The Real Women Who Inspired PBS’ Mercy Street

PBS describes Mercy Street as a Civil War drama that “follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict” in order to show viewers what life was like on the home front during the war. With only ONE episode left in the first season of Mercy Street, today’s blog post will focus on these two nurses and the real women who inspired their characters.

Want to learn more about the real people who inspired the stories? Alexandria, Emma Green’s hometown, has over two dozen exciting exhibits, events and tours happening in 2016  and historic sites including the Green family home and former Mansion House hospital. Keep reading to learn how you can explore these sites and stories.

“These women and these characters are based on real characters, and that I found fascinating. That you could have such strong women, in a period in history when women really didn’t have a voice.”

-Lisa Wolfinger, series creator and executive producer of Mercy Street

The Real Mary Phinney

Left: real-life Mary Phinney (Credit: Library of Congress) Right: Mercy Street’s Mary Phinney, as played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Credit: Cade Martin for PBS)

In PBS’ Mercy Street, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) comes to Alexandria from New England as a staunch abolitionist, and she doesn’t exactly receive a warm welcome upon her arrival. This storyline matches the real Mary Phinney, whose extensive journal inspired executive producer Lisa Wolfinger to create Mercy Street. The real Mary Phinney was also sent to the Mansion House Hospital by Miss Dix, and was given no place to sleep when she arrived.

Nurse Phinney’s rival in Mercy Street is Anne Hastings (Tara Summers). Their witty exchanges have been a fan-favorite this season, and may not be far from the reality. Anne Hastings is based on real-life Anne Reading, another Mansion House Hospital nurse who, like her character in the show, assisted Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

Taking_a_selfie_at_Hotel_Monaco_Alexandria_720x482_72_RGBIn PBS’ Mercy Street, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (left) and Tara Summers (right) are rival nurses. Pictured here at Hotel Monaco in Alexandria, the actresses get along much better.

The Real Emma Green

The Real Emma Green_PBS Mercy Street_Visit Alexandria
Left: real-life Emma Green (Credit: Library of Congress) Right: Mercy Street’s Emma Green, as played by Hannah James (Credit: Cade Martin for PBS)

On the other side of the conflict in PBS’ Mercy Street is Emma Green (Hannah James), a southern belle from one of the wealthiest families in the region. In the series, Emma is inspired to become a nurse to serve the confederate soldiers who are often ignored in Union-occupied Alexandria. Emma also has a soft spot for a certain Confederate “dentist”, Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee).

Fans have been swooning over the romance between Emma and Frank, which is true to history. In real life, Emma Green really did live at the Mansion House and fall in love with Confederate spy Frank Stringfellow, although she wasn’t a nurse. The storyline for the characters in the show was inspired by the real-life love letters written between the two. Hannah James and Jack Falahee, who play Emma and Frank in Mercy Street, even wrote love letters inspired by their characters while filming the series in Virginia.


The nurses of PBS’ Mercy Street stand in front of the original building that served as part of the Mansion House Hotel and Hospital during a cast tour in Alexandria. (Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria)

Today, you can visit the Carlyle House, where the real Emma Green lived, and see remnants of the former Mansion House Hospital where all the action takes place in Mercy Street. The exhibit at the Carlyle House, Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital, features an interpretation of a Civil War hospital room like the ones featured in Mercy Street, as well as an array of other fascinating stories and artifacts including Frank Stringfellow’s field case.

Explore the True Stories of the Women Who Inspired Mercy Street

In addition the the Carlyle House exhibit, you can learn more about the real Mary Phinney, Emma Green, Anne Reading and other inspiring women who impacted Alexandria during the Civil War. Check out our Mercy Street page for the most up-to-date events, lectures and exhibits. You can also learn more by checking out this Hollywood on the Potomac video from the premiere of Mercy Street Season One right here in Alexandria, featuring interviews with some of the female cast members and series creator Lisa Wolfinger:

Join the Conversation!

Keep watching the series and check back to ExtraAlex each week so you don’t miss any of our Mercy Street Monday blog posts, which will accompany but never spoil the series. For more information on Mercy Street inspired experiences in Alexandria, click here.

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Header image courtesy of M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria


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