Inspiration for Mercy Street: A Conversation with Sarah Coster

0
33

Alexandrian Sarah Coster was the Director of Carlyle House museum during the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2011. Her research into events at Carlyle House and the Mansion House Hospital during the Civil War provided a base upon which the Mercy Street series was built. Kris Gilbertson interviewed Sarah in December 2015.

I’m told that you are the person who pitched what became Mercy Street to PBS?

I wouldn’t use the word pitched, but it did come from part of my research so let me give you a brief background on how it came about. Several years ago we were getting ready for the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Carlyle House mainly interprets the 18th century, the early founders of Alexandria, John Carlyle, and the Revolutionary War.

Left to right, Helen Wirka, curator of Carlyle House, Lisa Wolfinger, producer of Mercy Street and Sarah Coster, former Director of Carlyle House whose research got the ball rolling on the Mercy Street project. (Courtesy photo)
Left to right, Helen Wirka, curator of Carlyle House, Lisa Wolfinger, producer of Mercy Street and Sarah Coster, former Director of Carlyle House whose research got the ball rolling on the Mercy Street project. (Courtesy photo)

To get ready for the sesquicentennial, we decided to look into our Civil War history a little deeper than we ever had, and we found some really fascinating things, some amazing characters, like nurses who had published journals; a beautiful photo album of all the doctors that was given by one of the patients to one of the surgeons. We found letters from soldiers that had been recuperating at the hospital. It became really interesting to learn about the hospital at the Carlyle House during the Civil War.

We decided to create an exhibit and wrote some papers that appeared on our website. A woman who had done work for PBS, Lisa Wolfinger of Lone Wolf Productions, saw our articles online. She contacted me, and came to visit, and talked about her interest in these stories.

She was looking at a smaller scale project than Mercy Street ended up being. She started writing scripts based on our research, and PBS really liked her scripts. They decided to make it even bigger than Lisa had imagined, more along the scale of Downton Abbey, which is what it is now.

Tell me about the research: Where did you find these materials?

In a variety of places. Alexandria has a wonderful resource in the Special Collections Library, part of the Alexandria Library System. It contains a whole archive on the Green Family. When people watch Mercy Street, they’ll see several characters that are part of the Green Family. They owned the hotel, the Mansion House Hotel, that became the Mansion House Hospital during the Civil War. Several family members are characters in the show.

They have lots of other records in storage at the library, so one can go and look at them, including a diary written by James Green’s son. He writes in detail about soldiers arriving when Alexandria becomes occupied. He writes about the transformation to a hospital and all of the feelings tied up in that. It was a great resource.

Carlyle House itself, when they were renovating in the 1970s they found a lot of documents, like hidden in the floorboards. Letters that people dropped, literally dropped, fell on the floor and were never delivered to girlfriends or family. And playing cards that the men would play with while recovering from their injuries. Also, private collectors came to us when hearing we were interested in the subject. Several collectors wrote us with photos, letters, all relating to that time.

Alexandria-based Union Nurse Mary Phinney’s diary and correspondence were edited and published in 1903, and are still available in print. (Amazon.com)
Alexandria-based Union Nurse Mary Phinney’s diary and correspondence were edited and published in 1903, and are still available in print. (Amazon.com)

Also, very wonderfully, two of the nurses, Anne Reading [character Anne Hastings] and Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, wrote diaries that were eventually published. These are easily accessible through the library or online resources.

The materials like the letters and the things that are clearly very fragile and need protection–were they part of the sesquicentennial?

Yes, we were able to display most of the letters during the sesquicentennial. Unfortunately, as you say, because the letters are fragile, they can’t be displayed for very long. They begin to fade. Most of them are off display right now, but there are still photos and things in the display at Carlyle House, and they are expanding the exhibit and interpretation of the history to some rooms beyond it. [This will include] a couple of hospital rooms and will display some of the letters and other things they found.

For historical accuracy, were there patients actually in Carlyle House?

That’s something that’s very [unclear] right now. You have to read between the lines. The hospital comprised the current Bank of Alexandria building. It’s still there today on the corner of Cameron and N. Fairfax but it extended into what is now the front yard of Carlyle House all the way across to the building on the other side. That was the main block of the hospital.

Carlyle House is the mansion behind it. The main hospital was the building in front, but from what I can tell from the letters that some officers wrote, Carlyle was where the officers lived, and the surgeons—the higher ups—not necessarily patients.

And the Greens were living there at the same time?

That’s the way they portray it in the series. They were living there when Alexandria was first occupied but then, in November 1861, James Green received an eviction notice. They gave him four days to get everything out of the hotel and Carlyle House. He moved the family to one of their other homes on Wolfe Street, so they were close by, but not actually in Carlyle House, living right next to the soldiers.

When did you realize the value of this story?

This Civil War nurse is believed to be Mary Phinney von Olnhausen tending to wounded at Mansion House hospital. (Library of Congress)
This Civil War nurse is believed to be Mary Phinney von Olnhausen tending to wounded at Mansion House hospital. (Library of Congress)

“I felt an emotional connection when I started reading stories of the nurses because it was such a breakthrough time for women. I’ve always been interested in women’s history. It’s so easy today to think that nurses are always females, have always been female—it’s the female sphere, so it’s natural that these women would be nurses. And that’s not the case at all.

It was extremely unusual during the Civil War for women to be nurses and especially nurses with the Army. It was frowned upon. The women that came to Mansion House Hospital faced an enormous amount of prejudice, to the point where Mary Phinney wasn’t even given a room right away. They just weren’t very welcome there but both she and Anne Reading made a huge impression on the male surgeons that they worked with, and they literally changed their minds. Some of the surgeons were so impressed with this new way of dressing wounds, one said that he “can’t be without her.”

What kinds of things were you consulted on?

Lisa met with us a few times to go over all of the sites and various details and my research. When they started into the production process, several of the people who design the sets, the backdrops, the stages, and the costumes, they would come to look at Carlyle House, go on tours, take pictures to get a sense for what it would have looked like then. They did all the filming in Richmond but they did a great job of making it really look like Alexandria and look like Mansion House Hospital.

Did they ask you about things like changing names and composite characters?

Lisa was very upfront with me from the beginning that they had to have room for artistic license, so we just let them handle that. We all had a lot of nerves at Carlyle House: Are they going to handle these characters with the respect that they deserve as real people? I think that they really did. Any license they took in changing them was in the right direction to make them more relatable for us but still encompassed the important parts of their character and of the history, so I was pleased with that.

Was working with PBS a positive experience?

They’ve been great; in fact, people at PBS have been involved with our membership group. They’ve always been helpful to us. We definitely enjoyed working with them. We’re pleased that they chose Alexandria to focus on. It’s a unique place where the North and the South were lumped together. That makes it a right story to tell the world about what was really happening.

And I was really pleased they were able to get the African-American story involved. It’s hard to find those stories and we didn’t have as much in our exhibit as I would have liked. Because [the role of the enslaved people] was such a big part of the story. They were definitely a huge part of what was going on in Alexandria.

Your list of events includes “Explore the Real Mansion House” and says we’ll explore the vaults (at Carlyle House). What vaults?

James Green in the 1850s did the most architectural transformation that Mansion House had undergone since it was built [mid-18th century]. One of the things he did was to add underground vaults to store wine for the hotel. It’s a special part of the tour. They are not normally on view for the public, for safety reasons.

When it was a hospital, the vaults were used to store food and wine and other things that needed to be kept cold. There’s a well that helps to keep it cold; you can look down into it. When archeologists excavated that well, they found a lot of great stuff in it, everyday trash including [fragments of] the china that was used in the hotel.

What remains from that period in the Bank of Alexandria building?

Bank of Alexandria building is owned by NOVA Parks (www.nvrpa.org). In the mid-1970s, Carlyle House, Bank of Alexandria, and Mansion House Hotel were all still there. And all falling into disrepair, needing an intervention. NOVA Regional Parks Authority stepped in to help but it was such a big project that they did not have the funds to restore all three.

Three decisions were made:

  • Carlyle House was restored to its 18th century appearance,
  • The expansion of the Mansion House Hotel/Hospital that went into the middle of the Carlyle House yard was torn down, and
  • The bank building was restored under a voluntary loan agreement to a third party [Alexandria Living Legend Rodger Digilio]. It is still under that lease agreement.

The Bank of Alexandria building (where the Explore the Real Mansion House tour will begin) is the lobby that Mary Phinney would have walked into that first day. We’ll have a little lecture there and then we’ll take people over to the Carlyle House and show them parts that you wouldn’t normally see on the public tour, with a focus on the Civil War.

How many entities own historical Alexandria properties?

Our historical properties are owned and operated by an array of authorities, more than people realize. Thankfully, they all work together well; it’s a very cohesive group in Alexandria which is not the case in other areas of our city, so we’re very lucky.

Carlyle is owned by NOVA Parks (formerly the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority). Lee-Fendall House belongs to the Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation and, of course, Historic Alexandria runs quite a few.

For the Civil War sesquicentennial we worked together closely. We put on a big kickoff event with exhibits throughout the city in 2011. All the museums played a part in that and now that Mercy Street started, we’ve all been working together, especially with ACVA (VisitAlexandria.com) so that the public will know all the places you can visit in historic Alexandria. All of the sites bring something unique to the story.