“Mercy Street,” Dr. Stonestreet, and Civil War Medicine

 

As many Montgomery History members surely know, PBS aired the six-part Civil War series “Mercy Street” during January and February 2016. The setting was in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1862 during the height of the Civil War. The main medical character in the Mercy Street Hospital is a young contract surgeon named Dr. Jedediah Foster. A contract surgeon was a local civilian doctor hired by the Army to assist the commissioned surgeons who were not able to singlehandedly manage the enormous needs of thousands of wounded soldiers.

In real life, Montgomery County’s very own Dr. Edward Stonestreet served as a Civil War contract surgeon with the US Army during the end of 1862 and into mid-1863. He was assigned to an Army Hospital in Rockville. The US Army converted the Montgomery County Courthouse, the predecessor of the still-standing Red Brick Courthouse, and its grounds into a temporary hospital from September 1862 till January 1863. It is likely that Dr. Stonestreet was the surgeon in charge during that time.

The Courthouse hospital received wounded from the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. The wounded were transported to Rockville via the Union Army Ambulance Corps. It appears that these wounded were en route from the Army field hospitals in Frederick City to the new Army general hospitals in and around Washington, DC. The Courthouse hospital in Rockville probably was a layover offering follow-up medical care for those soldiers who needed it. They would have been considered the “living wounded” who had very good chances of survival, since they had been treated near the battlefield and in temporary hospitals in Frederick before being sent to DC for long term care in the new hospitals.

Interestingly, both Dr. Stonestreet (Class of 1852) and “Mercy Street’s” Dr. Foster were educated at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was a very good and progressive medical school that modeled itself after the better medical schools in Europe at that time.

Dr. Stonestreet’s medical education and his Civil War service are described in his biography Send for the Doctor, written by Clarence Hickey and published by the Montgomery County Historical Society in 2009.

Clarence, who portrays Dr. Stonestreet for the public at our Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine in Rockville and at other venues around the region, closely watched the “Mercy Street” series and has written his observations about the historical accuracy of the show’s depiction of Civil War-era medical care.

According to Clarence, “Mercy Street” has offered reasonably accurate portrayals of the subject, and the people involved. It also is helping to bust some very old and tenacious myths. The Civil War saw the nearly universal use of general anesthesia (ether and chloroform) during surgery, so soldiers were not awake and biting on bullets. The fact is, Civil War medical care of the mass casualties created by the war was the beginning of emergency medicine in America.

See Clarence’s episode-by-episode accounts about the historical accuracy of “Mercy Street” here:

Season 1 (2016)

Season 2 (2017)

To obtain a copy of Clarence’s biography: Send for the Doctor: The Life and Times of Dr. E. Stonestreet, come visit the Museum Shop, or contact Laura Riese at (301) 340-2825 or email lriese@montgomeryhistory.org.