Civil War history through the lens

Alexandria, Virginia, may be most celebrated for its colonial connections to George Washington, but this charming city near the nation’s capital also claims the title of longest Union-occupied Confederate city during the Civil War. As spies, civilians, runaway slaves and soldiers intermingled in the city’s cobbled streets, elegant Carlyle House became a hospital that served wounded soldiers from both sides. The perfect setup for conflict, right?

Indeed, this fascinating period in Alexandria’s history has been captured by the PBS drama Mercy Street (pbs.org/mercy-street), now in its second season (it airs at 8pm on Sunday nights). The story centers on two volunteer nurses – one a staunch Northern abolitionist, the other an entitled Southern belle – who duke out their philosophical beliefs. Making it even more poignant, the series is based on real-life events inspired by diaries, journals and letters of Alexandrians who experienced four years of war firsthand.

Today, many of the historical places featured in the series are open to visitors to Alexandria, with Mercy Street -related special events and exhibits mounted through the year as well as walking tours organized by Visit Alexandria.In the meantime, read on for our list of seven sites featured in this drama that TV and history buffs alike shouldn’t miss.

Probably most famous for Major-General Edward Braddock’s 1755 visit during the French and Indian War, Carlyle House is an elegant colonial manse. The wealthy Green family, portrayed on Mercy Street, lived there in the mid-1800s and opened a luxury hotel on the property in 1848. When Union troops seized the hotel complex, they turned it into Mansion House Hospital.

The second floor interprets period hospital rooms, and you can read some of the patients’ letters and journals, as well as see Frank Stringfellow’s original field case. Stringfellow was a Confederate spy who went on to marry Southern belle Emma Green … what better cover than to hang out in a hospital?

 

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Glass bottles fill the shelves of this colonial-era apothecary shop, which George Washington knew quite well. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary remained open throughout Alexandria’s occupation during the Civil War, when the Green family of Carlyle House and the Union quartermaster stopped by for everything from liquid opium (laudanum) to dental equipment to window panes.