The New PBS Series on the Civil War: An Interview with the Creator of "Mercy Street"

Culture Watch
tags: Civil War, Mercy Street

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:

Related Link “Mercy Street”: The Nearly Flawless New Series on PBS About the Civil War By Kevin Levin

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 twenty thousand volunteered to serve in capacities related to medicine from nurses to laundresses to hospital staff, including about six thousand 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 become 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 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 doctors and nurses in the the Civil War through the professional and personal lives of the staff at the Mansion House Hospital in the Union-occupied Southern city, Alexandria, Virginia, 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.

Mercy Street is based on extensive historical research including the letters and diaries of nursing pioneers, such as the memoirs of the real Mary Phinney and the stories of Louisa May Alcott who also served as a volunteer nurse. To ensure accuracy, the producers arranged for celebrated Civil War scholar James McPherson to head an advisory panel of leading experts on Civil War medicine, military history, African-American history, women’s history, and other issues.

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

Ms. Wolfinger is co-owner of Lone Wolf Media with her husband filmmaker Kirk Wolfinger. Her career as a director and producer of documentaries and docu-dramas attests to her love of history. Her work includes the acclaimed docudrama special for History, Desperate Crossing, the Untold Story of the Mayflower (nominated for two Primetime Emmys), the special, Fire on the Mountain, winner of the CINE Masters Series award; the Salem witch trial docudrama Witch Hunt (nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy), and the docudrama mini-series, Conquest of America (nominated for a primetime Emmy and winner of the Gold Medal at the New York Film Festival). She was also the series director and senior producer for a 10-part drama series on the Revolutionary War, Forged in Fire, for Discovery and Brook Lapping Productions. Ms. Wolfinger also co-founded a Portland, Maine-based dance company, “indiedanceworks.”

Robin Lindley: You’re an accomplished filmmaker on historical topics. What sparked your interest in history?

Lisa Wolfinger: You’re going far back now. I am American, but I left the States when I was quite young. My father worked for a big international bank and I grew up overseas. I wound up for seven years at an all-girls boarding school in Wiltshire in England. The school was located in a castle build in 1776, so I was surrounded by history. The room where we had our history lessons was a bedroom and, apparently, Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton spent a scandalous night there.

I lived and breathed history and loved it because I love colorful characters and good stories, and that’s what history is fundamentally; good stories, especially for a young person. Of course, as you get older, you realize history is also about man’s memory and touches on profound themes that are relevant to our lives today.

Robin Lindley: And 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 the 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 the History channel. Desperate Crossing, the Untold Story of the Mayflower was their highest rated 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: What is your role as executive producer and how did executive producer Ridley Scott fit in?

Lisa Wolfinger: My role was developing it and breathing life into it. David Zabel is the lead writer and he is the architect for what you see on the screen. We’d work together shaping the story and the plotlines and the characters. He wrote episodes one, two and six, and worked with the writers on other episodes. He’s the lead writer and set the tone. What I love about the scripts is that they’re smart and witty.

Ridley Scott came on later. We had the scripts written but it soon became obvious to my company, which specializes in factual television documentaries, that it’s a very different beast to produce episodic drama on this scale. Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free has a lot of experience in that realm and it seemed a natural fit. They did Pillars of the Earth and some other big historical mini series. We presented our scripts to David Zucker, head of television there, and Clayton Krueger, his associate. They just fell in love with the scripts. They became as passionate about it as Zabel and myself and it’s been a tremendous partnership.

All of us love the history and the characters, and we really believe in producing in a way that can rival the best British drama on television in terms of the quality and the style.

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 ten or eleven 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: The series focuses on the medicine of a time before dependable anesthesia and before germ theory, and medical problems and procedures are treated vividly. Did you also rely on medical experts for advice?

Lisa Wolfinger: Yes. It’s quite difficult to find a doctor or surgeon who’s also passionate about Civil War history, but we did find some. Shauna Devine is not a doctor, but an academic, and she did a tremendous job of researching the medical history of the war and was able to give us case studies and examples that were very useful.

On the doctor and nurse front, we worked with Dr. Stanley Burns, the medical-technical expert for Steve Soderbergh’s The Knick, and it turned out his passion is Civil War medicine, so that worked out well for us. We are currently working with Dr. Gordon Dammann who was a medic in the Vietnam War and founded the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. We also worked closely with the museum research staff and director.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate your efforts to ensure accuracy. Mercy Street, in a sense, is a tribute to the women who volunteered as nurses. It seems that most nurses then were kindhearted women with no medical training who were often met with hostility and derision by doctors and military leaders. What was the status of nursing at the onset of the Civil War?

Lisa Wolfinger: I’ll loop in Professor Jane Schultz, an expert on nurses in the Civil War, for her reply. [Jane E. Schultz is professor of English and Medical Humanities at Indiana University, and author of Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America, among other works. She also served as a historical advisor on Mercy Street and worked closely on the scripts.]

Professor Jane Schultz: Nursing did not become a profession in the U.S. until after the Civil War; many would say because of it.  In the 1870s nurse training schools based on Florence Nightingale's model of St. Thomas' Hospital School in London (which started in 1860 after the Crimean War) began to appear in large U.S. cities.  As a profession, nursing was always defined as subordinate to doctoring even as nurses gained greater scientific and technological acumen by the mid-twentieth century.

Most of the 21,000+ Union women who worked in military hospitals did it for the money--not because of their kind hearts.  There were, of course, those who because of their economic status did not have to work for money, and many of these were women who took on the work because they felt a need to do something, to make a patriotic gesture, when so many men were losing their lives in service to their respective nations.  With a sense of patrician duty, women like Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, recently widowed, sought this opportunity.

Robin Lindley: Back to Ms. Wolfinger— 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: It may be jarring for some viewers to see the Green daughters traipsing around in hoop skirts like stereotypical Southern belles during a war.

Lisa Wolfinger: The Green family was one of the wealthier families in town and lived in a mansion in downtown Alexandria before the war. We imagined them having to share their house with Union officers because it allowed us to explore some interesting story lines. It was quite common in the Union occupied South for a wealthy family to be forced to share their home with army officers and soldiers.

(Of course, the real Greens did not share their house with Union officers. In fact they gave it up to the Union Army and lived a few blocks from their former hotel in a smaller townhouse.)

Because the Greens would have been under the protection of the Union Army, specifically Union officers, it meant that their home would be somewhat “preserved,” meaning the house would not have been ransacked by greedy privates. (Which was common, especially in Alexandria.) Acquiescing to live side by side with Union officers would have been a way for the Greens to hold on to their belongings and lead a life that was similar to the life they had before the war. That’s how we justified keeping them in their finery. Also, it’s the beginning of the war (spring 1862) and they’re not living in the Deep South so they are not suffering from blockade-induced privations.

Robin Lindley: I also was interested in the real people and settings represented in the series. There really was a Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, a Green family, as well as Dorothea Dix who headed the corps of army nurses, and one of your main characters, nurse Mary Phinney von Olnhausen.

Lisa Wolfinger: Our initial inspiration was Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen’s memoir, Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars. It’s a wonderful read and she had a couple of chapters about working at Mansion House. She worked at several different Union hospitals during the war, but we picked Mansion House because it was in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, which offered so many rich story lines.

Our Mary Phinney is very much the real Mary Phinney, although she does have a dash of Louisa May Alcott as well. We were equally inspired by Louisa May Alcott who was a nurse during the war and wrote a wonderful book, Hospital Sketches that is quite witty. Both Mary Phinney’s book and Louisa May Alcott’s book gave us permission to give our show a sense of humor because clearly these feisty lady volunteers had a sense of humor, it was probably the only way to survive.

Our Mary Phinney comes from Concord [Massachusetts] and she’s a staunch abolitionist, and those were elements we borrowed from Louisa May Alcott. The real Mary Phinney was from Lexington [Massachusetts] and wasn’t a particularly staunch abolitionist by any stretch.

Anne Hastings is based on Anne Reading, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.

And we took many of the other hospital characters from Mary Phinney’s memoir. The cranky chief of the hospital, Dr. Summers, Chaplain Henry Hopkins, the corrupt steward, were all characters we lifted straight from the pages of Mary Phinney’s memoirs.

Our African American characters—Sam Diggs, Aurelia, and Belinda—are fictional but are representative of different aspects of the African American experience that we wanted to explore: newly freed slaves and escaped slaves behind Union lines struggling to survive, and a freed black man who grew up in an enlightened household in Philadelphia and learned medical skills.

Robin Lindley: Was Sam Diggs based on a real freed black who had surgical expertise?

Lisa Wolfinger: There wasn’t someone exactly like Sam, but we found examples of educated free men and women who were activists or had medical skills. We wanted to tell that story.

The black characters are not based on real historical figures, but they are representative. The story of the contrabands [escaped slaves who sought the protection of the Union army] is fascinating and an untold story, The transition from bondage to freedom was very bumpy and freedom was certainly not all it was cracked up to be. We hope to spend more time with the whole contraband experience in Season Two.

Robin Lindley: The series focuses on medicine and nursing and the war represents the birth of organized medicine and the nursing profession. At that time, it seems anyone—regardless of education or background—could work as a doctor or nurse. It’s also a time before germ theory and reliable anesthesia, and the series captures that state of medicine.

Lisa Wolfinger: Thank you. We certainly set out to explode some of the myths about Civil War medicine. The idea that Civil War medicine was barbaric and medieval and just butchers chopping off limbs is so far from the truth. It was an exciting time in medicine. A lot of American doctors with little real training or experience were faced with mass casualties on an unprecedented scale and injuries they’d never seen before and diseases they’d never treated before. Because of army general hospitals—a fairly new concept during the Civil War—you had all of these patients gathered in one place for the first time, and doctors could observe, do research and experiment with treatment.

Throughout the course of the Civil War, you have an explosion of innovation and research. There was a lot of experimenting going on. It’s not surprising that just after the Civil War you have some monumental discoveries like Lister and Pasteur with antiseptic surgery and germ theory and more. All of that was bubbling during the Civil War. A lot of people were thinking about it, whether Americans or foreign doctors who came to America to observe. War offers a tremendous opportunity to advance medical science, unfortunately.

Robin Lindley: And the women nurses you depict were determined and courageous. The sexism of the time was pronounced and they work and serve despite many obstacles. This has to be an important chapter in women’s history.

Lisa Wolfinger: Absolutely. What really drew me to the story was having strong female protagonists. These feisty ladies breaking social conventions and being very brave and outspoken, and making a tremendous difference in the lives of these wounded soldiers. I was drawn to their voices, whether Louisa May Alcott or Mary Phinney in her memoir. They were smart and determined, and I found that very admirable.

People ask me about Mary Phinney desperately trying to find a place to bunk down for the night [when she arrives at Mansion House] and there’s no room for her. And Dr. Summers [hospital director] won’t give her a room so she has to sleep on the floor. We didn’t make that up. In Mary Phinney’s memoirs she describes having to sleep on the floor the first few nights because Dr. Summers was trying to make it as hard for her as possible. In fact, he said to someone, “Crank up the heat because if we can get it hot enough, these awful lady volunteers will find it too uncomfortable and they’ll leave.”

Robin Lindley: And most of the male, military doctors didn’t want women around at all.

Lisa Wolfinger: Right. They were [regarded as] a nuisance.

Robin Lindley: The series deals with a wide range of social problems, from drug and alcohol abuse by doctors and nurses—perhaps to quell their own suffering—to sexual abuse of young Aurelia, a black woman, and the psychological effect of war trauma on combat survivors.

Lisa Wolfinger: These were all issues that were real and prevalent during the Civil War so it seemed right that our characters have to deal with them.

Dr. Foster experimenting on himself with morphine was a common practice at that time. It happened frequently. It was a way for these doctor/scientists to do research and why not do it on yourself? I was just reading about a doctor who experimented with bromide to try to figure out if it could work as a sedative, and he basically just kept sedating himself despite horrible side effects. We decided to include Foster’s addiction even before The Knick came out with an addicted doctor. Zabel and I discussed that it could be problematic because every other doctor on TV was addicted, but we decided to stick to our guns because it is truthful to the period and makes sense for our character. Also, the addiction doesn’t define our character.

In terms of Aurelia and what she undergoes. That happened a lot. Young black women who had escaped bondage and were living under the protection of the Union army were fair game for lusty soldiers who shared the same racial prejudices as the young men they were fighting. Her story is complicated however because she is submitting to sex as a means to an end. So she thinks she has some control over the situation, which of course she doesn’t.

Robin Lindley: Was Dr. Foster based on a real character?

Lisa Wolfinger: He’s a composite character. We read about folks from Maryland who were caught between North and South, and we read about elite American physicians who went overseas and studied in Europe. We combined different elements to create Dr. Foster who I think is a fascinating character. He’s a progressive, brilliant doctor who happens to come a border state and from a slaveholding family.

Robin Lindley: Your series puts a human faces on the cost of war and the great loss during the conflict.

Lisa Wolfinger: Another thing I find so scary, and I don’t know if people understand this, is to live in a world without antibiotics, without penicillin. People weren’t aware of what caused infections or why contagion happened and they had few ways to stop disease or infection. It must have been terrifying. Imagine living in a world where a simple scratch can become infected and kill you. We’ve forgotten what that would be like. Although history is cyclical. Because of the resistance now that is developing for some antibiotics unfortunately we could be heading back to an age where maybe people won’t have those miracle drugs and we’ll have to be very disciplined yet again about infection.

Amputation was encouraged because it was the only way to save people. It wasn’t just gleeful butchery for the hell of it. It was carefully thought through and it was the most efficient way to save somebody’s life. And, for the most part, it worked.

Robin Lindley: Did your actors go through any specialized preparation for their roles?

Lisa Wolfinger: Yes, they received a very large research packet, and they had to do their homework before they showed up. I think they found that quite exciting. They loved the research; so much so that they went off and did their own research. For instance, Jack Falahee who plays Frank Stringfellow, a real character who was a Confederate scout, went off to the Virginia Historical Society. He did some digging and found the love letters that Frank Stringfellow had written to Emma Green. That really inspired him.

Robin Lindley: So the Frank and Emma romance was an actual historical incident?

Lisa Wolfinger: Gosh yes. That’s why we were so excited about Mansion House. It was once owned by the Greens and Emma Green and Frank Stringfellow were real characters. It’s such a rich story. The Green story could be a whole series in itself.

On the doctor side, our surgeons: Dr. Hale, Dr. Foster, Sam Diggs who has medical skills—all went through “doctor school.” Dr. Stanley Burns set up a school over a few days and taught our actors basic skills and then the actors went off and practiced. I think they did quite well.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for explaining how you strived for accuracy and how you created this series. Did you have actors in mind for the various roles as the series was written?

Lisa Wolfinger: No, we didn’t have actors in mind, but there was a busy audition process. We had a large cast to put together. It was so interesting—because it was PBS and because of the quality of the script—we had name actors coming in anxious to read for roles even though they are at a point in their career when they don’t have to audition anymore. They were excited by the story and the fact that it was PBS’s first original drama. We had veteran actors lining up to read for us. We were very lucky. Our cast is not only deeply talented, they make a very strong ensemble and all seem to enjoy working together.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about the series and what you hope viewers take from the series?
Lisa Wolfinger
: Yes. I hope first and foremost that they’re entertained. I want them to laugh and cry and fall in love with our characters. And I hope they walk away with a renewed curiosity about a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. I think we offer a fresh look at an iconic and well-worn story.

And I hope it reminds them that the Civil War was not just about battles and glory, but about ordinary people on the home front, men and women dealing with all the turmoil that comes from a country split in two.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your words on the creating of the Mercy Street series and congratulations on this novel undertaking.