Civil War drama to en­gage fans with its ac­cu­racy

Ac­tion is driven by hu­mour, his­tor­i­cal de­tails in new PBS show Mercy Street


Some of PBS’s big­gest hits over the past three decades in­volve the Civil War and pe­riod dra­mas: Ken Burns’ nine-part doc­u­men­tary The Civil War and Bri­tish drama im­port Down­ton Abbey, which be­gins its fi­nal sea­son on PBS in Jan­uary. And on Jan. 17, PBS will launch a new se­ries that mashes up el­e­ments of these great­est hits: Mercy Street, a show set in a Civil War hos­pi­tal in Alexandria, Va.

“The truth of the mat­ter is, the rea­son most of what we do in the drama space is Bri­tish, eco­nom­i­cally, we’re only pay­ing a frac­tion of the cost,” PBS chief pro­gram­ming ex­ec­u­tive Beth Hoppe said. “We can’t do Amer­i­can drama all the time.”

But Hoppe wants to be able to do sev­eral, fact-based his­tor­i­cal dra­mas a year. And while Mercy Street ac­tu­ally started as a docu­d­rama about Civil War medicine, “as it de­vel­oped, it was so rich we kept go­ing with it and said this story is so rich it has the po­ten­tial to be a full-on drama and en­gage our au­di­ence in ways that doc­u­men­tary just doesn’t en­gage them.”

Fi­nan­cial con­straints con­trib­uted to the shift from Mercy Street as a docu­d­rama or a story about the staff of a field hos­pi­tal to the show in its present form.

“We came up with a con­cept that was more of a M*A*S*H* con­cept,” co-cre­ator Lisa Wolfin­ger said of her early con­ver­sa­tions with fel­low ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and ER vet­eran David Za­bel. “It was based in a field hos­pi­tal and it fol­lowed the Army of the Po­tomac around . . . I thought about the practicalities and the bud­get and the kind of bud­get that PBS would be able to put to­gether, and I thought this was too am­bi­tious. We would have to see ev­ery bat­tle. We’re talk­ing about thou­sands of ex­tras and we just can’t go there.”

But ty­ing Mercy Street to Alexandria opened up new dra­matic and the­matic pos­si­bil­i­ties for the se­ries.

“I re­al­ized the best way to fo­cus it was prob­a­bly to fo­cus on a gen­eral hos­pi­tal,” Wolfin­ger said. “For the first time you have hos­pi­tals, gen­eral hos­pi­tals. Prior to the Civil War, they were hos­pi­tals for the in­di­gent, the poor. If you got sick you were treated in your home . . . As I dug more and more, it just be­came more and more ex­cit­ing. Here was a con­fed­er­ate town, oc­cu­pied by the Union all four years of the war.”

The Con­fed­er­ate-lean­ing fam­ily who had their man­sion req­ui­si­tioned by the Union Army for a hos­pi­tal in­sisted on head­ing be­hind Con­fed­er­ate lines.

“The very last el­e­ment that re­ally clinched it,” Wolfin­ger said, “was (that Alexandria) start(ed) to get this mass of slaves, run­away slaves, refugees head­ing north, try­ing to get into Union ter­ri­tory. And, of course, once they reached Union-oc­cu­pied Alexandria, they didn’t have to get any fur­ther. You end up with this huge ghetto town sur­round­ing Alexandria and this big pop­u­la­tion of what they called con­tra­band.”

That pe­riod set­ting and an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore a mo­ment when gen­der roles, medicine and the bound­ary be­tween slaves and free peo­ple were all in flux all made Mercy Street an ex­am­ple of what Hoppe sees as PBS’s niche in an in­creas­ingly crowded land­scape for scripted tele­vi­sion: drama where the ac­tion is driven by real his­tor­i­cal de­tail.

Wolfin­ger has a back­ground as a doc­u­men­tar­ian, and said scrupu­lous at­ten­tion to ac­cu­racy and the lim­its of that genre in­formed her work on Mercy Street.

“The beauty of this is there’s a lot of pri­mary source ma­te­rial about the Civil War. We have pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence, ma­te­rial to work from even though it was care­fully posed and en­tirely sub­jec­tive . . . We don’t have any iconic char­ac­ters . . . Most of our char­ac­ters are ob­scure, so we had the free­dom to draw from fact . . . Where we took some lib­er­ties was bring­ing them al­to­gether.”

“It was this amaz­ing time and turn­ing point in medicine and med­i­cal history, and I think it was im­por­tant for us to por­tray that.”


It wasn’t just med­i­cal de­tails where Mercy Street is inspired to ac­cu­racy. Wolfin­ger de­scribes the se­ries as sim­i­lar to M*A*S*H* in its dark hu­mour, a tone inspired by the ac­tual writ­ing of Civil War vol­un­teer nurses, in­clud­ing Louisa May Al­cott.

And the se­ries’ his­tor­i­cal ad­vis­ers gave Wolfin­ger and her col­lab­o­ra­tors what she de­scribes as “reams of notes” on ev­ery­thing from the med­i­cal cases to the ver­nac­u­lar the char­ac­ters used when they spoke. She com­pared Za­bel to David Milch, who cre­ated fa­mously colour­ful di­a­logue for his Western drama Dead­wood, in his abil­ity to bal­ance his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy and ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Hoppe says the cast of Mercy Street — in­clud­ing How I Met Your Mother star Josh Rad­nor, who plays pi­o­neer­ing sur­geon Jede­diah Foster; The Wire vet­eran Peter Gerety as a fel­low doc­tor and Scott Pil­grim vs. the World star Mary El­iz­a­beth Win­stead as nurse Mary Phinney — em­braced re­search for their parts, in­clud­ing watch­ing their way through Ken Burns’ nine-part doc­u­men­tary The Civil War. Jack Fala­hee, who plays Con­fed­er­ate spy Jack Stringfel­low, even wrote love letters in char­ac­ter to Han­nah James, who plays Stringfel­low’s love in­ter­est, Emma Green, the daugh­ter of the Con­fed­er­ate fam­ily whose home was seized for the hos­pi­tal.

Com­pet­ing in an arena that in­cludes se­ries such as HBO’s pseu­do­his­tor­i­cal drama Game of Thrones and FX’s hy­per­vi­o­lent Bri­tish pe­riod piece The Bas­tard Ex­e­cu­tioner also meant find­ing a dis­tinctly PBS way to con­front the bloody re­al­i­ties of Civil War-era medicine.

“I per­son­ally come from the world of fac­tual and science, and I don’t see it as vi­o­lent, I see it as truth,” Hoppe ex­plained.

“It was this amaz­ing time and turn­ing point in medicine and med­i­cal history, and I think it was im­por­tant for us to por­tray that. We tried to be re­ally re­spect­ful of an au­di­ence hav­ing a thresh­old for that and not go too far, but in the same way we were ac­cu­rate with the history, we were in­cred­i­bly ac­cu­rate with the science and the med­i­cal pro­ce­dures that we de­pict.”


Mary El­iz­a­beth Win­stead plays nurse Mary Phinney and Josh Rad­nor is Jede­diah Foster in Mercy Street, which de­buts Jan. 17 on PBS.

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