Why Mercy Street is too important to let die


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.


Trump’s budget madness; Mercy Street can be saved; Jackson vs Clay; Huckabee should be ashamed; Eisenhower Memorial in DC?; Defending U.S. Grant on race & slavery; Do our sports rivalries define us?

Image result for jackson vs henry clay

I’ve been away from the blog for about a week now because of spring break last week (and my completing of a book chapter for Cambridge University Press’s forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Civil War), but today is a good day to return to it. Lots of good stuff! (Much of it steming from Trump’s budget proposal,  visit to Andrew Jackson’s grave last week, and his praise of Henry Clay last night).

Trump’s budget proposal was a nightmare realized, and I have no doubt that it won’t go through in any where near the form it is now. There is no point in me rehashing what has already been repeatedly said by others (the best I saw was this piece by a former Republican congressmen, arguing that only tyrants fear the arts)  about the damage that would be done to this country if his cuts to the national endowments to the arts/humanities and etc. went through, as well as to parks and recreation (including many historic sites).

But one connection I have not seen made is to our beloved Mercy Street. The more we learn about why the show was cancelled, the more we know that it was an issue of funding. They lost some major corporate sponsors after season one, but a big budget show like this is a burden for PBS in more ways than one, so I just wonder if perhaps the network could foresee Trump’s proposed cuts coming? Anyway, good article today about the show’s struggles, the pride the producers took in it, and how it has gotten Hollywood’s attention. Is there still hope? YES, But MONEY is the key to saving it.

So last week, Trump went down to Nashville to bask in the adulation of his minions, and while he was there he took a trip to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. After a tour and wreath-laying photo-op, he gleefully compared himself to Old Hickory. Now we all know that Donald has probably never read a history book in his life, so he is obviously drawn to Jackson because other people have made the comparison based on his populist “damn the elites” appeal. But over on the Daily Beast, Asawin Suebsaeng makes the case that this is all Steve Bannon’s influence on the Putin-Puppet. It is true that Jackson might like aspects of Trump’s budget cut proposal, but it is ironic that today’s leader of the Republican Party is celebrating the founder of the Democrat Party. Of course the Democrats are a much different party now in ideology and have lately been running from Jackson’s legacy because he was a particularly harsh slaveholder, defied the Supreme Court, destroyed the economy by killing the National Bank, and has the blood and moral stain of the Trail of Tears solely on his hands. None of this would bother Bannon, however, as Suebsaeng points out that Trump’s top advisor once declared, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.”

Invoking Satan? But what about all those evangelicals that supported Trump because they believed he would surround himself with good people? One of those evangelical supporters was Mike Huckabee, and he let his sentiments be known about the Trump/Jackson comparison when he tweeted: “Hoping @Potus tells Hawaii judge what Andrew Jackson told overreaching court-“I’ll ignore it and let the court enforce their order.” Huckabee was referring to the Hawaii judge’s blocking of Trump’s latest travel ban, and connecting it to Jackson’s defiance of a supreme court ruling. The fact that Huckabee would do such a thing is beyond morally reprehensible, considering that Jackson’s defiance of the courts was when he ordered the forceful removal of Native American tribes from the southeast, and that thousands were killed or murdered as a result. And the thing is, I think Huckabee knows his history enough to know that. Disgusting, Mike Huckabee, disgusting.

And then last night, Trump got the historical community buzzing on Tweeter, cracking jokes about his praising of Jackson one day, and then of Henry Clay the very next week. It is true that Clay was all about encouraging American manufacturing as a means of creating jobs and making the US economy more self-sustaining, which is how Trump invoked him (though with a very shallow understanding of Clay’s policies and his times). But in his policies, Clay’s biggest rival was Andrew Jackson, and you could argue that the entire era was defined by their competing visions. (Lincoln’s political hero was Clay, so Trump is probably better served to try and make this connection rather than to Jackson). This is all stuff you learn in your US history classes, but in case you need a primer on why it is a bit head-scratching that Trump would embrace the policies of both men, Time has got you covered. (The good thing in all of this is that Henry Clay was trending last night on the internet, and that’s not a bad thing). But as I remarked on a Facebook post, I am pretty sure that Donald doesn’t know much about either guy beyond the fact that people compare him to Jackson, and that he happened to be in Clay’s Kentucky last night.

Despite Trump’s budget, it looks like a new Washington DC memorial to Dwight Eisenhower is about to get final approval and could break ground as early as September. I have no problem with an Eisenhower memorial (whom Trump seems to love, even though the so-called president’s foreign policy and efforts to fill many top Pentagon and Homeland Security offices with defense contractors would send Ike spinning in his grave), but as described here, it seems a bit gawdy.

Trump’s praise of Jackson caused one commentator, Shaun King, to argue that no president that ever owned a slave should be honored (or anyone else, for that matter).  That statement is problematic in itself (though King is way more right than wrong), but public historian Nick Sacco took exception to it in regards to U. S Grant, who at one brief moment in his life owned one slave. On his blog, Exploring the Past, Nick posted an impassioned response to King, extolling Grant’s overall record on race and slavery. It is a fine read not only because of what he says about Grant, but also because it is a big reminder that almost nothing in history is a simple as we often make it out to be.

And while we are on other blogs: my buddy Christian McWhirter, historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (such an awesome institution) has a really fine post today over on his Civil War Pop that has nothing to do with Lincoln or the Civil War: it is about a new exhibit that he worked on there which presents the history of baseball’s Cubs/Cardinals rivalry. Do baseball history and the history of sports rivalries matter? You bet they do, largely because of what they tell us about how we see ourselves.

And just a quick update on that story about an ancient statue of Ramses II rising from the Cairo mud: turns out it isn’t him, it is of another Pharaoh.

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.