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Explore Alexandria's Civil War history through the lens of TV drama Mercy Street

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 (visitalexandriava.com). In the meantime, read on for our list of seven sites featured in this drama that TV and history buffs alike shouldn't miss.

Carlyle House

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The entrance to Carlyle House © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

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

Antique medicine bottles lined up at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Antique medicine bottles lined up at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

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.

Head upstairs to see the shadowy, ancient compounding room where prescriptions were ground, mixed and concocted. A Mercy Street exhibit showcases Civil War–era prescriptions and remedies, and a 45-minute Mercy Street tour, offered on certain Sundays, provides additional insight.

The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection

The interior of The Alexandrian is modern but includes nods to the building's Civil War history in the wallpaper and carpet patterns © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
The interior of The Alexandrian is modern but includes nods to the building's Civil War history in the wallpaper and carpet patterns © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

This gracious brick hotel in the heart of town (then called the Marshall House) saw the first traces of war. On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, innkeeper James W. Jackson defiantly flew the Confederate flag from the building’s roof, proclaiming it would be removed only “over his dead body.” The moment Union troops arrived, they tore down the flag, shooting and bayoneting Jackson in the process.

Today, The Alexandrian is a beautifully restored historic hotel with a modern décor that gestures to the city's Civil War past. Wallpaper designs draw inspiration from a Civil War-era dress pattern, and military seals and uniform buttons are represented in the hallway carpet patterns.

Alexandria Black History Museum

As a Union-controlled Southern city, Alexandria drew flocks of “contraband,” or fugitive slaves, seeking safe haven, though life still was not easy – as the storyline of Aurelia Johnson, who works at the hospital laundry, reveals in Mercy Street. Though African Americans in Union-occupied Alexandria had freedom, formerly enslaved people often lived in shantytowns, where disease was rampant and death was common. The Alexandria Black History Museum offers rotating exhibits about African Americans throughout the city’s history, with special exhibits and events providing the Mercy Street perspective.

Graves of the unknown at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Graves of the unknown at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Nearby, at 1001 S. Washington Street, some 1,800 people are buried at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery. A memorial opened on the site in 2014.

Freedom House Museum

This Federal row house has a dark history at the heart of the slave trade © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
This Federal row house has a dark history at the heart of the slave trade © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Alexandria reigned as the nation’s second largest slave center after New Orleans. During that time, Franklin and Armfield, one of the most lucrative slave-trading businesses, occupied this Federal-style row house, now the Freedom House Museum. Walk down the stairs, feeling the cool brick walls, into the cellar. Iron bars and replicas of shackles hint at the chilling story of thousands of enslaved people who passed through here en route to a life of bondage on southern plantations (likely including Solomon Northup, whose memoir inspired the film Twelve Years a Slave). Screens broadcast heartbreaking personal narratives and in-depth exhibits provide context.

After Alexandria was occupied by Union troops in 1861, the building was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers.

The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum

Get the scoop on what Alexandria was really like during the Civil War – and since its Native American beginnings – at The Lyceum, a small, well-curated museum in a historic Greek Revival building. Take time to peruse the artifacts, including vintage photographs, maps and original artwork. And watch for special events, often focusing on Mercy Street, including a recent exhibit showcasing actual costumes worn on the series.

Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site

The replicated Union headquarters that house the Fort Ward Museum © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
The replicated Union headquarters that house the Fort Ward Museum © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

During the Civil War, a ring of 164 forts and batteries protected Washington, D.C., including Fort Ward on the fringe of Alexandria. Today, the Fort Ward Museum, housed in replicated Union Army headquarters, tells the story of an occupied Alexandria, as soldiers and civilians went about their daily lives.

Among the displays, don't miss the surgical instruments – including a trephine, used to drill into the skull; a tenaclum, used to tie off arteries; and a surgeon's amputation kit – that Mercy Street viewers will recognize. Also keep an eye out for special events, including reenactments portraying the history, training and soldier life of African American units in the Civil War.

“Appomattox”

This bronze statue of a Confederate soldier is a reminder of Alexandria's Southern roots © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
This bronze statue of a Confederate soldier is a reminder of Alexandria's Southern roots ©  Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

This bronze soldier rises above Washington Street, a constant reminder that Alexandria was once a Southern city – and deeply intertwined in the conflict that tore the nation apart. "Appomatox" marks the spot where troops left town, on May 24, 1861, to join the Confederate army. With his back firmly to the North, he faces the battlefields where his comrades fell during the War Between the States. Sculpted by M. Caspar Buberl, the statue was installed in 1889 by the United Confederate Veterans.

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