‘Mercy Street’ Pairs Drama with Civil War History

The new, original PBS show “Mercy Street” is a sprawling Civil War drama set in a hotel in Alexandria, Virgina that has been commandeered by the Union Army as a hospital. 

“It was meant to be originally a docu-drama that was going to investigate the advancements made in medicine during the Civil War, and out of that Lisa Wolfinger, who I co-created the show with, she and I and PBS as we were starting to talk about that project, PBS expressed an interest for something that was more expansive in its point of view and also a dramatic series,” said David Zabel, co-creator and executive producer of the show.

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“They wanted a great American show on an American theme,” he added. “This seemed to lend itself to that and out of that conversation we found Alexandria as the locale and the Mansion House Hospital specifically as a fulcrum for a show in which we could cover a lot of different interweaving stories that would cover a lot of different aspects and points of view.”

The six-episode series blends fiction with historical settings in a town where Confederate and Union soldiers mingled with a slaves and free people.

“It really was the quintessential melting pot,” co-executive producer David Zucker said of Alexandria. “I hope I’m not misquoting, but I think they were the longest occupied of the southern cities. It really became, in what Lisa and David created, the richest opportunity to tell sort of the confluence of these stories: the incredible breadth of African-American experiences, learning about the contraband, learning about the different social strata. And at the same time the collision between the Union and Confederate sides in a way that was somewhat atypical during the war because this was literally a border community that coexisted for such a stretch of that time.”  

The series stars Gary Cole, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Norbert Leo Butz.

“Gary is such a tremendous actor. We were thrilled that he wanted to play this role,” Zabel said of Cole’s role as the patriarch of the Green family in the show. “It’s a complicated role because part of the character is a southern sympathizer, but on the other hand he’s somebody who’s having a lot of doubts about the way the system of the South has relied upon to get where it is. And he’s conflicted about wanting to be faithful to the people that he lives among and is an important man in that society but also being pressured to swear his loyalty to the Union.”

Joining us to discuss the show are Zabel and Zucker.

About the show

“Mercy Street,” set in the spring of 1862, follows the lives of two volunteer nurses—one a Union nurse and the other a Confederate—who both work at the Mansion House, a luxury hotel that had been converted into the Union Army hospital in Alexandria.

“Ruled under martial law, Alexandria served as the melting pot of the region: with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded fighting men from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies,” the PBS “Mercy Street” website states.

“The intersection of North and South within the confines of a small occupied town creates a rich world that is chaotic, conflicted, corrupt, dynamic and even hopeful—a cauldron within which these characters strive, fight, love, laugh, betray, sacrifice and, at times, act like scoundrels."

The show airs on WTTW at 9 p.m. on Sundays (see the schedule) and full episodes can be watched online.

What do you know about Civil War medicine? Take the “Mercy Street” quiz.

Watch a trailer for "Mercy Street," below.

Watch a behind-the-scenes video for “Mercy Street.”

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