How Historically Accurate Is 'Mercy Street'? The PBS Series Uses Real Civil War Figures, Locations, & More

Most of the attention on PBS for the next few weeks will be focused on the final season of Downton Abbey, but alongside the farewell is the premiere of Mercy Street, a brand new historical drama. And unlike Downton, Mercy Street is based closely on real events, and PBS seems determined to do the Civil War period it portrays historical justice. The show is based on events that happened in Virginia during the war. The area was a border between Northern and Southern sympathies, which is a good way for Mercy Street to portray both sides of the war without fudging too many of the details.

And the location is incredibly important to the show. Unlike the setting of most TV series, you can visit the actual location where the show is set and take a Mercy Street tour and look at exhibits in and around the real Mansion House hospital. As described by Alexandria's tourism site, "Alexandria was a border town between North and South and the longest Union-occupied city of the Civil War. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the melting pot of the region; a place where personal stories of the Union and Confederacy converge in a city setting." The Mansion House Hospital was once a luxury hotel, but when the war broke out, the wealthy Green family turned their mansion into a general hospital.

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The characters are also based on real people from the period. The story follows two female nurses, one on each side of the war: a Northern abolitionist, Mary Phinney, portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a young member of the Green family played by Hannah James. In tandem with the border setting, the casting choices allow the show to quickly demonstrate that one side may have won the war, but both had innocent people on their side.

Also in the mix are two free black workers, Samuel and Aurelia, showcasing the difficulties of life in the wartime South. Rounding out the main cast is Josh Radnor's fictionalized Doctor Jedediah Foster, a medical innovator who has gone far beyond his plantation upbringing to see the world, but finds himself working within the restraints of Mansion House.

The creator of the show, Lisa Wolfinger, talked to Saving Places in depth about how and why she chose to base Mercy Street on real history. "I think I have that historian’s discipline, wanting to do the research as thoroughly as possible," she says, "So that was my goal with this drama, to find the authenticity, to create a world that felt real." Wolfinger's commitment to verisimilitude makes Mercy Street look a cut above the average Civil War story — it's like a costume drama crossed with a Ken Burns documentary.

Image: Antony Platt/PBS