Historical fiction is the first draft of legend. If memorable, stories we tell about our family, friends, ancestors and heroes may gain currency over time and take on lives of their own. Using our shared past as inspiration for parable, potboiler and everything in-between is at the root of spinning experience into imagination.
As entertainment, historical fiction is flexible. Stories are anchored to a point in time and accuracy of setting is a basic requirement, but when it comes to plot and characters, there’s more latitude for how closely they’re bound to what we know about the past. Both imagined and historical figures are standard, but their words and actions can be created whole-cloth or drawn as directly as possible from documented record.
When it comes to the American Civil War, two classic battlefield tales exemplify these poles. The Red Badge of Courage, an 1895 novel by Stephen Crane, tells the fictional story of a Union private overcoming his fears through a series of unnamed battles. In contrast, The Killer Angels, a 1974 novel by Michael Shaara, tells the story of Gettysburg in close detail, mostly from the perspectives of several high-profile participants. But most stories fall somewhere between these two approaches, mixing historical reality with original drama.
Mercy Street offers elements of both styles. Set in Alexandria, Virginia, a Union-occupied former slave-trading hub just downriver from Washington D.C., the story centers around two historical buildings: Mansion House Hospital and Carlyle House. It’s late spring 1862, in the midst of the Peninsula Campaign, when a massive Union force is advancing on Richmond. Several major characters are drawn from historical records, notably Union nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and some members of the Confederate-sympathizing Green family.