Alexandria capitalizes on new PBS series

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Glenda C. Booth

A new PBS series about the Civil War, “Mercy Street,” is set in Alexandria, Va. You can visit many of the sites in the show in person.

“Blood is not gray or blue. It’s all one color,” says Dr. Jed Foster in “Mercy Street” — the upcoming PBS Civil War medical drama set in 1862 in the war-torn border town of Alexandria, Va.

The lives and cultures of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict intertwine as they confront war’s agonies, injuries and deaths in a former hotel converted by the occupying Union Army into the Mansion House Hospital.

Called “angels of mercy,” avid New England abolitionist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Confederate belle Emma Green (Hannah James), toil in a chaotic ward at a time when women’s roles were largely domestic. Emma, who grows from childhood to womanhood, finds purpose in life.

“Mercy Street,” a six-part series that starts Jan. 17 at 10 p.m., probes personalities, societal layers and social nuances, unveiling how the war played out in towns, homes and relationships.

The drama is based on true stories and real people in a town under martial law — a hubbub of soldiers, wounded Union and Confederate fighting men, runaway slaves, prostitutes, spies, female volunteers, doctors, speculators and more.

The series “combines real and dramatized places and events as backdrops for an absorbing array of colliding storylines,” say PBS publicists. “These are people who were trying to survive and find love, purpose and meaning in this turbulent time.

Alexandria officials are hoping the television series will produce a visitor surge to the area. The show was actually filmed in Richmond and Petersburg because filming in Alexandria would have disrupted traffic for weeks. But many of Alexandria’s buildings have been accurately recreated for the show.

Tourism officials plan over two dozen tours and events inspired by “Mercy Street.”

The real sites and exhibits

Part of the building that was Mansion House Hospital still stands at 133 N. Fairfax St. Today it houses a private business. In the drama, it was the site of hundreds of surgeries, recoveries, deaths, social upheaval, emancipation, love and medical science stretched to its limits.

An exhibit in the historic Carlyle House next door, titled “Alexandria: A Town Occupied,” explains how women nurses broke through a 19th century “glass ceiling” and opened doors to women in medical careers.

To “protect their reputations,” tourists learn at the exhibit, Civil War nurses had to have four recommendations (two from physicians and two from clergymen), be “plain looking and middle aged,” wear browns and blacks, and eschew jewelry.

On display is an actual, discolored hospital bed label, a Civil War syringe, a bone-handle toothbrush, a soldier’s field case and canteen, and a letter from chief surgeon, James Bellangee.

An exhibit about espionage highlights Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, “Lee’s beloved, trusted scout,” whose slight build enabled him to escape detection by hiding under a woman’s hoop skirt.

The show’s family scenes were inspired by the elegant, Georgian-style Carlyle House, today a historic site, completed in 1753 by British merchant John Carlyle and bought by wealthy James Green in 1848. It is the Green family home in “Mercy Street.”

In replicating the house for the filming, “The producers worked hard to give that feel of Alexandria,” said Helen Wirka, historic site specialist at Carlyle House. The parlor and dining room are recreated as they appeared in the Greens’ day. Lisa Wolfinger, the show’s creator, was struck by how closely the set matched the real house’s interior when she visited it in November.

To capitalize on “Mercy Street” and link it to the former hospital next door, Carlyle House is staging a surgical theater, a patients’ ward room, and a steward’s room upstairs with authentic patient and staff stories. (Stewards ran day-to-day operations.)

The neighborhood druggist

In the series, the Union quartermaster purchases products for the hospital a block away at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary built in 1805. Inside today, little seems to have changed since then. Its long, glass counters and shelves are laden with jars sporting gold labels.

In its day, customers described their ailments to the self-described “druggist,” who mixed herbs, sugar, roots and other mysterious substances.

Today, Callie Stapp, curator, “dispenses” information about the shelves’ assorted mixtures and elixirs: sarsaparilla, the “cure” for syphilis; liquid laudanum, a pain killer; chalk, “the Tums of the day,” and hot drops — popular with soldiers who were barred from drinking because these contained alcohol. “It was a combination CVS and Home Depot,” she quipped.

James Green’s account page on display shows that he purchased products like castor oil, putty, lead oil, turpentine and yellow ochre.

The second-floor “manufacturing room” is a jam-packed, musty storage room of wooden boxes with labels like “Dragon’s Blood,” Gum Arabic,” “Rattleweed Root” and “Skunk Cabbage Root.”

African American characters

Woven throughout “Mercy Street” are African American characters coping and navigating a complicated, stressful society in social transition.

Viewers will meet a free man raised in the north who has never known slavery; an escaped slave protected by the Union army; a recently-freed house slave who opts to stay with her owners; and an enslaved African American who lives behind Union lines in Maryland. Slaves were not freed in Maryland until December 1865.

The Alexandria Black History Museum’s exhibit, “Journey to Be Free,” recounts many African American experiences of the era: the self-emancipated runaways trying to get to the Union (“They were not just waiting to be freed,” emphasized museum director Audrey Davis.); the thousands of slaves who sought refuge in Alexandria and found disease, deprivation and housing shortages; and the Union’s U.S. Colored Troops, a racially-segregated unit that fought both the southern forces and the Union troops’ prejudices.

Situated in a key location, Alexandria was a major port, railroad hub and melting pot during the Civil War. “Mercy Street’s” storylines will bring to life many off-the-battlefield human dramas and multiple threads of real life during the city’s occupation — themes easy to experience vicariously by visiting today’s Alexandria.

To visit the sites, take Metro to the King Street-Old Town Station (Blue or Yellow Line) and then hop aboard the free King Street Trolley (every 15 minutes) or take the DASH bus to King and Fairfax Streets.

If you drive, on-street parking is limited. There are several nearby parking garages. See www.VisitAlexandriaVA.com/plan/parking.

• Carlyle House, 121 North Fairfax Street, www.nvrpa.org/park/carlyle_house_historic_park/

• Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, 105-107 South Fairfax Street, www.apothecarymuseum.org

• Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe Street, www.alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory

For more information on “Mercy Street,” see www.pbs.org/mercy-street/home.

For more information about Alexandria, see www.visitalexandriava.com.