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Mercy Street Blog

History graduate students, faculty explore ‘Mercy Street’

By Eric Coker

History Department graduate students and faculty in Harpur College are helping viewers of the new PBS series “Mercy Street” get a better understanding of the show by writing blog posts about topics relating to the Civil War medical drama.

The blogs, which can be read on, have dealt with issues ranging from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to suicides and amputations.

“Our purpose in writing these blogs is to get experience taking what we as specialists in this discipline know well – and writing in a way that it is accessible to non-historians,” Diane Miller Sommerville, associate professor of history, said. 

“Mercy Street” takes place in Union-occupied Alexandria, Va., in 1862, and focuses on the doctors, nurses, laborers and soldiers at the Mansion House Hospital. The show stars Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) as Dr. Jed Foster and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney, a young New England widow who becomes head nurse at Mansion House.

The series completed its six-episode, first season on Feb. 21, but is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be viewed on and streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

The idea for the blog posts came from Shane Johnson ’07, MA ’09, MAT ‘11, a WSKG producer who received his master’s degree in history from Binghamton University.

“Shane is always looking for ways to link the History Department to the education mission of public broadcasting,” Sommerville said.

Sommerville, who taught a course in 2015 called Civil War Medicine, watched the premiere of “Mercy Street” with others from the History Department. The group members then came up with relevant issues to further explore.

“When I watched the first episode, I saw that there was a (character) with PTSD,” said Jonathan Jones, a doctoral student. “I jumped on the topic.”

Second-year graduate student Melissa Franson examined how the Civil War challenged the 19th-century concept of a “good death,” while Sommerville wrote about her current research project: Suicide and the Civil War.

Kevin Murphy, MA '11, PhD '15, an adjunct professor in the History Department and a Binghamton PhD, wrote a blog post about the role women such as Mary Phinney played in the abolition movement. 

“When you get down to the everyday interactions of the Civil War, you have the opportunity in which people who may have never encountered slavery are suddenly thrust into that situation,” Murphy said. “Viewers see in later episodes that Dr. Foster’s attitude toward race and slavery start to change based on the interactions with a free black man who works on Mercy Street.”

Johnson (“The Civil War and Challenging ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’”); and doctoral students Erika Grimminger (“The Empty Sleeve: Amputees and the Civil War”) and Gary Emerson (“Medical Care at Elmira Prison Camp”) wrote other blog posts.

The faculty members and students all praised the depiction of the era on “Mercy Street.”

“The show has taken great pains to hire people like Anya Jabour, Jane Schultz and James McPherson (as consultants),” Sommerville said. “They have made an effort to make sure things are depicted accurately. They largely succeeded.”

“Even the depiction of the amputations was realistic based on what we have learned in class,” Franson said.

Sommerville pointed to Confederate soldiers being treated in Union hospitals, such as Mansion House, as another important and realistic depiction.

“There was often a scarcity of anesthesia, antibiotics and all kinds of medicines,” she said. “How do they take these scarce resources and use them to the benefit of the enemy? Some didn’t want to treat the rebels; other thought it was a moral obligation. That was an accurate storyline.”

A divisiveness over the Civil War and its memory remains between the North and the South, Sommerville said, as evidenced by recent controversies over the Confederate flag. The faculty members and students all stressed that something that happened more than 150 years can be relevant today.

“History matters,” Franson said. “I’m teaching a class about immigration and race relations in urban settings. Those are still conversations that are happening now. Immigration is still a problem. Race relations are still a problem. PTSD and returning veterans are still problems that have a past. Talking about things from the past is not removed from what society is now.”

“I was a high school teacher before coming to Binghamton University, so I’m always looking for ways to get people to see connections between what is happening now and what happened in the past,” Jones said. “Being able to participate in a blog for a popular audience is an important way for an institution to be connected to the community and public.”

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Last Updated: 11/30/17