Alexandria History: Creating the PBS Civil War Series ‘Mercy Street’

Alexandria History: Creating the PBS Civil War Series ‘Mercy Street’

An interview with Filmmaker and Executive Producer Lisa Wolfinger.

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history with a death toll of 750,000, according to recent studies — more than twice the number of American troops killed in World War II and two percent of the population in the 1860s. If a similar number of Americans died in a war today, the toll would reach about 7.5 million. And two-thirds of Civil War deaths were from illness.

Hundreds of thousands more troops were wounded or seriously ill. To alleviate the suffering of Union and Confederate soldiers alike, women stepped into the fray and at least 20,000 volunteered to serve in capacities related to medicine from nurses to laundresses to hospital staff, including about 6.000 Union Army nurses, many under the command of renowned reformer Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Army Nurses.

At the time, the U.S. was considered a medical backwater, and virtually anyone who had the desire to be a doctor could practice whether or not they had a medical degree. And even trained physicians were unprepared for the challenges of the devastating carnage of the war, the hordes of traumatized men.

The nursing profession was in its infancy, and most of the women volunteers came with a desire to help others but no medical training. They learned to care for severely wounded and seriously ill men, advocate for their patients, cut red tape and persist as they battled blatant sexism, squalid conditions, the resentment of many doctors and military leaders, and gross inefficiency as a gruesome flood of sick or injured men flooded medical facilities.

“Mercy Street,” a new dramatic PBS series, tells the story of the Civil War medicine and nursing through the professional and personal lives of the staff at the Mansion House Hospital in the Union-occupied Southern city, Alexandria, in 1862. The series focuses on two women: Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen, a Union Army nurse and abolitionist, and Emma Green, a Southern belle and daughter of the owner of Mansion House, a former luxury hotel, and a hospital volunteer.

The series also captures the frenetic world of occupied Alexandria, a melting pot behind the lines, where Confederate sympathizers mingled with Union troops in a city populated by longtime residents, civilian refugees, freed African Americans, escaped slaves, wounded men from both sides, corrupt officials, prostitutes, women volunteers, and others.

Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, executive producer and co-creator of “Mercy Street” with David Zabel, talked about the creation of the groundbreaking PBS series.

Robin Lindley: Your interest in history is evident in your record of films, with work on the “Mayflower” and the Salem witch trials and much more. How did you decide to become a filmmaker? Lisa Wolfinger: I actually thought I wanted to devote my life to the theater and become a director or an actor. When that didn’t pan out, I thought film would make sense because both are about storytelling.

I fell into filmmaking and then into documentary filmmaking through my husband, Kirk Wolfinger, a documentary filmmaker. Early in my career, I was given the opportunity by History Channel to use my theater background and apply it to historical documentaries. I was given stories to tell about early American history and had little to no visual material to work with. So I had to find a new way to tell these stories within the confines of a documentary format and fell back on what I knew and that was drama.

With “Conquest of America,” “Witch Hunt” and the “Mayflower,” I created dialogue from primary source material and wrote fully dramatized scenes. I developed a genre that was somewhat unique in that it was basically scripted with minimal narration and occasional talking heads. The historians were used as commentary, the dramatic scenes drove the action. The new approach did very well for History Channel. “Desperate Crossing, the Untold Story of the Mayflower” was their highest special in 2006.

Robin Lindley: Did your dramatic mini-series Mercy Street grow out of your past films or was it inspired by other research you did?

Lisa Wolfinger: The first iteration of it was a character driven docudrama primarily because I thought that was something PBS would be interested in. It was a docudrama about Civil War medicine from the vantage point of doctors and female volunteer nurses who were, in many ways, the unsung heroes of the war, and I found that intriguing.

It evolved because I realized that PBS wanted something new and they wanted to enter into the world of episodic drama. And I also had a wonderful partner on board, David Zabel, who was the showrunner and writer on “ER” for many seasons, so I had a seasoned episodic TV dramatist and executive producer. It made sense to take that leap.

Robin Lindley: You relied on a panel of experts in history and I wondered how you found the experts and how you used their expertise.

Lisa Wolfinger: I realized very early on that we cover so many different aspects of Civil War history from military to medical to women in the old South and African Americans. There were so many different aspects that we couldn’t find one generalist to cover it all, so we recruited several historians. Now we have a panel of 10 or 11 who I can send a quick email to or phone with a question. They also vet our scripts.

We have everyone from James McPherson, our military historian, to Shauna Devine who wrote a wonderful book, “Learning from the Wounded,” a medical history of the Civil War, and is now writing another book on Civil War medicine from the vantage point of the South. We have Anya Jabour, a professor at the University of Montana, who wrote “Scarlett’s Sisters” on young women in the antebellum South. We worked with Thavolia Glymph at Duke University who has written about the transition from bondage to freedom. It wasn’t an easy transition.

So we have quite an array of historians and each one has a very specific expertise. We send the first drafts of each of our scripts to the entire panel. We get back all of their notes. Because they’re historians and because history is about interpretation and can be somewhat subjective, we as dramatists go to the notes and, when they are divergent, we discuss it and come up with a truth that works for our fictional world and is rooted in history.

Robin Lindley: Your series plunges the viewer almost immediately into the chaos of Alexandria, Virginia, a Southern town occupied by Union forces. It may be surprising for viewers to see Alexandria during the war where Confederate sympathizers seem to move freely in a town that’s under the control of Union troops. What was the situation in Alexandria?

Lisa Wolfinger: One of the things that drew us to the story was Mansion House Hospital. It was located in Alexandria — the only Southern town occupied by the Union for all four years of the war.

We were excited by the interesting North and South intersection because Alexandria was an army town, a hospital town, and fully taken over by the Union. However, many Alexandrians chose to remain in the town. When the Union came in at the beginning of the war, many residents fled, but for those who remained the question was how to live with an occupying force. It’s interesting for Americans because the idea of living in a town under enemy occupation is not uncommon in Europe, and most countries experienced it at some time in their histories. But it’s quite alien here. And then being occupied by fellow Americans, perhaps someone you went to school with, was very odd. So we were excited about exploring that idea and the effect it would have.

The Green family was a way to explore what it was like for a Southern loyalist family who decided to stay in their home in a town occupied by the enemy and try to survive. There are many interesting themes there. How do you hang on to your dignity, your loyalty to the South, and yet do business with the Union?

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network ( His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: This article originally appeared on History News Network.