Touring the Alexandria, Va., Civil War historic sites that inspire PBS’ ‘Mercy Street’
A grand house. Social change set against the backdrop of history. Class divisions. All the stuff of drama done as only PBS can do it.
We are speaking not of “Downton Abbey” but of “Mercy Street,” making its premiere Sunday night on PBS. The series, with Ridley Scott as executive producer, delves into the lives of Americans beyond the Civil War battlefield, at the very hospital that existed then at Carlyle House in Alexandria.
Huh? Civil War? Alexandria? For one who prides herself on history, and has lived in nearby Arlington for years, this is not how we perceive Alexandria, founded in 1749. Any school kid knows that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson strolled these tree-shaded streets, imbibing at Gadsby’s Tavern and praying at Christ Church. I was taken off-guard in the most delightful of ways.
It turns out that some of Carlyle House’s most fascinating history took place years after Scottish merchant John Carlyle built the stone mansion in 1753, when Alexandria consisted of a cluster of log cabins.
It all began when furniture manufacturer James Green bought the house in 1848, along with the neighboring building, and added on the four-story, luxury Mansion House Hotel.
The day after Virginia seceded from the Union, on May 24, 1861, Union troops marched into town, seizing the hotel to use as a hospital. And thus was the inspiration for “Mercy Street.”
The show centers on two nurses, Mary Phinney, an abolitionist from the North, and Emma Green, daughter of James Green and an entitled Southern belle (who in real-life wasn’t a nurse). They clash, of course. But there are many other back stories, inspired by actual Civil War-era Alexandrians — the intermingling of self-emancipated and freed blacks, espionage, the role of women as nurses, and doctors pushing the boundaries of medical science among them.
The whole new world of Civil War Alexandria opened up to me. As I set out to explore all the real-life sites related to this history, I was happy to learn that many have set up “Mercy Street” exhibits and events.
Alexandria’s entanglement with the Civil War started at the Monaco Alexandria hotel on nearby King Street, then an inn called Marshall House. I had my bachelorette dinner there a couple of years ago but hadn’t picked up on the allusions to the Civil War in its décor: wallpaper designs taken from a Civil War-era dress pattern, and military seals and uniform buttons reflected in the hallways’ carpet patterns.
The day after Virginia seceded, innkeeper James Jackson flew the Confederate flag from the building’s roof, declaring it would be removed only “over his dead body.” Well, when the Union forces arrived in Alexandria, one of the first things they did was tear down the flag — and kill Jackson after he shot one of their officers.
Mansion House Hospital doesn’t exist any longer; it was torn down in the 1970s. But Carlyle House still stands as a historic house museum, for the most part interpreting its colonial history. On the second floor, though, a new exhibition showcases a Civil War-era surgical theater, along with a depiction of a patients’ ward and a steward’s room.
The most fascinating items are actual Mansion House Hospital artifacts — patients’ letters, a photo album of nurses and doctors and photographs depicting the hospital. Frank Stringfellow’s original field case was there too — he was the Confederate spy who married Emma Green; what better cover for a spy to have than hanging out in Alexandria to pursue his sweetheart?
Nearby, the Stabler-Leadbeater apothecary shop, which served as a sort of combo CVS/Home Depot, dates to 1792. Now a museum, rows of glass jars line the walls just as they did when George Washington — and, later, the Green family as well as the Union quartermaster — came here to stock up on everything from liquid opium (laudanum) to dental equipment to window panes. A new exhibit touches on all this, with artifacts that include written orders from Mansion House Hospital, Green family invoices and medicine labels from the time.
One of “Mercy Street’s” main themes is the plight of African Americans, and so I stopped by the Alexandria Black History Museum for more insight — the director, Audrey Davis, consulted for the show. The current exhibit tells the story of fugitive slaves who flooded into Union-controlled Alexandria. One photo drew my attention. A group of U.S. Colored Troops stand proudly; I learned that they all had signed a petition requesting that African American troops be buried at the Soldiers’ Cemetery. An early Black Lives Matter moment, Davis told me.
On South Washington Street at Prince Street, the statue of a Confederate soldier stands above the rushing cars, his back stolidly to the north. In all the times I’ve driven past, I had no idea that Alexandria, in Southern-sympathetic Virginia, had been the war’s longest-occupied city in the Confederacy. I wondered what thoughts went through this soldier’s head as he witnessed his way of life being changed forever. Maybe his character will show up in a future “Mercy Street” episode and I’ll find out.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO ALEXANDRIA, VA.
From LAX, Alaska, American and Virgin America offer nonstop service to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. American and Southwest offer direct service (stop, no change of planes), and American, Southwest, Delta, United, Virgin America, Alaska and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $375, including taxes and fees.
Alexandria is about 7 miles south of Washington, D.C. From Reagan National, drive or take a cab about 3 miles south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
WHERE TO STAY
Kimpton’s Monaco Alexandria, 480 King St., Alexandria; (703) 549-6080, www.monaco-alexandria.com. This 241-room, recently redesigned hotel is offering a special “Have Mercy” package through July 1, including deluxe accommodations with modern Civil War-inspired décor, two tickets to Carlyle House Historic Park and a 5% donation to the American Red Cross. Doubles from $126.
Hilton Alexandria Old Town, 1767 King St., Alexandria; (703) 837-0440 or (800) 445-8667, www.lat.ms/1OOcMfb. Just steps from the King Street Metro, this upscale, recently renovated hotel offers 252 comfortable rooms. Doubles from $129.
WHERE TO EAT
Jackson 20, 480 King St.; (703) 842-2790, www.jackson20.com. This local favorite adjacent to Monaco Alexandria serves modern American tavern fare and Civil War-inspired cocktails. Entrees run about $20 to $38.
Magnolia’s on King, 703 King St.; (703) 838-9090, www.magnoliasonking.com. This hot new restaurant offers Southern immersion cuisine. Entrees about $22 to $36.
Restaurant Eve, 110 S. Pitt St.; (703) 706-0450, https://restauranteve.com. Chef-restaurateur Cathal Armstrong serves outstanding New American in a historic row house and warehouse. Entrees about $36 to $41.
TO LEARN MORE
Alexandria Visitors Center, 221 King St.; (703) 746-3301 or (800) 388-9119, www.visitalexandriava.com.
“Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital,” Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax St.; (703) 549-2997, www.nvrpa.org.
“Green Family Exhibit,” Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, 105-107 S. Fairfax St.; (703) 746-3852, www.apothecarymuseum.org.
“The Journey to Be Free: Self-Emancipation and Alexandria’s Contraband Heritage,” Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St.; (703) 746-4356, www.alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory.
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