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Historian James M. McPherson Talks Civil War History and 'Mercy Street'

Recently, noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson visited Binghamton University to deliver the ninth annual Shriber Lecture. Professor McPherson sat down with WSKG History to discuss his career, Civil War history, and his involvement as a historical consultant on PBS’s Civil War medical drama MERCY STREET. Dr. James McPherson is the George Henry Davis ‘86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988). He taught American history at Princeton University for 42 years and served as president of the American Historical Association. McPherson’s work mainly focuses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction and he is the recipient of two separate Lincoln Prizes. His latest book is titled “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” (2015).(The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.) 

Interview Highlights


On how a lifelong passion for historical writing first took root

I didn't really become interested in history until I was in college. I took a freshman introductory class on the history of Western civilization since 1500, and for the first time, I was really challenged to think by reading primary sources by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.Trying to come to grips with the meaning of these things in some kind of historical context, which I never had any understanding of before, and just the challenge of doing that and the pleasure of meeting that challenge convinced me that maybe history was what I wanted to do.

On the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and his career

When I got to Baltimore, and this was at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by the Civil Rights Movement and by a kind of historical deja vu. Because, in the 1960s there was this confrontation between the Federal Government and southern political leaders who were vowing massive resistance to national law, talking about interposition of the state sovereignty between people of the state and the national government, violence in the South, federal troops being sent into the South...

On a different scale, a massive scale, this had happened a hundred years earlier and what was going on in the 1960s had a direct relationship to what went on in the 1860s. So I decided to do my dissertation on the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists...From that focus on a particular reform group, in a particular issue, it widened out into the politics of the period and the politics of the period took place in a specifically military context... So it started off at a specific pointed end of the history of the 1860s and widened out to look at everything that was happening in that era.

On his role as a Civil War historian

As an historian, I think that our commitment ought to be to understand the impact of the war on the American experience in a larger sense. What kind of impact did the Civil War have on the subsequent course of American history - not just for the soldiers, not just for the political leaders, not just for blacks, not just for whites, but for the entire society.And I think the way to do that is to try to bring these different levels of experience together. That's what I've tried to do in much of my work.

On where he sees the echoes of the Civil War in society today

Well, we would not have a black man as president of United States had it not been for the changes accomplish by the Civil War - the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of course framing those changes. We might not even be one country had it not been for the outcome of the Civil War. One of the main clauses in the 14th Amendment defined American citizenship... Which has all kinds of implications for immigration and the meaning of citizenship in this country.So in many different levels, if we're to understand the political and social issues and problems in America today, we can trace much of that story back to the Civil War and to the causes of the Civil War, as well as its consequences.

On what motivates him to study and write about the Civil War

As an historian, my philosophy is that history is necessary for us to understand the world we live in today. I sometimes use the analogy of an individual who wakes up one morning with total amnesia. This person does not know who he is, or who she is, has no idea of his or her own past, doesn't know what to do that day. I mean no understanding of "who" or "what". And if a society has that kind of amnesia it cannot function as a successful society. To do so, it needs to have some understanding and appreciation for how it got to be that way and that means history. So I see historians as fulfilling a crucial function in American civic society.

On his role as a historical consultant on PBS's medical drama 'Mercy Street'

There were a half-dozen different historical consultants, each of them with a different expertise. My role was, as a Civil War historian, to make sure that they got the references to what was going on in the war… right. So I went carefully through the scripts...[and] pointed out things that I thought were wrong or misleading. There weren't many actually. And they would email me almost weekly with questions about what was going on in April ‘62 in Virginia… to make sure they got it right...

On exposing TV viewers to new trends in Civil War scholarship

The main focus of the program is on medicine, of course, and on the human impact; the suffering, the dying, the wounds, the diseases... A lot of people know that many soldiers were killed in the Civil War and many others were maimed and had their arms or legs amputated, but... beyond that I don't think there has been, in the general culture, an understanding of just how serious the impact of the war was.Over a million people were killed or wounded in the war, and then hundreds of thousands of others suffered from... any number of other kinds of diseases in the war. That’s an important aspect of the general impact of the war in American society, yet sometimes it gets lost in the story of battles and leaders, and the abolition of slavery... So I think it was important to expose a large element of the television watching population to that part of the experience.

On his favorite moment from the first season of 'Mercy Street'

Mary Phinney and [Dr. Foster] begin to have a great deal of affection for each other, and the scene where she discovers him having injected opium… and lying on the floor, and she says she's going to help him get over this - I thought that was very moving and powerful and it becomes an important part of the story. Not so much the story of Civil War medicine, but the story of these characters and their personalities.

 Want more Mercy Street history?  Read our collection of blog posts about the first season of MERCY STREET. 

Shane Johnson is a producer for WSKG’s History & Heritage team. Before arriving at WSKG, Shane earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and History, Master’s Degree in History, as well as his Master’s of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies Adolescence Education from Binghamton University. He has a personal interest in 19th Century American history, especially the Civil War, and as a young lad, he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.