Fans of PBS’ Mercy Street, based on real events of Civil War Alexandria, Virginia, can explore the real history behind the show by visiting Alexandria, located just outside of Washington, D.C. The city is presenting 50 Mercy Street-inspired tours, exhibits and events.
As seen in season two of PBS’ Mercy Street, medicine advanced at a fast pace during the Civil War due to high demand for doctors, nurses and new treatments. There weren’t just wounds from the war to worry about, but also diseases spreading rampantly throughout the country. The high-stakes and fast-paced drama seen in Mercy Street was not so different in real life, with over 30 hospitals in Alexandria during the Civil War and an Apothecary that remains open as a museum today, medicine serves as a fascinating lens into the complex experiences different people had during the war. In this post, we explore real people and places that inspired PBS’ Mercy Street and the role of medicine during the Civil War.
Medical Innovations During the Civil War
Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
In the first episode of season two, we see Dr. Hale perform a groundbreaking blood transfusion, which was very new for the time and a lifesaving medical invention. In real life, the only recorded successful blood transfusion of the Civil War really happened at the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria. Some innovations during the time were more questionable, like the popularity of phrenology, which McBurney practices on Nurse Phinney in episode 2. Phrenology was focused on finding out people’s character through measurements and details about the shape and size of their skull. It was particularly popular during the war, but was a controversial practice.
Along with phrenology, we also see a man come to Mansion House Hospital claiming he can cure patients through electro therapy, which may have actually happened in Alexandria during the Civil War. There are newspapers from the Civil War that reference a famous phrenologist who operated out of DC for the period and one who appeared in Alexandria in 1863. The Apothecary even has an electro therapy machine from the late 19th-century in their collection. Visitors can explore these medical treatments and innovations through various programs at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, Lee-Fendall House Museum, Carlyle House and other Alexandria sites—keep reading for all the details below.
Disease During the Civil War
Image Credit: L. Barnes for Visit Alexandria
Disease, including smallpox, is a major challenge in season 2, both in the hospital and outside. Nurse Mary Phinney, based on the real Mary Phinney who worked at Mansion House Hospital, has fallen ill with what she believes is “the grippe,” or the flu. We slowly learn she’s showing symptoms of typhoid, a serious disease that did kill many hospital staff during the war, though it isn’t believed Mary Phinney ever had such an illness. Remedies and medicines used to treat various illnesses and ailments in Mercy Street, including ether and bicarbonate potassium could have been purchased at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary during the war in Alexandria. The Apothecary remains open today as a museum that feels more like a time-capsule, and the museum presents Mercy Street-inspired experiences in 2017 including the new “This Terrible Disease” exhibit and “Apothecary of Mercy” special tours. The Carlyle House exhibit “Who These Wounded Are: Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital” also explores medical themes from Mercy Street.
Watch it! The cast of Mercy Street tells us what they love about the Apothecary:
Advocating for Equal Access to Medical Treatment
Real people like Harriet Jacobs, the woman who inspired the character of Charlotte Jenkins, advocated for equal access to medical treatment, and some, like Sam, even learned medicine themselves, though Sam is a fictional character. African-Americans who had escaped into Union territory felt they were making it to freedom yet found themselves without the basic life necessities of food and housing and were vulnerable to disease. On the “Apothecary of Mercy” specialty tour in Alexandria, visitors can look through a prescription book from the Civil War that include several for contrabands.
Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
The site of L’Ouverture Hospital in South Old Town, which served African-American troops and contraband families, has a historical marker that tells more about what life was like for African-Americans during the war. There is also an interpretive panel on the corner of Duke and S. Payne streets, near the Freedom House Museum, that tells stories of the hospital from the fight to build it to the soldiers who were treated inside its walls.
Image Credit: C. Davidson for PBS and Visit Alexandria
Visitors can also check out the site of a former Contraband Hospital at 321-323 S. Washington St. in Old Town, which also served as a residence for former enslaved people who made their way to freedom in Union-occupied Alexandria. Harriet Jacobs lived in the south house from 1863-1865, and is in the “Then and Now” photo above posing with a diverse group of different ages and races. Learn more about how to visit these sites and more with the visitor experiences below.
As an operating drug store during the occupation of Alexandria in the Civil War, the Leadbeater family sold medicinal remedies for the various diseases like smallpox and malaria that afflicted the local military and civilian populations. Today, visitors can take a guided tour and experience the historic space where occupied Alexandria came to shop. The exhibit features prescriptions and accounts of remedies sold to the Union Commissary Department, the contraband population, and civilian residents during the war.
Apothecary of Mercy Specialty Tour
2nd Sunday in January, February, March and April 2017 at 12:15 p.m.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, 107 S. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Explore the themes of PBS’ MERCY STREET through the lens of this family-owned apothecary that stayed in business through Alexandria’s occupation during the Civil War. This 45-minute tour showcases special archival materials and period ingredients. Capacity is limited to 15 and advance registration is encouraged.
Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital
Continuing through 2017
Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Come see the site that inspired MERCY STREET, the PBS series inspired by real events that took place at Carlyle House. The six-episode program revolves around the doctors, nurses, and patients of Mansion House Hospital, a former luxury hotel owned by James Green, a prominent Alexandria businessman who resided in Carlyle House. The exhibit features an interpretation of period hospital rooms and doctor/officer housing, plus stories of nurse Mary Phinney and spy Frank Stringfellow.
Alexandria’s Nurses & Hospitals During the Civil War
Continuing through March 31, 2017
The Lyceum, 201 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This small panel exhibit features stories of some of the real nurses who worked in local hospitals, including two of the main characters on MERCY STREET. Also part of the exhibit is a map showing where those medical facilities were located, and comments from a soldier who was treated in some of them, including the notorious “Camp Misery.”
Learn more about the surgical procedures and medical equipment used in the PBS series MERCY STREET at Fort Ward Museum’s exhibit, “Medical Care for the Civil War Soldier.” A variety of medical tools, instruments and images from the museum’s medical collection are displayed, including some that relate to surgical procedures featured in the television series. The exhibit is accompanied by a brochure on Civil War medical care.
Image Credit: C. Mouledoux for Visit Alexandria
Between braving the battlefield as a first responder during the Civil War and starting the American Red Cross, Clara Barton spearheaded the search for over 60,000 missing Union soldiers. Discover the untold story through a 10 panel display on loan from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
This Tide of Wounded: The Lee-Fendall House as a Civil War Hospital Tour
January 21, February 4, February 18, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Lee-Fendall House, 614 Oronoco St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This special tour of the museum and grounds highlights the Lee-Fendall House’s role as a hospital during the Civil War. Highlights include themes addressed in the PBS series MERCY STREET, including nursing, soldiers, civilians, medical practices, and free people of color.
Learn about the many buildings in Alexandria that were used as hospitals during the Civil War, when the Union Army occupied Alexandria. Pick up a copy at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum or download from www.historicalexandria.org.
Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Fans of PBS’ MERCY STREET can step back in time and try on a recreation of a Civil War-era dress or surgeon’s coat as a playful nod to the national drama series based on real events of Civil War Alexandria. It’s as easy as 1-2-3… try on a costume and grab a prop; strike a pose and take a picture; and share your photo on social media using #MercyStreetPBS! This dress-up station presented by Visit Alexandria is located at the Alexandria Visitor Center and at select Mercy Street-inspired events in 2017.
Learn the story of the fine hotel industry in Alexandria and how it quickly changed after the Civil War began. The City Hotel (today part of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at 134 North Royal St.) was the only major hotel in Alexandria to remain open during the entirety of the war. The two other fine hotels in town, Mansion House (transformed into a massive Civil War hospital) and Marshall House (site of the first Northern and Southern deaths due to violence in the Civil War), had closed. Guests will discover how tavern keeper Samuel Heflebower was able to remain in business as he catered to the new customers arriving in Alexandria. This exhibit is included in the regular guided tour, admission charged.
L’Ouverture Hospital Historical Marker
Historical Marker on 217 S. Payne St., Alexandria, VA 22314
L’Ouverture Hospital opened in February 1864 for African-American troops and contraband civilians and was named for Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. The site was located in what is known today as South Old Town, but during the Civil War it was part of the “Hayti” neighborhood, “an island of relative security for free blacks” with “established businesses, churches, and civic organizations that sustained the city’s black population from the early days of the republic through the Civil War and into the 20th century.”
L’Ouverture Hospital Interpretive Panel
Intersection of Duke and Payne Streets, Alexandria, VA 22314
An interpretive panel near the site of the Freedom House Museum includes discussion of how L’Ouverture Hospital was built, who was served there and other stories from the hospital.
Former Site of Contraband Hospital
321-323 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This historic building in Alexandria, Virginia was used as a residence and Contraband Hospital during the Civil War. The building housed former enslaved people who made their way to freedom in Union-occupied Alexandria. Mercy Street character Charlotte Jenkins is based on Harriet Jacobs, a relief worker and well-known author who lived in the south house from 1863-1865 with aid worker Julia Wilbur. After the Contraband Hospital closed, the building had several uses, including a school for African Americans. The photo in the foreground, believed to have been taken by Matthew Brady circa 1865, features a diverse group of different ages and races. Posing in the photo are Jacobs and Wilbur as well. It was believed to have been taken on a parade day in April in Alexandria. It is now a multi-family residence with retail space on the ground floor, presently occupied by an antiques shop and pet store. The retail conversion and show windows came in the 1960s.
For more on Mercy Street-inspired events in Alexandria, click here.
Special thank you to Callie Stapp and Lauren Gleason from the Apothecary for all of their help with this post!
Header image credit M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria.