E.R. With Hoop Skirts?

I’ve been following the developments around PBS’s new dramatic miniseries Mercy Street since the project was announced, for two reasons: (1) I study and write about the Civil War. (2) I live in the town where the series is set, Alexandria, Virginia. I’d like the series to succeed, to be good, or perhaps just to be entertaining like the series whose viewers it’s meant to appeal to: Downton Abbey. There’s certainly plenty of dramatic fodder in Civil War-era Alexandria: a Southern port city occupied by Northern forces for the entirety of the war, Alexandria was close enough to both DC and the front lines of the war’s fighting to see its share of death and injury and ruin. Moreover, as Mercy Street‘s co-creator states in this Washington Post interview, the city became a haven for runaway slaves–“contraband of war”–who sought refuge behind Union lines, only to find the government largely unwilling to care for them.

To my mind, it’s the confluence of these factors of geography and influence and power and need that make Alexandria such a fascinating, hopeful, terrible place during the Civil War. Nowhere else was quite like it. In the WaPo interview, Lisa Wolfinger seems to have a pretty good grasp of Alexandria’s unique position during the war, but the accompanying preview runs through a series of what amount to hospital drama cliches viewed through a sepia-tinted Civil War filter: the inexperienced female nurse, the headstrong surgeon, the guy with More Medical Knowledge Than He Lets On, the total jerk surgeon. (Paging E.R.’s Dr. Romano! And watch out for that helicopter!)

Plenty of other places near the front lines of battle (and there were battles LOTS OF PLACES) had hospitals, and if it’s just trying to be E.R. with Hoop SkirtsMercy Street could take place in any of them. What I’m hoping is that the writers and producers do justice to the reality of Alexandria during the war, which means doing justice to the African American experience of Alexandria during the war. There’s only one African American actor (McKinley Belcher III) who describes his role in the preview video–that of a laborer from Philadelphia who grew up in the house of a physician and therefore has medical knowledge that it seems will be gradually revealed to the doctors and nurses. Ok, cool. The official press release on the series mentions one other black character by name, “Aurelia Johnson, a beautiful, stoical ‘contraband’ working as a laundress at the hospital, and trying to bury her past.” It will be really interesting to see, once the series airs, if these characters can surmount these cliched descriptions. (Does every African American character really need to have a Deep Dark Secret?) The simple fact is that most of the contraband people in Alexandria weren’t beautiful and stoical: they were forced to live in overcrowded camps in appalling conditions, face the constant threats of disease and starvation, and deal with systemic racism, all while living in an active war zone.

I very much hope Mercy Street does justice to that reality, so that its setting in Alexandria isn’t just so much pretty scene dressing. (I’m encouraged that one of their consultants was Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.) I hope that the series confront Alexandria’s African American history, that it represents the remarkable aid work of women like Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur, and the creation of the Toussaint L’Ouverture Hospital, built specifically for the treatment of injured African American troops as well as contraband civilians. I hope in particular that the series deals with the petition signed by patients at L’Ouverture Hospital to insist that black troops who had given their lives to the Union cause should be buried alongside white troops in Alexandria’s National Cemetery. (I intend to write more about this petition in another blog entry, because it’s a vital and all-but-forgotten moment in the history of black protest.) I hope it’s not just trading in tired cliches, but actually digging into the complicated, thorny, painful reality of Alexandria’s past. Come January 2016, we’ll see.

Further Reading: For first-hand accounts of Alexandria and its contraband population during the Civil War, read Harriet Jacobs’s reporting in The Freedmen’s Journal  or her friend Julia Wilbur’s astonishingly detailed diary (a PDF of the whole thing can be found here). For more on the L’Ouverture Hospital petition, check out the Friends of the Freedmen’s Cemetery site. A new memorial was dedicated at Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery just last year; read about the historical work that identified the site of the cemetery here.


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