By Kris Gilbertson
On Sunday, January 17, 2016, Mercy Street, a Civil War-era drama set in Alexandria, will debut on PBS. It will air at 10:00 p.m., after Downton Abbey.
Beginning in the spring of 1862, Mercy Street follows the lives of two volunteer nurses from opposite worlds and political persuasions: Mary Phinney, a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a Confederate belle. The women collide at Mansion House, formerly the Green family’s luxury hotel at the southeast corner of Cameron and N. Fairfax Streets, which has been confiscated and transformed into a Union Army hospital. (The Bank of Alexandria building is the only surviving section of Green’s Mansion House Hotel.)
The series is not about battles and glory, rather the drama and challenges of everyday life behind the frontlines. It opens a window on a world where unprecedented medical demands create a chaotic atmosphere, challenging doctors, nurses and patients in unimaginable ways, even while the pressures of Union occupation threaten to tear apart a proud Confederate family.
Under martial law, Alexandria has become a melting pot filled with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded men from both sides, contraband blacks, prostitutes, speculators and spies. The forced intersection of North and South creates a chaotic, often corrupt world full of conflict and sometimes even hope.
Mercy Street is based on both historical and composite characters; it combines real and dramatized places and events as backdrops for an array of colliding storylines. To ensure historical accuracy, the producers engaged a distinguished team of advisors headed by noted historian James McPherson and including leading experts on Civil War medicine, military history, women in the Civil War era, and African-American history, including Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. Each script was vetted with the entire advisory team, many of whom were on set during the show’s filming
Although all filming took place in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, the sets will look and feel authentic to Virginians who know the history. But a series can only depict a microcosm of an era, with composite characters and artistic license. There was a great deal more to the real Alexandria of 1862. Read on.