The Civil War Comes to Alexandria

“Does Mercy Street have anything to do with your visit?” asked the woman behind the desk at Fort Ward Park, after the requisite greeting exchange.

I grimaced. “No.”

She laughed and said, “I’ve never seen it, but my friends have had mixed reactions.”

Those of you who are familiar with the show can skip this paragraph, but for those who aren’t: Mercy Street is a hospital drama on public television, set in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. It is based on “true events,” which in television-speak means that they use a historic event as a starting point, then run off-course with it. The show claims the diary of Mary Phinney, who was the head nurse at the Mansion House hospital in Alexandria during the war, as its source material. But really, it’s just ER with hooped skirts. I am not an ER fan. Ergo, we were not visiting Fort Ward because of Mercy Street.



We were visiting Fort Ward because it was an unusually warm February day and we’d decided we had to take the opportunity to do something outdoors.  Mr. History Tourist suggested that we go to Alexandria to wander its quaint, cobblestoned streets and have dinner in one of its many luscious restaurants. Alexandria is where I’d live the rest of my life if the choice were up to me, so I didn’t need a second invitation.

But me being me, I wasn’t satisfied with an aimless stroll. I needed A Destination. Looking up “events in Alexandria,” I found that the 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry, Co. K, was having a Civil War Recruiting Day at Fort Ward.

At the start of the Civil War, Washington DC was a small city surrounded by Confederate Virginia to the south and Confederate-sympathizing Maryland to the north. Feeling vulnerable, the Union constructed 68 forts along the circumference of a 37 mile circle around the capital. Fort Ward, says its website, is the best preserved of those – 90% of its earthworks still survive.


When we got to the fort, Company K was doing drills.  I hadn’t been to Fort Ward in 30 years — not since I worked in a building about a quarter of a mile away. The city of Alexandria had turned the area around the fort into a park and we’d have office picnics there. Since then, they’d added a Civil War museum and restored and reconstructed one bastion in the fort, and populated it with canons.

We watched Company K march for a bit before going in to the museum, which holds Civil War era artifacts. As with other small museums, their collection seems to be a mishmash of things that have been donated to them.


A couple of my favorites were this cap and the denim jacket. The cap belonged to an officer in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry. It was a “private purchase cap” — he bought it from a shop, on his own — and his wife embroidered it. I found the embroidery amazing. The jacket “may” have been used by African American soldiers in the Union army. It caught my eye because I swear I have a jacket of exactly the same design, that I got from the clothing purveyor of choice for old ladies: Chicos.

So why did the museum receptionist ask whether Mercy Street took us there? Because Fort Ward is a featured player, of sorts, in the show — it’s on the outskirts of Alexandria and many of the soldiers who populate Mercy Street are stationed there.  Also, Fort Ward is run by the the city of Alexandria, which participated in the making of and sponsors Mercy Street.  If you’ve seen it, let me know what you think. Now that Downton Abbey is over, I may get desperate enough for a costume-drama fix that I’ll give it another try.

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6 Responses to The Civil War Comes to Alexandria

  1. Because of Mercy Street my wife and I will be visiting Alexandria this summer. The show was good, my biggest complaint was the lighting of the scenes – too dark. I understand that the producers wanted to convey reality, with candle and kerosene lighting, but it bothered me.
    As a footnote the companion book by Pamela Toler is excellent.

    • It’s wonderful that you’ve visiting Alexandria. It’s the hometown of my heart. Carlyle House, where the Green family lived, does a Mercy Street tour. In fact, many of the historic sites in town have Mercy Street themed tours.

      I’m planning to get Mary Phinney’s diary. So maybe it’ll encourage me to give Mercy Street another go. And I’ll take a look at the Pamela Toler book.

      Thanks for commenting. If you get the chance, stop by after your trip and let me know what you thought of Alexandria.

  2. Jeff Smith says:

    You may know this but perhaps your fans don’t…..the Downton Abbey costume USA tour has a schedule through 2017. It can be found at Fabulous way to get your costume-drama fix!!!!

    • Thanks for the reminder — I’m sure the folks here will be very interested. I saw it at the Winterthur Museum a couple of years ago and it was wonderful. I loved that we were allowed to get up close to the costumes, with no plexiglass between us. I go again, given the chance.

  3. Kathie Shattuck says:

    I watched the first couple of installments of Mercy Street and found it interesting. They made sure all the characters had some major flaws in their makeup, which is more realistic, but makes them kind of hard to warm up to. But the settings and costumes are well done.

    • I watched the first couple of episodes and for me, it was too many flaws: the surgeon with a drug problem, the nurse with an alcohol problem who has sex with the head doctor, the annoying daughters of Mr. Green. I’m sure at some point I’ll give it another chance, though.

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