Mercy Street/Episode 2, “The Haversack”

Last night episode 2 of Mercy Street aired. The main characters continue to be developed and you probably now have a better sense of the main themes that are now coming into clearer view as well as the trajectory of the overall narrative.

What do you think so far? What do you like about the series and what has left you scratching your head?

Missed the first episode?

21 comments add yours

  1. Didn’t get the slave catcher and the contrabands scenes. If there wasn’t slavery in Alexandria, per the federal government, why were soldiers acting as slave catchers. And the slave catcher said he was from “Carolina” which would have been enemy territory, and escapees would have been home free. Some of the people being carted off in the end, I thought were attached, either as free labor or slaves, to the hotel family. Anyway, I missed something.

  2. This episode took place, I believe, in the fall of 1861? A slave catcher from North Carolina would have gotten no cooperation from the U.S. military (a loyal master from Maryland would have been another matter), but the status of a runaway in northern Virginia would have been far more complicated than shown in last night’s episode. The first Confiscation Act applied only to runaways being used by the Confederate military, not to a black North Carolinian who knew how to work with wood. And emancipation had yet to happen across the river in Washington, so no, there was no blanket emancipation in Alexandria at that early date. Why don’t the producers of the series listen to their smart advisers?

  3. I may be missing out on some historical factoid but I’m not convinced there was no slavery in Alexandria, Virginia in spring 1862. This is before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation but after DC frees its slaves (DC emancipation still seems elusive to Hollywood). Anyway, isn’t this the time period where the Lincoln administration was still insisting slavery not be disturbed where it was? So wouldn’t Alexandria’s slaves still be slaves?

    I’ve read a lot of comments from people in the reenactment community that have pointed out a lot of mistakes in historic details. I wouldn’t necessarily know what they are without pointing them out. I’m still enjoying the series in spite of these mistakes but I wonder why better work was not done to avoid these errors.

  4. I am very pleased to have something on television about the Civil War. I too found all that slave catching business confusing. I’m going to watch it again to be certain I have it correct. I think that the Dr. Foster character is a combination of Hawkeye Pierce, John Thackery (from The Knick) and House, and that little hypodermic needle is truly his best friend. I watch the clothes and uniform, and the sets, the photography, the lighting, the whole package, and am impressed. However, the main surprise for me is that you, Kevin, basically like the program. I usually agree with your posts, but sometimes I don’t. I’m so glad you have given it such a good review in this blog. And another thing, my husband is actually watching it with me, which is a surprise because he hardly watches any “costume drama” as he calls them, with me.

  5. the slave-catchers part seemed very “off” to me. Thousands of slaves fled into Alexandria and the city was filled with Union troops. For some Confederate sympathizers to come into the city and grab several black men, not all of them escaped slaves, and calmly ride out of town? They would have had to pass through multiple checkpoints and go past at least one of more manned Union fortifications to go south (or west) and Union troops would not have been especially helpful in returning escaped slaves to Confederate territory. My Alexandria history books are snowed in at my office on campus so I can’t go digging, but the scene seemed very unlikely to me for 1862 in Alexandria.

  6. The article on the army and slave catching is good, but it has a typo. It says the Articles of War were changed in March, 1861. They were amended in March, 1862– still putting it before the scenes in Mercy Street. No matter how you look at it, the army shouldn’t have been helping slave catchers in the show.

  7. The handling of the precarious status of “contrabands” during this part of the war was dead on, not a mistake. Unless a runaway slave had been previously working for the Confederate military (or was the wife or child of one that did), the First Confiscation Act had not freed them. The law allowed for the sheltering of other runaways that did not meet the criteria of the Act, but it did not require it. Slave catchers routinely showed up in regimental camps looking for runaways, and whether they were turned over or not largely depended on the officers in the regiment. Some turned the catchers away rather rudely, and others were more than happy to let them reclaim the slaves. This often caused dissension within a regiment, as soldiers disagreed on the issue (sometimes passionately so). The inconsistency in the policy was in fact one of the big reasons why the status of runaways in Union lines continued to be an issue the government had to deal with whether they wanted to or not. In March of 1862, (which was 2 months before the time period of this episode) Congress tried to do away with the inconsistency by making it illegal to turn away runaway slaves, but this did not completely stop anti-abolitionist officers from allowing slave catchers to remove them. This was particularly a problem in Northern Virginia. Thus, the show is doing an excellent job of dealing with the complexities of the situation for blacks early in the war.

  8. My issue with the scene was less the fact that someone was interested in returning a runaway slave to his owner than that the runaway was from “Carolina.” If the slave-catcher had said he was working on behalf of someone in, say, Loudon County, it would have raised no red flags with me.

    • You may have a point re: the origin of the slave-catcher, but I think the more important contribution that this scene makes is to remind us of the dangers that fugitive slaves faced even after they managed to escape into Union lines. In other words, the narrative playing out in the spring/summer of 1862 goes beyond, “From Slavery to Freedom.”

  9. I second Kevin’s remarks about reading Glenn Brasher’s marvelously important book on the Peninsula–I recommend it all the time these days. I’ll just add that as late as October 1862, the situation remained similarly in flux elsewhere along the border. Like McClellan, Don Carlos Buell clung to soft war doctrines. When two vocal slave catchers appeared with whips among the strongly abolitionist 21st Wisconsin on the road from Louisville to Perryville, their colonel at length agreed to let them search for escapees, The soldiers, however, physically drove them off. Their division commander reacted by placing them in a hollow square of infantry and artillery, and threatened to shoot them all unless someone confessed to harassing the slave catchers. Five men stepped forward. That night, while the brass and others enjoyed a minstrel show, someone burned down the slave owners’ houses. They never did give up the escaped slaves.

    • Hi Ken,

      Thanks for including this example from beyond Virginia.

      There are no doubt any number of historical problems that one could point to in Mercy Street. As I have said all along this is the case for any Hollywood movie, television series, stage production, etc. We would do well to remember that Mercy Street is not a work of historical scholarship. Their handling of precariousness of freedom for free and enslaved blacks is all the more praiseworthy in my humble opinion.

  10. I totally agree about the import of the scene. In fact, my complaint is in part due to the import being undercut by the improbability of someone from Carolina sending a slave-catcher to Alexandria in May, 1862, to look for a runaway.

  11. Thanks to Kevin and Ken for the plugs for my book. I’ll just add this: slave catchers in Union lines early in the war were very common, and as Ken has shown with his example, the way they were treated often gives us some great stories, especially because it was inconsistent from regiment to regiment, and even within regiments. One interesting and unexpected dynamic that I have found is that officers were often the ones that were supportive of the catchers, and the men hated them. (Which seems to be the case with Ken’s example). One of the most vivid examples that I recall from my work was a soldier that recalled seeing grown men “cry like babies” as they were forced back South after being caught by slave catchers within Union lines (this case was in Northern Virginia in early 1862). The soldier then noted that the sight had turned many of the men against their officers.

  12. Y’all know this no doubt, but the issue of what to do with slaves within Union lines early in the War is also briefly, but importantly, touched upon by John Hennessy in his case study “Conservatism’s Dying Ember: Fitz John Porter and the Union War, 1862”. This is from the newly published “Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War” edited by Ethan Rafuse.

    In Porter’s case he had to deal with a Union officer’s slave being run off by an abolitionist officer in camp and then ordering the abolitionist officer to return the slave to his owner in the Union camp.

  13. Just belatedly watched the second episode. I give it points for trying to capture the ambiguous attitude of the Union authorities to runaway slaves in this early period of the war, but there seemed to be a major historical mistake in the story-line, unless I completely misheard. At one point James Green Sr. tells a Union officer that slaves in Alexandria were “free” and that it was by “your [Union] law”. It threw me right out of the story. What law? The Emancipation Proclamation had not even been proposed in early May 1862 and when it was it did not go into effect until January 1, 1863. Moreover, it applied only to states and regions still in rebellion at that time and explicitly excluded states and areas, including in Virginia, under Union control. Did I mishear, or did this impress anyone else as a historical blooper?

    On the whole I am not over-wowed by the series. It seems very earnest, but calling it “ER in hoop-skirts”, as some have, seems to sum it up.

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