways than one!

This week’s episode was a perfect lead-in for Valentine’s Day, given that it featured a romantic first kiss between budding lovers, some scandalous sex, a forbidden love, and a line that was clearly an homage to Casablanca. It also featured scenes that took us farther away from the hospital than ever before and apparently leaped forward a few weeks in time without exploring how an important piece of legislation would have just impacted the lives of the African Americans living in the contraband camps. This was the weakest episode so far this season, but still satisfying.

The forbidden love came in the form of two soldiers fresh from the battles associated with the Second Manassas Campaign (which moves us about a month ahead in time from episode three). One is close to death and is helped into the hospital by a young soldier that seems to have lied about his age in order to enlist. Once again Dr. Foster does some cutting edge research to save the soldier’s life, and is helped by an attractive medical/anatomical sketch artist (who arrived in the previous episode, but somehow is only just now running into Foster) that obviously has a romantic past with Foster. When he first talks to her, he delivers the homage to Casablanca. “This great big war,” he says, “and all these hospitals, and you show up in this one.” (Their previous affair took place in Paris, so the only thing missing is a black musician playing their favorite tune). The artist is named Lisette, and her character is no doubt meant to complicate the Foster/Phinney love story if and when Phinney returns. Anyway, the younger soldier is spotted kissing the other one while he was unconscious, and it sets Foster and others in the hospital off on a tirade against deviancy and “buggery.” Lisette suspects the younger soldier is actually a women in disguise, and is proven correct. This all ends rather melodramatically, with the young lady confessing her deception and love for the soldier, he’s rejection of her, and her returning to the front-lines disguised again as a soldier. Lest we think this is all hokum, there are indeed many well documented cases of women disguising as men in order to enlist.

But the scandalous sex involves Nurse Hastings and the son of hospital Matron Brannan. This handsome, but clearly rakish dude shows up to see his mother in order to avoid the impending Battle of Antietam. He needs a doctor’s note for a feigned medical condition so that he can get a safe job behind the lines (which brings to mind research like that of Lesley Gordon or Kathryn S. Meier on Civil War “shirkers.”) His mother is reluctant and unable to help him, but he quickly seduces Hastings, as she is in need of some relief from the stress of keeping Major McBurney happy. The odd leader is clearly OCD (as I diagnosed him after his first appearance), insisting the hospital’s desserts must have the exact number of peaches in every tart (a problem that literally gives Hastings a pain in the neck and that she solves thanks to the timely arrival of Mrs Green who brings in some pastries for the suffering soldiers). After a satisfying carnal romp with Brannan’s son, Hastings is happy to provide the paperwork he needs with the agreement that he’ll come around more often. Saucy stuff (and though not directly related, reminds me that you should all know about a new book just out from UNC Press, Judith Giesberg’s Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality).

Mrs. Green’s main purpose in showing up was to look for Emma, who hasn’t been home in a while (for reasons we will explore below), but she is not the only family member missing from the roost. Jimmy is in the middle of a plan to use the family business to clandestinely import and distribute guns to the Confederacy (the shortage of which has always been greatly exaggerated by the Lost Cause, as Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas  proved remarkably adept at keeping southern armies well supplied with munitions). His plan has been discovered by two slaves, but rather than murder them as he is encouraged to do, he gives them money and instructions to flee to northern lines. What a guy.  Meanwhile, his father is doing his part for the Confederacy, traveling to Richmond (strangely they take a horse and buggy for the 90 mile trip instead of the train) to meet with Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin in the Virginia state house, which at this point was the rebel capitol. These scenes were filmed in the actual location (using some CGI to remove the modern Richmond city-scape). The beautiful rotunda and statue of George Washington make an appearance (as they also did in Spielberg’s Lincoln), as Green explains “cotton diplomacy” to Benjamin. It is a bit ridiculous for the writers to present this as Green’s original idea, as this policy was already in effect by this point and proving a failure. Yet there is a twist, Green has put together a “collective of cotton growers” who will sell to the British at cheap rates in return for their help in the war. (The actual policy was to NOT sell, thus driving up the price and causing a cotton shortage damaging to the British textile industry. This had been somewhat successful early in the war, but by late 1862 the British were already finding ways to mitigate and solve the problem).

More intriguingly, Alice is along for the trip and takes the time to pick up a document her spy ring has instructed her to retrieve. The family’s most trusted slave, Belinda, disdainfully watches as Alice lies to her father, meets with a shady character in a seedy Richmond tavern, and sees her lie to Federal picket guards to avoid having her handbag searched (the lie involves her menstrual cycle, prompting this interesting blog post from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Ever wonder how 19th century women dealt with that time of month?). Thus, I am growing ever more hopeful that Belinda will share all she knows with Pinkerton. As I have discussed before, slaves were a source of information that he frequently utilized, and if the show goes down this path it would be a valuable history lesson about slave “loyalty.” Unfortunately, as we learn from Green Jr., Pinkerton has left town by this point and is back at McClellan’s side in the field (accurate). Will he return later this season to continue the investigation? In the meantime, we learn that the document Alice brought back is a list of people that are allegedly working for the Union and thus whom rebel spies should eliminate. Much to Alice’s shock, her brother’s name is on the list. Oh goodness.

Meanwhile, Emma is out of town because she and the Chaplain learn that about 20 wounded Union soldiers are pinned down on the battlefield (apparently Chantilly) and need rescue. The Chaplain is determined to get them, and Emma helps by stealing money from her father to pay for wagons and teamsters to accompany them to the site. Once they get there, the Chaplain himself gets pinned down by rebels, requiring Emma to bravely expose herself to gunfire (knowing that chivalry would cause the Confederates to stop shooting upon the site of a lady), and bravely escort the Chaplain out of danger. All the excitement and adrenaline from their adventure reaches a boiling point later that night, as Emma and the Chaplain finally share a kiss. The moment is interrupted, however, when a rebel takes a pot shot at the embracing couple (I guess he wasn’t too chivalrous), which unleashes a rage in the good reverend that leads him to fight and kill the would-be assassin. Surely this will cause the Chaplain to have a crisis of conscience, but it’s a pretty weak development and story-line. The better one is Emma’s evolution, as she becomes increasingly confident, bold, and decisive. Mrs. Green notices the change too, especially while seeing Emma in action when they return to town with the wounded soldiers. She looks upon her daughter with what is probably a mix of pride in her developing strength, but anger and disgust that it is being used to help Union soldiers. Stay with this story-line writers, please.

So what about the contraband camp and the black characters? Sadly, they get short-shrift in the episode, although there is one scene of Charlotte Jenkins educating the slaves about clock time so that they can manage their own time once they become free laborers. Further, she points out that Samuel is studying to become a doctor, which amazes the black children, but he nicely informs them that he would not be the first African American doctor (true). Meanwhile, Samuel’s lessons with Dr. Hale continue, as they perform an autopsy as a learning experiment and wind up making a medical breakthrough when they discover what really killed the soldier. Samuel’s excitement is dampened somewhat when Hale wants to write the case up for medical journals with both their names on it as attending physicians, but only because people won’t suspect that Samuel is black if he uses “Dr. Samuel Diggs” in the report. This little bit is all we get from the African American story-lines in this episode, and that is a shame.

This disappointment is compounded by the fact that at the time the episode takes place, news of the Second Confiscation Act would have now spread, meaning that runaways in camp that had fled rebel masters were now legally free (but not those with loyal masters, which presumably would include the Green family slaves, since Jr. signed the loyalty oath). Further, a new Militia Act was concurrently passed which called for the recruitment of black men into paid military service (though not yet as soldiers). Surely, this could have led to some interesting story-lines within the camp that would be more compelling than Hastings’s dalliance with the matron’s son, the contrivance of Green’s explaining cotton diplomacy to Judah Benjamin, and even the Chaplain’s killing of a rebel soldier. It would also show that emancipationist federal policies evolved and did not start with the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a much more complex and interesting story.

This episode again demonstrates that Mercy Street is committed to telling some very nontraditional Civil War stories (women soldiers, shirkers, etc.), but I hope they begin to focus more intently on their African American characters and emancipation. They’re missing some great opportunities. I suspect that with the Emancipation Proclamation around the corner, they will do so, but sadly in a way that will only reinforce the popular perception that the military event we should most connect to emancipation is Antietam.

Perhaps I should have sent a copy of my book to the writers. 🙂

Mercy Street, season 2, episode three review: The mask of the enslaved, and a religious debate over slavery.

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Emma Green (Hannah James) has a dying patient on her hands, and it sets off a debate over God and emancipation

Mercy Street’s third episode was entertaining, despite stealing a page from every romance movie you’ve ever seen, and wasting two big opportunities to delve into more complex historical realities. Further, the contraband camp is sadly still taking a back seat to other story-lines, although we are learning more about Charlotte Jenkins. Still, this season is shaping up as far stronger than the first.

First the romance: Phinney’s condition is improving (the culprit is definitely typhoid), although she is having delusions of her dead father quoting lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses. McBurney is determined to get her out of the place, however, as he believes his phrenological exam last week revealed that she is too prone to falling in love, and thus a bad choice for head nurse. He arranges to have her removed, and gets Foster out of the way by sending him on a house call to a “General Schnaetzle,” an officer in Pope’s Army of Virginia that is suffering from gonorrhea (“the clap”) thanks to a camp infested with prostitutes. (This dude is not a real person, although I wonder if General Franz Sigel is the inspiration for the character. German. In Pope’s army and stationed in northern Virginia in July 1862. Clearly incompetent. Hmm). Nurse Hastings is sent along to prevent Foster from getting home in time to stop Phinney’s removal. This sets up a disturbingly comic scene involving the insertion of a catheter (accurate medical history), but also provides some much needed depth for the Hastings character. As we know, she is forever bragging about her time working with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but her guilt over keeping the lovers apart brings her to admit something big. It seems her time with Nightingale was brief, because the famed nurse discovered that Hastings had fallen in love with one of her patients (who was later killed in battle), and thus she forced her to leave. After this revelation, Hastings encourages Foster to head back as fast as possible in order to catch Phinney before she is gone (and gives him a copy of Tennyson to give her). This leads to the aforementioned romance movie cliche, as Foster rushes home (the only thing missing is a driving rain), just in time to catch her on the docks awaiting ship transport (think airport scene). They share a tender moment (although she is still bedridden and half delirious), with him promising that he will reunite with her soon. Awwww. I have a pretty high tolerance for romance in my entertainment (I’m a softy), but less so for cliche.

I was afraid that Phinney’s condition would detract from the contraband camp, and that was definitely true this week. There were some interesting developments, however. Dr. Hale discovers Samuel’s medical knowledge when he saves the life of a white man confined in the smallpox quarantine tent, and then the doctor hires the free black man as a private tutor to help him pass his medical exams. When Samuel later explains all this to Charlotte Jenkins, she disparages the doctor, leading Samuel to remark that she is a “hard case.” She agrees, saying, “I was schooled by masters.” She then changes her dialect to that of a stereotypical subservient slave and says,  “Of course to me da was ‘massa.'” That’s excellent dialogue because it very subtlety reveals how the enslaved often wore a mask around their masters, feigning loyalty and ignorance while all the while possessing a great degree of wily common sense and desire for freedom. Charlotte fortifies this when she goes on to briefly explain why she never wanted children (fear of having a child sold away from her) and to describe how she escaped slavery back in 1853 thanks to the help of Harriet Tubman. This is an interesting character with a lot of potential. I especially hope she has a growing impact on the Green family slave, Belinda, who has been working a lot in the contraband camp and was stunned by hearing how Jenkins speaks so assertively to white people. I still have my fingers crossed that the family’s most trusted slave winds up betraying them, as this would make a powerful statement about slave resistance.

Concurrently, the Green family is dealing with the aftermath of their murder of a Union soldier. Alice finally helps Frank get behind Confederate lines, but it becomes clear that she is dealing with a heavy burden of guilt when she ponders whether God punishes those that kill, and especially when she has a near panic attack (actress AnnaSophia Robb impressively manages to dredge up some large and very real tears) when it appears that Frank is about to murder a family of Quakers that had given them shelter (he’s afraid they will turn him in for reward money). Much to her relief, and ours, he doesn’t. Meanwhile, her father and brother bury the soldier’s body in one of their warehouses outside of town, and are soon questioned by Pinkerton. They deny knowing Frank, but the detective discovers otherwise while snooping in their house. He not only finds a letter that Alice forged to make it look like the dead soldier was a deserter (Pinkerton already knows that isn’t true, because officers have no reason to desert, they can just resign!), but he conveniently finds a picture of Frank that Emma has stashed away in a drawer in her room. This whole scene was extremely lazy writing (it just so happens that the only drawer he opens is the very one we earlier saw Emma put the picture into), but it is also one of the two missed opportunities I mentioned. How much richer and historically relevant would this story be if it was Belinda that revealed to Pinkerton that Emma and Frank were an item? Come on writers, don’t let me down.

The other missed opportunity comes in this episode’s best scene. A rebel patient is soon to die, and Nurse Emma Green is charged with informing and comforting him in his last moments. The soldier rejects Union hospital Chaplain Hopkins when Emma brings him to the bedside, so Emma rounds up a local preacher with strong rebel leanings and he oversees the soldier’s passing. The good reverend then takes the opportunity to preach loudly to all the Union soldiers in the hospital, exclaiming that the rebel has died fighting for God’s will. Leaning on the pro-slavery dogma that the bible teaches that blacks are the inheritors of the “Curse of Ham” and thus forever doomed to subservience, the preacher riles up the Yankees, one of which exclaims, “WE are the army of God!” This sets off a debate between the rebel preacher and the Union chaplain (whom Emma clearly admires, much to the chagrin of her mother), who responds with Christ’s injunction to “do unto others . . . ” This is an exciting scene to watch, because it reveals in microcosm the pro-slavery vs abolitionist debate, both of which relied on scripture to fortify their positions (Curse of Ham vs Do unto others). By extension, it reveals the dichotomy that Lincoln discussed in his second inaugural address, that both sides felt their cause to be holy. From an historical perspective, this is good stuff, and perhaps even more so because it is an attack on the Lost Cause myth that the South’s cause was not rooted in the protection of slavery. Unlike so many southerners today, Confederates had no shame in openly admitting the white supremacist reasons for their secession. Nay, like the reverend, they boldly proclaimed it, painting it as God’s will.

As awesome as this scene is, however, it is a missed opportunity to accurately depict the varied opinions of Union soldiers on slavery and its relation to the war. It seems that all the soldiers in the room agree with the chaplain that slavery is an evil that they are fighting to destroy. If this had been a room filled with Massachusetts soldiers, they perhaps might have reached such a consensus, but it is not an accurate depiction of the diversity of Union soldier sentiments. The scene takes place in mid-to-late July, 1862 (a reference to the 1st battle of Murfreesboro tells us that), at a moment when the nation was hotly debating whether or not the war had thus far revealed the Union could not be saved without emancipating the slaves so as to deprive the South of their aid and to add their strength to the North. It would have been interesting to have seen this debate take place among the soldiers during this scene. One could have expressed abolitionist sentiments, while another could have insisted he was not fighting to end slavery, only to save the Union. And then another could have pointed out that saving the Union required freeing the slaves (for the reasons aforementioned). This would have been a powerful and accurate depiction of the opinions of Union soldiers, and of the whole North, especially at that moment in time. As it stands, it is a good scene, but could have been a great one.

All things considered, however, Mercy Street continues to be good Civil War drama, as the second season gets stronger and stronger. Could it emerge as the most powerful and beneficial pop cultural lesson we have on the Civil War?

Trump reminds us why we still need Black History Month; Jim Downs on Mercy Street’s accuracy; WGN’s Underground is looking fierce; Hitler’s phone is for sale

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So the last few postings here have been more like a traditional blog, which is not what I intended when I started this thing. As my friend Christian McWhirter told me, “Trump turned you into a blogger.” Sadly, that seems to be the case. I’ll do my best to rectify that and get back to the format I originally intended, sharing links and only lightly commenting on them.

And yet, these first links are Trump related. I have never been a big proponent of Black History Month, but yesterday Comrade Trump made it clear why we still need it. Don’t get me wrong, I believe it once served a very important function, but I am a big believer that when US history is done correctly, African American history is of course already an essential part of the story. The same is true for women’s history, or that of any other group that has been historically underrepresented in the telling of our nation’s story.  When we segregate our lessons into “Black History,” or “Women’s History,” I feel it creates the impression that those groups are somehow separate from “U.S. History.” Thus, you will never find me doing a lecture on “Women in the American Revolution,” or “Blacks and the Civil War.” When those events are taught properly, women and blacks are already an integral part of the story. And yet, Trump showed me why we still need Black History Month.  In his acknowledgement of the event yesterday, the Putin-Puppet revealed that he is likely clueless when it comes to the contributions of African Americans to our history, would rather spend his time attacking the media, and still thinks that blacks all live in crime infested and impoverished neighborhoods in which more policing would solve all their problems. There have been a lot of articles attacking his performance yesterday, but none better than Kevin Levin’s for Daily Beast, and especially Steven W. Thrasher’s for The Guardian. Of course the most comical but disgusting moment was when Trump (as well as his press secretary) showed he had no clue who Frederick Douglass was (or that he was no longer alive). It reminded me of the scene in Mercy Street last week when southern slaveholder Emma Green revealed she didn’t know who Douglass was, much to the surprise of the Boston abolitionist soldier she was talking to. The good news, Douglass is now trending on Twitter and internet searches, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Speaking of Mercy Street, it is clear that the show’s producers and writers were inspired by Jim Downs’ seminal work, Sick From Freedom in their creation of a storyline involving a contraband camp and a smallpox epidemic there. Today, Downs has an interesting blog post for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, accessing what the show gets wrong, but praising them for what they get right. Overall, he seems impressed.

I’ve noticed that the promoters of WGN’s Underground (which kicks off season 2 on March 8) have rolled out some images to get us excited about the new season. I am indeed excited, but a large share of the images feature gun-toting and fierce-looking characters that seem rather much like action movie caricatures. I really hope this isn’t a sign that they are going to go down the road the History Channel went with their depiction of the Sons of Liberty and in their Roots remake, sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of turning the characters into comic book-style superheroes. I’m still optimistic, but images like the one below send up a red flag:

Lastly for today, did you see that a phone which sat on Hitler’s desk is up for sale? The auction house that is selling it off hopes to fetch upwards of $300,000 for what they are billing as “arguably the most destructive ‘weapon’ of all time.” (Because he presumably ordered so many deaths on it. Get it?). Um, so many jokes could be made here pondering whether or not Trump is an interested potential buyer, but I’ll spare you.

Mercy Street, season 2, episode 2 review: This ain’t your typical Civil War fiction!

Alice Green’s flirting/spying has sho’nuff got her family in a mess!

Oh boy, the Green family is all up in some kinda trouble now! Episode two of PBS’s Civil War series Mercy Street was another solid offering that has me highly hopeful. Sadly, the contraband camp took a backseat, but we still got a great scene involving the inner thoughts of a fugitive slave (though the writers made a blunder in regards to his slave status). Nurse Phinney is in pretty bad shape, and the new hospital director is a martinet that practices phrenology and is possibly suffering from PTSD. But the big development was in the Green household, where a Union soldier has been killed and the family has to cover the crime, little knowing that Pinkerton has them in his sights.

Mercy Street took on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) among Civil War soldiers last season, as we saw Alice Green’s love interest commit suicide. Now, it appears the new leader of the hospital, Major Clayton McBurney (who, like many of the characters, is based loosely on a real person), clearly has issues. Besides being a hard nosed sorta guy that will likely try to squash Dr. Foster’s tendency to rely on experimental or cutting edge procedures, he is carrying a facial wound and emotional baggage from a horrific experience at First Manassas. (He also happens to be a phrenologist, so we got treated to a scene in which he practices the widely accepted but goofy antebellum craft on Nurse Phinney, coming to a low opinion of her mental faculties. Nice stuff, writers!). The combo of his OCD habits with PTSD make him an odd duck and a foil for our doctors and nurses, and I wonder how he will react to southern girl Emma Green’s increased responsibilities in the facility. But I hope the show doesn’t turn him into a caricature, using him instead to develop a complex and meaningful look at Civil War PTSD, or even OCD, when neither was understood at the time.

Apparently McBurney is such a lousy doctor that while examining Phinney’s head he didn’t notice she had a dangerously high temperature. After she passed out, the staff went into action, with Foster eventually placing her whole body in a tub of ice water. I still hope that her condition won’t distract the show from the epidemic brewing in the contraband camp, but these scenes did reveal a couple of things. Foster is resistant to diagnosing her with typhoid (it might still turn out to be smallpox) because he’s afraid it will get her sent to isolation outside the hospital, and also that Emma Green is clearly coming to admire Phinney. This is an interesting dynamic–the daughter of a slaveholder bonding with a Boston abolitionist. Will this make for intriguing conversation as their friendship grows? (This week, Emma first heard about Frederick Douglass from a soldier from Concord MA. who claimed he was inspired by him to fight against slavery). Might Emma evolve in even more ways that she already is?

Meanwhile, out in the contraband camp, Charlotte Jenkins is working to help blacks transition into free laborers by teaching the concept of working by clock time. I trust we are going to see more of her educational activities in future episodes. The big development was that free black  man Samuel Diggs finally talked to the runaway slave man that is the father of Aurelia’s child and her husband. Samuel had tried to avoid this, because as we know, he helped her escape to Boston with her child so that he could soon follow her there and make a life together.

The scene between the two men gave this episode its most interesting dialogue, as the runaway slave rejected the label of contraband because it “is a thing, not a person.” (Take note, this is a prime reason we should stop using the word when discussing runaways during the war, unless, of course, directly quoting a source). Further, he explains, “a slave owns nothing except what is in his heart. That’s all I got. Love for my wife and my boy. Freedom means no more pain from the whip, but losing them is a pain I ain’t never going to get free from.” Excellent. This is perhaps more powerful dialogue than was ever uttered in the Roots remake. He says this as we see old whip marks on his back, and together they are a nice history lesson. Too often when people think about the evils of slavery, they immediately think of whippings, and our TVs and movies reinforce this by always featuring a brutal whipping scene when portraying slavery. Yet the thing that slaves feared most was the separation of family, which in the end was perhaps slavery’s greatest cruelty, not the whippings.

One historical quibble about this excellent scene however: Samuel tells the runaway that he is now free, but that isn’t the case at the time the episode is set in (early July, 1862). The runaway was living on a farm in Tennessee when his owner fled the ravages of war, leaving his slaves behind. This was a common occurrence, creating a heavy flow of slaves into Union lines. However, unless an enslaved person had been impressed into working for the Confederacy (or had a spouse or parents that had), they had not yet become free, although they were often sheltered behind Union lines (Congress passed a law to protect such runaways, but it was not uniformly enforced). Thus, the man’s status at this point was ambiguous, although in the show’s timeline this is about to change thanks to the Second Confiscation Act. In fact, the legislation was largely required in order to end the ambiguity. Hopefully, the rest of the season will deal more accurately with the war’s policy transition to emancipation.

But the episode’s big stunner involved the Green family, and particularly Alice’s spying activities. She managed to lift the papers she was directed to steal from an officer living in her occupied house, but now she’s intent on helping the hunted Frank Stringfellow escape town. This requires the password to get by Union picket guards, and papers to create a fake identity for Frank. Using her considerable charms (kudos to actress AnnaSophia Robb, she may be using an accent that is more Scarlett O’Hara than it is northern Virginia, but she plays the southern coquette to the hilt), she manages to get the password from the Union officer, but gets caught looking for the papers. This results in a near rape (ugh, here we go with the evil Yankee trope again), but she is saved by the timely arrival of her family. Her father almost kills the soldier, but her brother argues that they must finish the deed so that they can hide the body and convince officials that he was a deserter.

Apart from the sheer drama of all this, it is the Green family story-line that I hope takes this show into some really interesting directions. Pinkerton already has his eye on the family, and this event will likely sharpen his focus. As established in a shot early in the episode, he is also aware that Belinda is a slave in the Green household who is now working in the hospital. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as I wrote last week in my review for Muster, that this leads Pinkerton to try and garner information from the enslaved woman (which the real life Pinkerton frequently did), allowing the show to reveal that even the apparently most “loyal” slaves harbored freedom desires and were willing to help the Union cause.

PTSD, the transition of the war and the lives of the enslaved to emancipation, and the activities of African Americans in supporting the Union and subverting the Confederacy are not the normal stories we see in Civil War fiction and movies. Thus episode two of Mercy Street once again shows that it is not your typical war story. As I wrote last week in my review for Muster, it is how well the show develops and interprets these aspects of the war, not the battle scenes of most war dramas, that will determine its ultimate value. I am still optimistic.

How accurate is PBS’s Mercy Street?; Confessions of Emmett Till’s accuser; A personal thank you to Mary Tyler Moore.

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I promised to stay away from Trump topics for the rest of the week, and even though he did (not surprisingly) wind up doing even crazier things before the week ended, I am going to stick to my promise!

Today, the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog, Muster, features a review of the first episode of PBS’s Mercy Street, and the author is yours truly! I’ll be posting reviews of the other episodes here on History Headlines, but in my review for Muster I make it clear where I hope the series is heading in the second season, because there is some exciting potential for delving into important issues involving race and emancipation.

By far the most interesting history news today is word that an historian was able to track down the woman that made the allegations that led to the infamous murder of Emmett Till. You’ll see news stories about this in many places, but don’t miss this story in Vanity Fair that reveals how the author of a new book about the case tracked her down, and got a confession. Seriously, don’t miss this one.

This week we lost another bonafide cultural icon with this passing of Mary Tyler Moore. There have been lots of articles and tributes that point out the groundbreaking nature of her two most famous roles, Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. I found this one from The Guardian to be particularly good, although it fails to note that her role on the Dick Van Dyke show did more than just provide a housewife who was the equal of her husband. In an age when housewives were ridiculously always depicted on TV as wearing dresses or skirts while they worked, Moore insisted that real women did not do that and forced producers to let her wear Capri slacks instead. How fetching was she in those pants?2e067188d93b298c90553164fe5f0014.jpg

Of course her big impact came with her own show as Mary Richards, and we know how the role helped change people’s perceptions of single women and their lives both in and out of the workplace. On a personal note, I grew up in a 1970s home with a divorced mother, and I can honestly say that the show helped me as a young child to not see anything unusual or shameful about my mom’s marital status and work career. Of course Mary Richards was not a single mother, but her show’s success led to other shows, like Alice, or One Day at a Time, which did feature single moms. Thus, those shows made my life seem normal.  Generations of children before me would not be able to say that, given the types of families that dominated TV in the 50s and 60s . So thank you, Mary Tyler Moore, for breaking the mold.