Mercy Street, a PBS medical period drama set during the American Civil War, follows the experiences of two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Virginia. It includes a diverse cast of characters—from doctors, to nurses, to contraband laborers and southern loyalists—and brings to life the chaotic world of Union-occupied Alexandria during the Civil War. With its colorful characters and multifaceted plotlines, the show provides something for audience members of all types. But what is unique is the realistic depiction of the challenges faced by medical practitioners and patients during that time, particularly related to PTSD.
With more than 750,000 soldiers dead, and another 500,000 wounded or maimed, the Civil War was undoubtedly the greatest health crisis in American history. Whether from violent bullet and bayonet wounds, results of poor medical care like gangrene and infection, or debilitating illnesses like dysentery and malaria, the bodies and minds of those who survived the Civil War were scarred in innumerable ways. For decades after the war’s end, the survivors carried reminders of their wartime experiences with them in the form of amputations. These visible scars came to symbolize wartime service for the American public. However, equally as potent for Civil War survivors were the invisible wounds they carried home—those that scarred their minds.
Tom Fairfax, a character Mercy Street, embodies these invisible wounds. When Tom first arrives at Mansion House, he appears physically unwounded, but suffers from severe hallucinations, forcing Dr. Foster to treat him with opium. As Tom’s case shows, psychological wounds related to combat debilitated many soldiers long after the adrenaline of battle left their bodies and their physical wounds healed. In episode one, Tom tells his friend Emma Green, “the doctors don’t understand what’s wrong with me.” The moment reminds us that these mental wounds were often misunderstood by medical practitioners at the time.
Like Tom, many who survived the Civil War suffered profound mental wounds from what experienced in battle that took the form of hallucinations, flashbacks, and changes in mood, Civil War-era doctors interpreted symptoms like Tom’s as signs of cowardice. This often lead to the stigmatization of those afflicted with mental illnesses as a result of their wartime service. Other healthcare providers, without the benefit of modern psychiatry, struggled to describe what they suspected was connected to wartime suffering. Names like “combat fatigue,” “sunstroke,” “melancholy,” and in Tom’s case, “Irritable Heart Syndrome” were used to describe the set of symptoms that we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a result, many soldiers spent their lives in institutions where they were not able to be adequately treated, while others left the hospital, taking reverberations of their illness to their graves.
While the stigma of PTSD has been significantly reduced today, it is still present, making it important for people to understand its symptoms and their adverse effects. As the semester comes to a close and our busy schedules (ever so slightly) begin to clear up, I would highly suggest diving into Mercy Street for an engaging yet informative summer watch. Viewers be warned: the show is addictive—although there are only 2 seasons with 6 episodes each, you will be struggling to limit yourself to one episode per viewing.
Hannah Rayala is a first-year undergraduate student at UNC. She plans to study Nutrition at the Gillings School of Public Health and minor in Medicine Literature & Culture, Spanish for the Medical Professions, and Neuroscience. Fascinated by the effects of diet on the health of underserved populations, Hannah hopes to one day apply her interest to a career in gastroenterology.