Exploring the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia

Visitors these days come to Virginia’s Alexandria to enjoy the historic cobblestone streets, shop among the city’s independent boutiques and savor a meal at some of the country’s best restaurants. A century and half ago, the scene in Alexandria was much different. May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded, Union troops took control of the city and seized Mansion House Hotel (a luxury hotel owned by wealthy furniture maker James Green) for use as a hospital. A Confederate city controlled by Union troops and home to a growing number of former slaves seeking freedom; Alexandria was the axis of Civil War America and the world PBS‘s drama Mercy Street seeks to explore.

Photo courtesy of PBS

Exploring the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

Mercy Street, by executive producer Ridley Scott, delves into the lives of two volunteer nurses in Civil War Alexandria; Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ardent abolitionist from New England, and Emma Green (Hannah James), the young Confederate daughter of James Green. Doctors and soldiers, nurses and spies; Mercy Street tells the dramatic Civil War stories inspired by real-life Alexandrians. Hippocratic oaths clash with military orders in a Union Army hospital; Northern beliefs and Southern traditions are tested among the realities of war while African-Americans escaping slavery try to make their way in a rapidly changing world.

Photo courtesy of PBS

Exploring the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

To celebrate Mercy Street over two dozen new tours, exhibits and events have been planned in Alexandria. The following historic sites offer visitors a chance to get an in-depth look at the stories the inspired Mercy Street, but for the latest information on exhibits and events go to http://www.visitalexandriava.com/mercystreet/ .

Mansion House Hospital

Mansion House, one of the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

The Mansion House, originally built as the Bank of Alexandria in the early 1800’s, was James Green’s luxury hotel when in 1861 it was seized by Union troops to be used as a hospital. This is where the drama of Mercy Street unfolds, nurse Mary Phinney and superintendent Union Army nurse Dorthea Dix are based on real civil war era nurses who worked within these walls. Today the Mansion House is occupied by a private business but you can explore its history at nearby Carlyle House.

Mansion House, 121 N. Fairfax Street

Carlyle House

Carlyle House, one of the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

Adjacent to the Mansion House Hotel the Carlyle House was the home of James Green along with his wife and daughter Emma; it also served as housing for doctors, surgeons, patients and important visitors to Alexandria. Today the Carlyle House stands as a museum. In addition to sharing the pivotal role the home plays during the Revolutionary era, the Carlyle House’s exhibit “Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital” will feature the real life history of the house and its occupants during the Civil War. Here you can see Civil War artifacts including period medical instruments and Frank Stringfellow’s spy supplies.

Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax Street, (703) 549-2997, www.nvrpa.org.

Alexandria Black History Museum

Alexandria Black History Museum, one of the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

Alexandria was a place of hope, tragedy, turmoil and courage for African-Americans during the Civil War. Thousands of African-Americans escaping the bonds of slavery fled to Union-occupied Alexandria. Freedom and employment awaited some but Alexandria was ill-prepared for the sheer numbers of people seeking a safe haven from slavery; many contraband, as the freedmen were officially known, arrived to poverty and rampant disease. The exhibit “The Journey to be Free: Self-emancipation and Alexandria’s Contraband Heritage” tells the fascinating story of Alexandria’s contraband as they claimed their freedom from slavery during the tumultuous years of the Civil War. A discussion with with museum director Audrey Scott, who served as a consultant to Mercy Street, really brings the African-American experience to life.

Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St.; (703) 746-4356, www.alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, one of the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, one of the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia www.casualtravelist.com

The Stabler-Leadbeater apothecary, dating back to 1792, was a core of Civil War Alexandria. Functioning as both a pharmacy and all purpose general store at the time the Green family and the Union Quartermaster frequented the apothecary to purchase everything from Laudanum (opium) to dentistry equipment and hardware. Today the rows of glass bottles tell the story of the elixirs and potions that were the most cutting edge medications of their day. The Green Family Exhibit features medical orders from Mansion House Hospital as well as invoices from the Green family.

Where to Stay

Little did I know that one of my favorite Alexandria hotels, the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Alexandria, has its own ties to the Civil War. In 1861 the Monaco’s King Street location was the site of an inn known as the Marshall House. The day after Virginia seceded, Marshall House innkeeper James Jackson flew the Confederate flag from the building’s roof, declaring it would only be removed  “over his dead body”. When the Union forces arrived in Alexandria, one of the first things they did was bring down that Confederate flag killing Jackson in the process.

Kimpton Hotel Monaco Alexandria, where to stay when exploring the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia wwww.casualtravelist.com

Today the the Monaco’s quirky, upscale design has hints to the location’s Civil War era past; with period military uniforms inspiring the carpet design and the wallpaper influenced by an 1860’s dress pattern. Through July 1, 2016, the Monaco will be offering a special “Have Mercy” package including luxury accomodations, two tickets to the Carlyle House Historic Park, two throwback Civil War era cocktails and a 5% donation to the American Red Cross.

Kimpton Hotel Monaco Alexandria480 King St., Alexandria, (703) 549-6080, www.monaco-alexandria.com.

46 Comments on “Exploring the locations that inspired Mercy Street in Alexandria, Virginia

    • Thanks Stephen! I hope you do make it to Alexandria, its such a charming city!

  1. Please come. It is a fantastic city where the past is never past, except of course for modern conveniences. I’d recommend Spring or Summer when there are festivals by the waterfront.

    • I love ALexandria, its one of my favorite towns for a weekend getaway 🙂

    • Hmm, I’m not sure but its certainly not out of the realm of possibility!

  2. I loved reading this post! History nerd here- so I’m definitely going to have to check this show out!

    • The apothecary museum was a surprise hit for me, it was a really cool little place!

  3. I visited Alexandria many, many times while my family was stationed at the Pentagon. I always thought it was so beautiful. I love Civil War era books, series and movies and am really looking forward to this series!

    • Andi, I love what I’ve seen of Mercy Street so far and I’m sure you will as well!

  4. Every place I visit in VA seems to have a rich and personal history story to share — just learned about the burning of the Shenandoah Valley and its civilian war history. I haven’t made it to Alexandria yet, but I am adding it to the list.

  5. Alexandria is a gorgeous place and a pleasure to visit, especially for a Civil War history fan like me. I didn’t realize there was an African-American Museum there, and I’m so glad to have that to look forward to on my next visit. Now as the blizzard hits my town, maybe I’ll hunker down with Mercy Street!
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    • You will quickly become hooked on Mercy Street and Alexandria, I know I did!

    • The Apothecary Museum was a surprise favorite of mine, such a fascinating history there.

  6. I love stuff like this. It’s so much fun when you are able to see in person the places from movies, books and television. I loved re-reading Demons and Angels when I was in Rome. I could solve the next clue because I actually knew the city. I’ll have to give the show a try and then take a visit.

  7. We were in Alexandria to catch a train in 2008 when my sister was living in Falls Church. We did not know about this exciting history and the PBS feature! We should have explored it more!

  8. I haven’t seen the show, but I did catch a promo for it while watching Downton Abbey. Historical television dramas always catch my attention. Good to see that so much of it is based on actual history during the Civil War and local experts have been consulted to portray the struggles and daily life details in an accurate way!
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    • They’re expecting Mercy Street to be the next Downton Abbey, definitely give it a look!

  9. My neighbours to the south 😉 It looks like there is so much history there. The pictures look like there could be lots of possible ghost stories. Have you heard any?

    • Alexandria is one of my favorite towns in Virginia for a quick weekend trip.

    • Old Town Alexandria is quite easy to fall in love with. I hope you get to watch Mercy Street, it’s a great show!

    • Alexandria is an easy day trip from Washington DC if you’re ever in the area.

  10. Interesting post, I’ve been to Alexandria once, but was certainly not aware of all this amazing history. We’re in the DC area regularly, I will have to check out Mercy St before heading down there next time. Thanks for the tips!

    • Alexandria is definitely worth a trip, especially if you will already be in DC. Just a quick metro ride over!

  11. This post gets me so excited to visit Virginia. There are so many things to see! Although I’ve never seen the show, It would be cool to stop by these locations. Plus, I’d love to learn more about the history of the Civil War in Alexandria.

    • The Kimpton Hotel Monaco Alexandria is one of my favorites and the location just can’t be beat!

    • I thinkMercy Street does a good job of portraying that era in time, both good and bad.

  12. The building you have listed as the Mansion House Hospital isn’t actually the former hospital and hotel, it looks like it’s just the house next door to Carlyle house. The Mansion House Hotel was built directly in front of Carlyle House and was torn down in the 1970s. This is why Carlyle House has such as large front lawn compared to what you normally find in Alexandria.

    • True, but it was part of the hotel that was not taken down. As mentioned it is now a private business and you can learn more about Mansion House and the Green family at Carlyle House.

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