AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’ Tackles Racism in the Post-Civil War Era Without Flinching

Just be prepared for some gore

Melinda Crow
Jul 1, 2020 · 3 min read
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Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

I am five episodes into this AMC original historical drama about the building of the Union Pacific railroad following the Civil War. The series includes 57 episodes that first aired from 2011 to 2016, and is currently available on Netflix.

Season One is set in 1865, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The characters are gritty and abrasive. There’s a lot of hate and suspicion among the ragtag bunch tasked with laying the first forty miles of Union Pacific track through hostile territory.

The moving, slop-filled, encampment is populated by freed slaves assigned to do the hardest labor for the least pay, former Union soldiers still itching for a fight, vengeful southerners, hopeful immigrants from Ireland, a tent full of prostitutes, one “reformed” Native American, and a preacher trying to keep them all from killing one another.

Within the first few episodes, there are multiple shootings, knife fights, bow and arrow killings, scalpings, a hanging, and assorted other violent moments, so while the characters don’t flinch, you might.

How it handles racism

The series does not back away from using racial epithets that would have been common during that time. And the verbal ugliness goes beyond black characters to include a multitude of minorities.

In the five episodes I’ve watched, I’ve seen white on black cruelty, black on black fighting, as well as an intentional fistfight between foreman Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, and walking boss of the freedmen Elam Ferguson played by Hip-hop artist Common. The two men continually make tentative attempts at a relationship, but it is not until the fight that they develop a clearer level of respect for one another as evidenced by Bohannon using the respectful “Mr. Ferguson” to address him in front of the white walking bosses.

The Bohannon character is the one admitted former slave owner from the south but treats the blacks far better than all of the northerners.

A telling moment of how the freedmen feel comes early in the series when it is revealed that one black worker carries a copy of the Emancipation Declaration in his pocket, while Ferguson declares “it ain’t changed nothin.”

By episode five, the majority of the whites’ feelings about the native Cheyenne become apparent as the first attempt to offer the natives a home on a reservation fails miserably. As the Cheyenne ride into camp for the talks, their disdain at the filthy living conditions of the work camp stands in clear and silent juxtaposition to the white men continually referring to them as “filthy savages.”

How it handles sexism

Like its treatment of blacks and natives, the show’s first few episodes treat women with the darkness of the era. The prostitutes are demeaned, even by each other.

Upon meeting the wife of the railroad’s surveyor, Lily Bell, played by Dominique McElligott, Bohannon spits at her, “you’re neither squaw nor whore; you don’t belong out here.”

The only two women with speaking parts in the first three episodes are Bell and a prostitute known only as Eva, played by Robin McLeavy. Each independently shows with very few words that they are far less angry than the men of the camp, yet far stronger. These women are survivors.

During the failed peace talks with the Cheyenne, only Bell and a native woman connect on a meaningful level.

Why watch?

Hell on Wheels is not a clear good versus evil story, but rather a tale of those who can and do question their own morality versus those who either cannot or simply don’t see the point.

If you can tolerate the violence and gore, it’s a good starting point for those interested in the aftermath of the civil war and how that era still influences Americans today.

Whites often attempt to draw an imaginary historical line at the end of the Civil War. We point to it and claim that’s when slavery ended, when in fact, it did not.

And while the North may have fought to free the South’s slaves, many of them were among the worst abusers of freedmen and women following the war in the name of progress and profit.

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