'Mercy Street' Offers A Dose Of Historical Reality

If you're a history buff who is fascinated by the Civil War, then PBS has a new miniseries for you — Mercy Street. The six-part TV series takes place in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War and, as you may have expected, Mercy Street is based on a true story. The series premieres on Sunday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. and was inspired by producer and filmmaker Lisa Wolfinger's research on stories about the Civil War, according to Saving Places.

Five years ago, in honor of the Civil War's 150th anniversary, Wolfinger discovered the history of the Mansion House Hospital and decided to tell the story through a TV series. The Mansion House was formerly a hotel owned by the Green family, which was turned into a hospital when Union soldiers occupied Alexandria. Mercy Street takes place in 1862 and follows the Green family, doctors, volunteer nurses, former slaves, and soldiers, all within the backdrop of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria.

As a southern state, Virginia decided to secede from the Union on May 23, 1861. But with Alexandria's close location to the nation's capital, the city was taken over the next day by the U.S. army from Washington D.C. and the city continued to be Union-occupied for the entirety of the Civil War. Soldiers from Alexandria who were fighting in the Confederate army were not allowed to return home on furloughs because of the federal occupation. This historically accurate and hostile environment is where Mercy Street takes place.

According to the website of Alexandria, by the end of the Civil War there were more than 30 military hospitals in the city caring for Union soldiers and the Mansion House Hospital was one of those hospitals. The town of Alexandria is embracing the series by creating new tourist experiences for visitors to see the historical sites of Mercy Street. Throughout the duration of the Civil War, the U.S. army used the Mansion House and the adjacent Carlyle House as a hospital and staff quarters. Both were owned by the wealthy James Green, portrayed by Gary Cole in the series, and you can visit the Carlyle House. The exhibit at the historical building will provide the real story of the people who lived and worked at the Mansion House Hospital at that time.

Not to be outdone, Alexandria's neighbor Washington D.C. is also jumping on the bandwagon by promoting the Mercy Street -inspired tourist attractions. Other sites that Alexandria is advertising in conjunction with the miniseries are the Green Family Exhibit at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, the site of the Mansion House Hospital (where a portion of the original building still exists but is leased to private businesses), and the Alexandria Black History Museum. The Black History Museum has the exhibit "The Journey to Be Free: Self-emancipation and Alexandria's Contraband Heritage," which highlights the fact that African Americans escaping slavery came to Alexandria because of its Union army protection. In the miniseries, the stories of three African American characters — Samuel Diggs, Aurelia Johnson, and Belinda Gibson — are followed.

If you can't make it down to Alexandria, then catching Mercy Street on PBS and reading up on the true history of the series is the next best thing to understanding this war-torn part of America's history. As with any series, Mercy Street will take some liberties with its storytelling, but the show will act as a reminder of how gruesome the Civil War was (thanks to the hospital scenes), as well as how important this part of history was to keeping the U.S. intact and ending slavery.

Images: Antony Platt/PBS (3)