On a sweltering June afternoon in Richmond, Va., women in heavy hooped skirts and men in thick wool suits bustled around a historic building in the former capital of the Confederacy as it was transformed into a Civil War hospital for the new PBS drama Mercy Street.
Despite the commitment to period authenticity on set, evident in the artfully distressed walls, sullied cots and dozens of background players in bloodied uniforms, the cast and crew looked forward to the minutes between takes when the air conditioning was switched on, allowing them to appreciate at least one very modern comfort.
Dubbed Gone With the Wind meets M*A*S*H by its creative team, Mercy Street is inspired by real events and, in a novel twist for a Civil War series, features two female protagonists who are volunteer nurses at the hospital: Mary Phinney, a staunch Northern abolitionist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emma Green (Hannah James), a genteel Southern belle from a wealthy slave-owning family.
The series, which premiered Sunday on PBS, presents a fresh perspective on this great American cataclysm by focusing not on battlefields and bayonets but on the drama at a luxury hotel-turned-hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Va., in the early days of the war.
Mercy Street's ensemble also includes Josh Radnor as a pioneering, morphine-addicted surgeon, McKinley Belcher as a free black man with a natural talent for medicine, and Gary Cole as Emma's entrepreneurial father, who refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to the Union. Director Ridley Scott and former ER show runner David Zabel executive-produced the series, which is PBS's first original scripted drama in more than a decade.
The series was created by Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, a documentary filmmaker who originally planned to make a docudrama about Civil War medicine. In the course of her research, Wolfinger came across the memoir of a woman with a mouthful of a name — Mary Phinney, the Baroness von Olnhausen — who'd volunteered as a nurse at Alexandria's Mansion House Hotel. Owned by the wealthy Green family, the hotel was converted into a hospital during the war.
The Greens' daughter Emma, whose sweetheart was a Confederate spy, tended to wounded Southerners at the hospital. The surrounding city of Alexandria was also a destination for escaped slaves — or "contraband," as designated by the Union — on their way to freedom in the North.
The discovery of Mansion House, with so many diverse people coming together in a single space, represented a "light bulb moment," according to Zabel.
"I didn't want to get into cliche binary oppositions of North and South, black and white," he said. "I felt like in this place with all of these various agendas bumping up against each other, you could really explore this moment in a much more variegated way, diverse way. It didn't reduce itself to certain simplistic attitudes and perspectives."
Another key inspiration was Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches, a collection of letters the Little Women novelist and abolitionist wrote during her time as a Union nurse. Wolfinger was excited by the opportunity to create a series about interesting and messy women. "I took the gamble, because I wanted to make TV that I wanted to watch," she said.
For all the carnage it created, the Civil War also led to critical innovations in the world of medicine. These changes are reflected in Radnor's character, Jedediah Foster, who trained in Europe and is an early adopter of new inventions such as painkillers and hypodermic needles that are viewed with skepticism by some of his peers. "He is a cynic about human nature but an idealist when it comes to medicine," said the actor, best known for his work as Ted Mosby in the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
In the chaos of wartime, many women saw an opportunity to step out of their traditional gender roles, particularly by volunteering as nurses, Wolfinger said. "They're flying in the face of social convention by being in an all-male environment. Those constraints all are temporarily broken, and so you've got these women busting through the door, and trying to make a difference in a very difficult world."