Mercy Street

White Eagle Channels Mercy Street

The PBS series, Mercy Street, completed its first season this year to great acclaim and with not surprising popularity. The series takes place in Virginia, primarily in Union-occupied Alexandria in the spring of 1862. The Union army has commandeered the luxury hotel owned by the prominent Green family of Alexandria and made it a military hospital. The episodes are based on the actions of real people and events and the challenges that those on both sides of the conflict faced within this city across the Potomac River from Washington.

In going through the six episodes, it is interesting to find the numerous links between the series, its characters and actions, and the actual historical events explored in Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War. Seven of the nine Polish-American officers in this study served in or had affiliations with Virginia. Indeed, Gaspard Tochman lived there before the war and had a farm nearby before he went to New Orleans to raise the Louisiana Polish Brigade.

Additionally, many of the events detailed in the book take place in Virginia, several of them in Alexandria itself or very nearby. The two major campaigns that rage in the background of Mercy Street season one are in Virginia: Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the Peninsula Campaign, a series of battles between Richmond and Yorktown.

Confederate Colonel, Valery Sulakowski begins his service on the frontlines commanding the 14th Louisiana Infantry (Louisiana Polish Brigade) on the lower Peninsula. He engineers much of the defensive earthworks in the Williamsburg area that Union General George B. McClellan deems almost impregnable. In another unit from his state, the 10th Louisiana, is the young Leon Jastremski who serves the entire campaign until he is captured at Malvern Hill. Ludwig Żychliński also begins his wartime service there with his New York regiment that lands near Yorktown after shipping out of Alexandria—the port and docks seen on Mercy Street—with McClellan’s huge amphibious operation based there. Żychliński is wounded near Williamsburg and describes his time in a field hospital and when he is shipped north to Baltimore in much the same terms the viewer witnesses in Mercy Street episodes. The locals show great animosity to Northern soldiers and the conditions are horrible.

Joseph Kargé and Wladimir Krzyżanowski are both commanding troops in the Shenandoah Valley at this time. It is very possible that many of their wounded men ended up in the hospital in Alexandria. At the end of 1861, Krzyżanowski and his men of the 58th New York (Polish Legion) have their winter encampment in Alexandria at Fort Ward. Kargé’s cavalry regiment also makes their quarters near there and the two get together with sixty other officers for a Christmas feast and celebration that The New York Times covered.

Jastremski and his Louisiana comrades spent most of the war in Virginia except when he was a prisoner of war. Besides the Peninsula Campaign, he was with Stonewall Jackson at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, and in 1864 was captured at Spotsylvania.

There are several hospital scenes in Sons of the White Eagle to compare with those represented in Mercy Street. Kargé tells of coming upon makeshift hospitals at homes in Warrenton, Virginia, where the wounded lay strewn about on the bare floors. There were numerous amputations of arms and legs and the deaths amounted to fifty each day. Żychliński recounts the field hospital near Yorktown with 3200 patients that had to endure extreme heat and where there were no “leeches or ice.” In another case, there was an overcrowded military hospital where he and the other wounded had to share the ward with typhoid sufferers.

In viewing the scenes of Mercy Street’s first season it helps bring to visual life many of the episodes and actions that occur in Sons of the White Eagle. In reading Sons of the White Eagle the on-screen portrayals of Civil War life vividly come alive with scenes from Mercy Street.