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In ‘Mercy Street,’ Civil War trauma meets modern medical drama

January 15, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
"Mercy Street," a new original series on PBS, tells the story of a one-time hotel turned Union army hospital, and is based on memoirs and letters of real Civil War medical staff. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at how its creators combined a historical saga with a medical drama.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the launch of a new series on PBS, its first original American drama in more than a decade.

Jeffrey Brown visited the set of “Mercy Street” in Richmond, Virginia, and has this preview.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spring 1862: The carnage on the Civil War goes on, and some of the wounded and dying are brought here to Mansion House Hospital.

ACTOR: Ah. You must be the new nurse. I am Dr. Hale, chief operating surgeon.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Mercy Street” is a dramatized account based on memoirs and letters of doctors and nurses who served at a Union facility that also took in a handful of Confederate soldiers.

The real Mansion House, a one-time luxury hotel transformed into an Army hospital, was in Alexandria, Virginia, just south of Washington. The series was filmed further south in Petersburg, Virginia, as well as in Richmond at a Civil War-period mansion, where we visited last summer as shooting was wrapping up.

Josh Radnor plays Jedediah Foster, a civilian surgeon now caught up in the pain, frustrations and blood of the war.

JOSH RADNOR, “Dr. Jedediah Foster”: Be prepared. This may bleed a bit.

ACTRESS: Yes.

JOSH RADNOR: It’s life and death in a hospital. Plus, you throw the Civil War on top of it, you have got pretty much the most dramatic situation you could ever imagine.

There’s this feeling that it’s entirely grounded in its time and place, and, at the same time, it feels modern and urgent and vital. It feels like you’re walking into this, like, bustling, alive, relatable story with people that you recognize somehow.

ACTOR: This is what happens to traitors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alexandria was the only Confederate town occupied by the Union for all four years of the war, and much of the drama here involves the interaction of Northerners and Southerners.

They’re enemies, but also at times forced to work side by side, as with two volunteer nurses, one a staunch New England abolitionist, the other an inexperienced young woman whose life has been upended by occupation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the Northerner Mary Phinney.

MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD, “Mary Phinney”: Both feel very passionately about what they believe in, but, as the series goes on, you kind of see the complexities in who they both are, and they find ways to connect, even though they have such differing views on such very big, big issues. They see the humanity in one another and are able to kind of to work alongside each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ridley Scott served as executive producer of the series. It was created and written by David Zabel and Lisa Wolfinger, he known for his work writing and overseeing the hit network drama “ER,” she a veteran writer and producer of films and TV programs.

LISA WOLFINGER, Producer, “Mercy Street”: I thought, well, maybe, maybe we can find a new way to tell an old story. And it hit me that nobody has ever really explored the medical side of it. We kind of like to think of this show as “Gone With the Wind” meets “MASH.”

DAVID ZABEL, Producer, “Mercy Street”: We wanted to find a way to find the drama in the medical. How do we tell the story of medical advances during the Civil War, but infuse it with drama? And Alexandria, Virginia, became this great window into all — a whole bunch of different aspects of the war and all kinds of different characters.

It really became much more of a family saga combined with a medical drama combined with sort of a wartime epic.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the most complex and moving stories in “Mercy Street” is that of Samuel Diggs, a free black working as a orderly in the hospital.

He’d grown up a servant in the home of a Philadelphia doctor and, unbeknownst to the Mansion House staff, had learned a great deal about medical practice. As the story unfolds, he gets the chance to do work otherwise denied him in a segregated society.

I’m talking to a man with a lot of blood on his sleeve.

MCKINLEY BELCHER III, “Samuel Diggs”: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well-earned?

MCKINLEY BELCHER III: Well-earned. This is actually the blood of my love on my sleeves.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The blood of your love?

MCKINLEY BELCHER III: Yes, the blood of my love.

We did a scene yesterday, all yesterday, that we were sort of operating on her, so, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actor McKinley Belcher III told us this role had special meaning for him.

MCKINLEY BELCHER III: I think, for Samuel, that how strongly he feels about being a doctor and being involved in the medical world is something that’s sort of at the forefront of his mind all the time.

I’m playing a young man who is single-minded, in many ways a positive image of a young black man, and who is career-oriented, has integrity, and a sort of quiet strength about him. It makes me really proud to put that out in the world. And I think, in some ways, as an artist, I have to be responsible for the images I portray and for the truth I put out in the world. And I’m proud of this one.

JEFFREY BROWN: The producers also clearly took some pride in the series’ authenticity. A Civil War hospital was no setting for the squeamish. Amputations were performed numerous times each day with minimal or no anesthesia.

We’re standing in front of a pretty bloody scene, right, at least fake blood.

Surgeon and medical historian Stanley Burns served as consultant to the series.

DR. STANLEY BURNS, Medical Historian: This is a capital operating kit. This is what a surgeon used during the war. And there were several of them at each regiment. For instance, we show in one of the scenes — let me take this out — they’re still sharp and problematical.

And so, this is a capital amputation saw. They actually took the saw, you see, around the arm, and then, in one fell swoop, cut it off.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s how you do it, yes.

DR. STANLEY BURNS: The whole amputation, if the surgeons were slow, it would take five minutes, but a good, experienced surgeon could do it, complete an amputation in two minutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Series creators Wolfinger and Zabel say they worked hard for realism and were happy PBS embraced it.

LISA WOLFINGER: PBS was such a natural home for it, and I think in many ways we designed it for PBS.

DAVID ZABEL: If we tried to tell this story in a lot of other places, there would be a lot more pressure to, I think, stray, stray from the facts, from the history.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a view of history not from the battlefield, but through the lives of those trying to heal its victims.

The six-part miniseries “Mercy Street” premieres Sunday night.

From Richmond, Virginia, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can stream the first episode of “Mercy Street” online right now about PBS.org. And the broadcast premiere is Sunday on most PBS stations.

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