The new PBS series, “Mercy Street,” tells the story of a Civil War hospital located in Alexandria, Virginia, after the Union occupation of that city in 1861. Alexandria lies just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and in its Old Town, a visitor can still find many Civil War era – and earlier – buildings.
The Mansion House Hospital depicted in “Mercy Street” was a real place in the center of Alexandria. The Green family – who play an important part in the series – owned the large Mansion House, a luxury hotel which was one of the finest on the East Coast. The Union military used it as a 500 bed hospital during the occupation.
The Green family lived in the Carlyle House, a beautiful Georgian Palladian mansion, built in 1753 by John Carlyle, one of Alexandria’s founders. The Mansion House Hotel, which became the hospital, was built in front of Carlyle House. Because part of the building was demolished in 1971, the PBS series was filmed in Petersburg, Virginia, where a similar building is used. Part of the original Manor House Hotel remains: the northeast corner, originally built in 1803 for the Bank of Alexandria.
Carlyle House, however, remains and is a museum open to the public. It was in this building that five royal governors and General Braddock met to discuss funding of the French and Indian War.
Another pre-Civil War building is Alexandria’s Lyceum, built in 1839 as a place for citizens to attend lectures on various subjects – any topic with the exception of politics, slavery and religion – is now a museum dedicated to the history of the city. During the occupation of Alexandria, the Lyceum, with 60 beds, served as an adjunct Union hospital to the main hospital for that part of town, located in the Baptist church across the street.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum was a family run pharmacy from 1792 until 1933, when it was abandoned with everything intact, thus becoming an instant museum. During the Civil War, the pharmacy supplied both the occupying army and the civilian population. Morphine and ether were available, so amputees did not have to bite bullets, although in the beginning, accidental deaths occurred due to over-doses. The second floor of the museum offers a glimpse into wooden cabinets with drawers filled with pills and potions.
Outside Alexandria’s Old Town lies Fort Ward Museum. It is the best preserved of all 68 Civil War forts and the only one with a museum of ongoing exhibits. In the spring of 1861, forts were built for the security of the capital, making Washington the most heavily fortified city in the western hemisphere. Fort Ward is an earthwork bastion, patterned on the French model. The Ceremonial Entrance Gate and Officers’ Hut have been reconstructed, but part of the original earthworks remain and the setting is parklike and very beautiful. The Museum houses a research library and a collection of Civil War artifacts.
Other interesting sites include the Alexandria Black History Museum, which documents the local and national history, culture and contributions of Black America; the Franklin & Armfield Slave Office and Pen; the bronze sculpture of the Edmonson sisters on the site of Bruin’s Jail where slaves for sale were kept; the windswept field marking the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery where 1800 men, women and children fleeing bondage were buried; Gadsby’s Tavern, known as the City Hotel during the Civil War; James Green’s Cabinet Manufactory, used as a military prison during the War; and General Lee’s boyhood home and the 18th century Christ Church where both George Washington and Robert E. Lee attended services.
Not to be overlooked are the beautiful 18th century houses known as Captain’s Row on one of the few remaining cobblestone streets. Old Town Alexandria also offers visitors a wealth of good restaurants, interesting shops and many lovely privately owned houses dating back to the 19th century. For more information, contact www.VisitAlexandriaVA.com.