Mercy Street Roundtable: On the Televisual Appeal of Civil War Trauma

AHA Session 123
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Ashley Bowen-Murphy, Brown University
Ashley Bowen-Murphy, Brown University
Audrey Davis, Alexandria Black History Museum
Shauna Devine, University of Western Ontario (Western University)
Jim Downs, Connecticut College
Sarah E. Handley-Cousins, State University of New York at Buffalo

Session Abstract

When PBS’ Mercy Street debuted in January 2016, the New York Times described it as “Grey’s Anatomy with crinolines.” Although steeped in melodrama, Mercy Street poses important questions about the complexities of delivering compassionate medical care in a time of conflict, emotional trauma, the nature of freedom, and the ways that various professions are raced and gendered. The show’s creators worked closely with historians and museum professionals to create a show that was faithful to its source materials while grappling with contemporary themes.

Mercy Street represents the popularization of the so-called “dark turn” in Civil War scholarship. PBS’ programming reaches far more homes than “prestige” TV available only via a paid cable subscription. In addition, PBS extends its reach by encouraging the use of its programming in schools by creating curriculum guides for teachers. The network’s decision to focus on race, gender, and wartime trauma underscores the impact that recent scholarship on the Civil War has had on popular understanding of the conflict-- an impressive undertaking, given that most standard history books have not yet included this new research.

Rather than focus exclusively on what the show gets right or wrong about the past, this roundtable will attempt to locate Mercy Street in relationship to recent trends in the scholarship of the Civil War, current events, and popular culture. We will address questions like: is a hospital drama the best, and perhaps only, way to make a show about the Civil War today? How does Mercy Street communicate the concept of gradual emancipation? What does it mean to foreground women in a show about war? What does televised fiction about the Civil War do that a documentary cannot? Is Mercy Street the apogee of “dark” Civil War scholarship?

This roundtable brings together historians working at the intersection of medical history, African American history, and the history of gender and sexuality. Participants engaged with the show in a variety of ways. Audrey Davis, Shauna Devine, and Jim Downs each served as historical consultants during the production of Mercy Street’s first and second seasons and can speak about opportunities and limitations inherent in that role. Ashley Bowen-Murphy and Sarah Handley-Cousins both worked with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine to create blog posts that complimented the museum’s promotional and educational campaign around the show.

In their brief opening remarks, the panelists will bring their research interests to bear on the show’s content. Davis will discuss the African American stories behind Mercy Street and issues related to  the role of contrabands in American Civil War history. Jim Downs will discuss how the show’s representation of illness and of black characters undermines the audience’s understanding of emancipation. Devine will discuss the historical accuracy of the medicine as depicted in the show. Handley-Cousins will share her insights into depictions of disability in the show, while Bowen-Murphy investigates how Mercy Street dealt with the body-mind connection in the nineteenth century.

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