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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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 Alexandria, 480 King St., Alexandria, (703) 549-6080, www.monaco-alexandria.com.