Mercy Street & The Streets and People of Civil War Alexandria

January 18, 2016 | Inside Alexandria | By: Allison

First Episode Recap – Mercy Street

Here at The Goodhart Group, we have been patiently awaiting the premiere of Mercy Street, a period drama on PBS, set in Alexandria during the end of the Civil War. So, now that the show has officially premiered, we will be following the show and detailing any real life people and places mentioned in our area. Here’s the skinny on episode 1.

The Premise

Based on real people and events that transpired in our city, it was largely inspired by actual diaries and letters of nurses and doctors at Mansion House Hospital, a Union hospital in the border town of Alexandria, Virginia. At the time, Alexandria was considered a southern city, very much a part of the Confederacy. With its close proximity to Washington, D.C., Alexandria was occupied by Union troops. The show depicts many Union soldiers, doctors and nurses that occupy the area refusing to treat the Virginia soldiers at the hospital.  Much of the premise of the show revolves around the clashes between the characters in the hospital and the people of the Alexandria and the entire country – between north and south, black and white, right and wrong.

The People

Mary Phinney – So far, the main character in the show, Mary Phinney is a widowed, Northern abolitionist who comes to Alexandria to use her nursing skills she developed while her husband, a German Baron, was terminally ill. Focused on helping the cause, she at first is reluctant to treat any Confederate soldiers.  Her arrival on the scene at the hospital is greeted with hesitancy, due to her moneyed background and of course, being a woman!


Mary Phinney

Emma Green & The Green Family

We are introduced in Episode 1 to The Green Family, that owns the Mansion House Hotel, which has been overtaken by the Union Army to be used as a hospital, where the show is set.  At the time, they were the wealthiest family in Alexandria and lived next door at the current day Carlyle House. The matron of the hospital tells Mary that the owners love the building so much “they refused to leave.” However, in real life, the Green Family moved to another home in Alexandria during the occupation, but in the show, they remain next door to the hospital. Emma Green’s storyline is most developed so far in the show to this point. She shows an interest in helping the confederate soldiers who are being treated unfairly in the hospital and it seems later will become a nurse. She is also in love with Frank Stringfellow (see below) and in Episode 1, is looking for him in hopes of his imminent return from the war.


The Hospital Staff314706.jpg

Several doctors are introduced, including Jedidiah Foster (pictured below), played by Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother.”  We anticipate him being the lead storyline, along with Mary Phinney.  He is a Union doctor more interested in preserving the Union than opposing slavery. He treats Union & Confederate soldiers with equal standards.  Dr. Summers is a major Army surgeon who is in charge of the hospital, while Dr. Hale is a “by the book” surgeon who differs greatly with the more experimental Dr. Foster.  Nurse Ann Hastings also makes an appearance in Episode 1. She is a real person who trained with Florence Nightingale. She is very skilled, but has a sharp tongue and likes to put people in their place. Another interesting storyline is Samuel Diggs, a black laborer (who has never been a slave) who works at the hospital and through working at doctors homes all of his life, including Dr. Summers, has a secret knowledge of medicine.


Tom Fairfax – Boyfriend of Alice Greenjedidiah

He is badly injured in the war and is recovering a Mansion House hospital.  When Emma Green finds him there, he is suffering from “Soldier’s Heart” or today, PTSD. He insists that Emma not tell Alice he is in the hospital.  We expect this storyline to develop.


Frank Stringfellow –  Emma Green’s boyfriend

He has not been shown yet in the show, however, has been frequently mentioned. Emma goes to Mansion House Hospital to look for him, where she finds Tom Fairfax, her sister’s boyfriend and a Confederate soldier who is badly injured. Though not referenced in episode 1, we know that Frank is a Confederate spy, so lookout for more action in this storyline!


The Places

Mansion House Hospital

Below are images of the Mansion House hospital as it truly looked in the Civil War era (bottom right), how it is represented on the set of the show (top right), and how the remaining portion looks today (left). As you can see, the set is similar to but shows distinct differences on the portion of the building that remains today on the corner.  The remaining portion is the original part of the structure.  The Green family later added the southernmost portion when they expanded their luxury hotel.  The expansion at that time blocked their home, The Carlyle House, from the street.


Carlyle HouseThe Carlyle House (The Green Family Home)

We have yet to see the exterior of the Green family home on the show, but have seen the sweeping staircase, entry hall, dining room and bedroom of Emma Green.  The interior looks very similar to many Old Town homes we have seen and shown in current day. Beautiful moldings and mantelpieces, high ceilings and large windows are seen throughout. The photo below is the house as it stands today, which now operates as a museum. Visitors can now visit a Mercy Street exhibit.


Cameron & Fairfax StreetsCameron St

The intersection of the Mansion House Hospital is shown on Episode 1. It shows muddy roads, lots of action and a more industrial feel than the current day intersection. At that time, Cameron Street (pictured below on the show) was the major thoroughfare, similar to current day King Street, one block to the south.



When Alexandria is brought up in the first few minutes of Episode 1, it is referred to as a “lovely town, just across the River.” The description, however, is juxtaposed with a street scene of the town with soldiers lying in the streets as other soldiers drunkenly stumble by and flirt with women. At one point in the episode, Mary Phinney laments that “in Washington City, everything was much more civilized.” Alexandria is shown to be very chaotic, boisterous, and a city at odds. Of course, it is much more civilized today!! We are hopeful that Alexandria might be painted in a bit of a better light in episodes to come.


Photo credits: PBS