Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Mercy Street, Episode 3

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 1, 2016

Alice and Tom
Alice Green (AnnaSophia Robb) discovers her beau, Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan), at Mansion House. Mercy Street deals not just with the physical trauma of war, but the psychological trauma as well.


A few thoughts on the third episode of Mercy Street, which brings us to the halfway point in the first season. Minor spoilers follow.

Dr. Foster’s situation has gotten more complicated on several levels. We knew his brother was fighting on the Peninsula, but we didn’t have the whole story, obviously. I was initially surprised that Foster (Josh Radnor) could have so easily passed the examination for Army surgeon without having performed an amputation, but surgical procedures were apparently not commonly taught in medical schools of the period.

The scene with Frank Stringfellow and the Colonel didn’t ring true at all, considering that Frank is going to be hanging around the hospital for the rest of the season.

The amputation scene is about as gruesome as anything you’re likely to see on broadcast television, but it probably had to be to convey the horror of the characters present.

Dr. Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) more sympathetic than one might imagine — resentful and jealous of Foster, particular after developments in this episode, but also being manipulated by Nurse Hasting (Tara Summers).

One of the nice things about Mercy Street so far is that most of the characters are given enough depth and backstory that the viewer can appreciate the conflicts they’re dealing with. The elder Greens are a good example of that. It would be easy for the writers to make the Greens irredeemably wicked, but they’re not. The real James Green (Gary Cole) had been a Whig in years past, and not a supporter of secession. Nonetheless, he retains a loyalty to Virginia and, in the eyes of U.S. authorities occupying Alexandria, is indistinguishable from any other “secesh.” James had spent 35 years building the small furniture business he inherited from his father, and expanding into the hotel and restaurant business, to become by 1860 the wealthiest man in Alexandria. Now, with the war, James and Jane (Donna Murphy) are really just trying to hang on without being entirely swept away by the events swirling around them. Which, really, is true of all the characters in the show.

African American characters play a bigger role in this episode than previously, and the writers have done a good job in providing depth to their stories and delineating the very different circumstances they find themselves. Like the Greens, the African American characters highlighted in this episode — Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), Miles (Myron Parker Jr.), and Belinda Gibson  (L. Scott Caldwell) all find themselves in this episode at critical turning points in their lives.

Having got now halfway through the season, I’m increasingly appreciative of how the setting, a U.S. military hospital in Alexandria in 1862, makes it plausible to bring together so many different people and story together in one place. That many of the principle characters are based on real-life persons simply adds to the enjoyment of it.

Finally, here’s a website devoted to telling the story of the real-life Emma Green and her family. Keep in mind that, since it offers biographies of the real family, it likely contains spoilers about events coming up later in the series. You’ve been warned, y’all.





8 Responses

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  1. Leo said, on February 2, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Love your review and absolutely agree about the depth of characters and trajectory of the show thus far. I often find myself stumped by situations in the show like the Doctor needing instructions to preform the amputation, so I have to seek out answers. You covered my question about the doctor needing instructions, but I’m still stumped about the issue of drug addiction and Mary’s reaction to discovering DR Foster injecting himself. Was much known about it at the time and what was the common treatment for addiction then?

    I’m especially glad the show doesn’t sweep slavery under the rug like was done in “Field of Lost Shoes” and so many other shows. I just appreciate the fact that Mercy Street doesn’t vilify all southerners as slave beating racists while also not treating every “northerner” as a raving abolitionist. It offers a fact based story with complicated characters during an extraordinary time in American history.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 2, 2016 at 10:48 pm

      There have been some complaints on another board that injecting morphine is not correct for the period; I really don’t know. But the show does seem to be a whole level above most other dramas of that sort. The characters actually have depth and (most of them, anyway) you can connect with on some level.

      Turns out that part of Mansion House Hotel/Hospital still stands:

    • Andy Hall said, on February 2, 2016 at 10:58 pm

      Found this:

      When called to the colors, whether Union or Confederate, doctors who used opiates liberally on civilian clients continued to use them liberally on their military patients. Willian H. Taylor was an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, an organization known for its rapid marches. After the war he wrote that he had simplified sick call on the march to one basic question: How are your bowels? If they were open, I administered a plug of opium; if they were shut I gave them a plug of blue mass (an unstable mercury compound).” A Federal surgeon devised an even speedier sick call method. He performed diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patient lick it.

      Morphine, injected by the recently developed hypodermic syringe, was the preferred form of opium for treating the wounded. And though syringes were scarce, even in the better-equipped Federal armies, 29,828 ounces of morphine sulphate was dispensed to Union soldiers. That figure seems almost trifling compared to the almost 10 million opium pills and 2,841 million ounces of other opiates administered by Federal medical authorities by 1865. While not as ubiquitous in the Confederate army, opium was in reasonable supply until the very end of the war, thanks to captured medical stores and imports smuggled through the naval blockade of the southern ports. Though opiates were used profusely in the treatment of illnesses, it was in relieving the pain of wounds and
      surgery that they were most effective. The desire for that relief cause many injured soldiers to become opiate addicts, for pain lingered long after medical treatment in those days. And after the war it was easy to find veterans who suffered agony from war wounds or war-related illnesses for the rest of their lives. In his book, Dark Paradise: Opiate addiction in America Before 1940, David Courtwright quotes from an 1868 study titled The Opium Habit, with suggestions as to the remedy: Maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battlefields, diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons, anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those dearest to them, have found, many of them, temporary relief from their sufferings in opium.”

      • Leo said, on February 3, 2016 at 10:55 am

        That’s good to know and interesting. My knowledge of drug use in the 1860’s is extremely limited and mostly based on entertainment sources, which is far from reliable. I’m not sure if you have ever seen Deadwood on HBO, but opium in that show was taken as a small black ball about the size of a marble and referred to as a “ball of dope”. I highly doubt the term “dope” is accurate to the time period, but I could be wrong.

        • Andy Hall said, on February 3, 2016 at 1:03 pm

          I’ve only seen a few clips of Deadwood, but as I recall one of those involved an opium “den.”

    • Andy Hall said, on February 2, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      From the Medical and Surgical Official Records, a report from a U.S. military surgeon after Antietam, on wounds to the lungs:

      In obviously fatal cases from this as well as other causes euthanasia was sought for and promoted by morphine, administered hypodermically or through the wound where possible. The fatal cases rapidly assumed the characteristic appearances of the closing period of rapid consumption, accompanied to the last by clear intelligence and the remarkable buoyancy of spirit which often co-exists with the suppurative disintegration of this vital organ.

  2. Foxessa said, on February 3, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Both Freud and the fictional Sherlock Holmes, in the post U.S. civil war era, were addicts. They understood well what addiction was. Freud had even thought one drug was a non-addictive cure for addiction — until he learned differently. But, needless to say, unlike the average soldier of the Crimea, Afghanistan or the Civil War both these figures had used the drugs for reasons that weren’t to do with relief from physical pain.

    But — one would think that physicians and nurses working in these wars needed mental relief as much as brilliant intellects needed the stimulus from boredom?

    At this point at least, I am not in the least engaged with the ‘arcs’ of the white characters. But the African American characters do involve me. That image at the conclusion of this latest ep, of the ‘good boy’ running wild in the streets with a gang of boys is own age was not only striking but felt deeply plausible.

    • Leo said, on February 3, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      I totally agree that the stories behind the various African American characters are compelling. You could see the expression in the face of Miles at the prospect of being free.

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