The Real Places Behind PBS' "Mercy Street"
Though it proved impossible to film PBS’s “Mercy Street” in Old Town Alexandria where the true story of Mansion House hospital unfolded, today visitors can visit many of the real, historic locations that inspired this Civil War drama. We have compiled a list of must-see stops for TV nerds and history buffs alike; keep reading to learn about the real-life places behind “Mercy Street.”
Carlyle House and Mansion House
Originally constructed for prominent Alexandria founder and one of the city’s first landowners John Carlyle in 1753, Carlyle House is an example of Georgian Palladian style with both public and private spaces for entertaining and family use. It was not until 1848 that local furniture manufacturer—and “Mercy Street” main character—James Green (father of Emma Green) acquired the property and moved in with his family. By the time Alexandria was overtaken by the Union Army in 1861, Green had constructed and was operating Mansion House, one of the premier luxury hotels on the east coast. The construction of the hotel completely obscured the Carlyle House from view from the street.
On December 1, 1861, Mansion House Hospital opened for Union and Confederate soldiers. By the 1960s, the mansion, hotel, and estate had fallen into disrepair. In 1970 the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority took over stewardship of the house and completed a full restoration to its colonial iteration, opening the Carlyle House Historic Park in 1976.
While the remaining structure of Mansion House currently houses a private business, visitors can walk past on their way to Carlyle House. From January 25 until July 11, 2016, the Carlyle House will feature the exhibit “Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital,” recalling the real life and story of the Greens during the Civil War.
Edward Stabler opened his apothecary business in 1792 and by 1796 began renting the retail space at 107 S. Fairfax Street. He later took ownership of the building and expanded his business to 105 S. Fairfax. When Edward died in 1831, his son William Stabler took over until 1851 when, upon his death, his former partner John Leadbeater purchased the apothecary from William’s widow. The family-operated business didn’t close until 1933 due to the economic pressure of the Great Depression and the expansion of commercial pharmacies.
With patrons like Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary was of great historic importance to the city of Alexandria, and by 1939 the space was opened as a museum with the financial support of the American Pharmaceutical Association. From January to May 2016, the museum plans to exhibit archived information on the Union Quartermaster’s and the Green family’s purchases and the popular remedies of the time.
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
A safe haven for enslaved peoples from the South, Union-occupied Alexandria suffered a refugee crisis as contrabands, also known as freedmen, arrived destitute, suffering ill health, and without means to support themselves. By 1864, the Superintendent of Contrabands confiscated property one mile from the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary and Carlyle House to be used as a cemetery. Though the last recorded burial took place in 1869, excavations in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to estimates that 1,800 contrabands and freedmen were buried in this location.
Following conflicting reports on the status of the land at the end of the Civil War, the cemetery property was transferred to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond by 1917. After rezoning in 1946, it spent the next fifty years as commercial space and even a gas station.
In 2007 the office building and gas station that stood above the historic cemetery were demolished and the land rededicated. As of 2015, the National Park Service has added the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. To learn more about the legacy of Alexandria’s Contraband community, head to the Alexandria Black History Museum where the exhibit “The Journey to be Free: Self-emancipation and Alexandria’s Contraband Heritage” will be open until March 2016.