Explore Alexandria’s Civil War history
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.
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-minuteMercy Street tour, offered on certain Sundays, provides additional insight.
The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection
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.