Lisa Quijano Wolfinger’s career as a filmmaker has allowed her to catch up on her American history lessons.

She went to high school and college in England and studied European history with minors in French and Russian. But since the 1990s, she’s made several docudramas for TV networks that bring periods of American history to life, including the Pilgrims’ voyage to America and the Salem witch trials. By looking at American history with fresh eyes and a fascination that has not been dulled by too much homework and rote memorization, she finds fresh perspectives and dramatic stories.

The Cape Elizabeth resident’s newest project, a Civil War drama called “Mercy Street,” has so impressed programmers at PBS that they made it their first American drama in a decade. And they decided to air it on Sundays at 10 p.m., in the coveted time slot following the wildly popular “Downtown Abbey.” It will debut Jan. 17.

Collaborating with “ER” writer David Zabel, Wolfinger has created a drama set in a makeshift hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. The hospital is the setting for stories of personal sacrifice and medical breakthroughs. Many movies have depicted Civil War medicine mostly as doctors amputating limbs with whiskey as an anesthetic. But Wolfinger researched the amazing progress made in medicine during the war, including the birth of neurology and the development of plastic surgery and prosthetics.

The series, scheduled to run six episodes this year, is set at Mansion House, an Alexandria hotel that became a hospital. The large cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) as Mary Phinney, a nurse from New England, and Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) as Jedidiah Foster, a doctor who grew up in a slave-owning family in Maryland. Gary Cole (“Veep”) plays James Green, Sr., owner of Mansion House, and Norbert Leo Butz (“Bloodline”) plays Army surgeon Byron Hale.

The first episode is set in the spring of 1862, about a year into the war. Viewers meet nurse Phinney on her first day in Mansion House hospital, as she meets people dealing with life in an occupied Southern town. Green, the Mansion House owner, struggles to preserve the family fortune as his daughter Emma searches for her lost beau.

“I’m interested in dramatizing history as a way to make it accessible,” said Wolfinger, 50, who runs Lone Wolf Media in South Portland with her husband, Kirk Wolfinger. “I believe we’ve created a costume drama that is entertaining, cinematic and completely relevant to our lives today. There is nothing dry and dusty about this history.”

Programmers at PBS agree and think that “Mercy Street” will appeal to the network’s core audience.

“We think it’ll appeal to the people who love ‘Downton Abbey’ and people who love documentaries like ‘The Roosevelts’ (by Ken Burns),” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for PBS. “Drama on television is having a heyday right now, but we felt like no one was doing this kind of really historically accurate drama.”

LOOKING FOR A CIVIL WAR STORY

Several years ago, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching, Wolfinger went looking for a Civil War story she could present in a compelling way. She found it in the writings of battlefield doctors and nurses of the period, including Dr. Jonathan Letterman, who was credited with “reinventing” battlefield medicine.

From the work she and her husband had done for PBS, including “NOVA” episodes, Wolfinger knew Hoppe and began talking to her about a Civil War film possibly focusing on medicine. Wolfinger said, when it became clear Hoppe was open to a scripted drama, she began looking for a potential setting. She read about Mansion House, the real-life hotel in occupied Alexandria that became a hospital.

Wolfinger had met David Zabel, a writer for the NBC medical drama “ER,” several years ago and began working with him to develop “Mercy Street.” The two are billed as co-creators, and Zabel says Wolfinger wanted his help in “marrying the medical with the drama of the piece.” As an executive producer, Wolfinger helped come up with the concepts, raised money, was the lead researcher and had a hand in creative decisions, including casting and music. She was also on set, in and around Richmond, Virginia.

Zabel credits Wolfinger as the driving force behind the project.

“It’s taken four years to get to this point, and it was because of her doggedness and her resilience,” said Zabel. “It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been so committed. She combines a love of history, of finding the facts, with an innate sense of drama and story.”

Wolfinger and her husband have run Lone Wolf Media since 1997. The pair have created and produced dozens of documentaries and docudramas for TV, together and individually. They travel the world on film projects but are based out of a couple of storefronts on Cottage Road in South Portland.

Wolfinger’s credits include the docudramas “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower,” “Witch Hunt” about the Salem witch trials, and “Conquest of America.” All three aired on the History cable network. She has also produced episodes for the PBS series “NOVA,” including ones on Pocahontas and on submarines used by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.

Her husband’s credits included some 20 “NOVA” specials for PBS, more than 30 episodes of “Deep Sea Detectives” for History, and the TBS series “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon.” He is currently producing the Animal Planet series “Yankee Jungle,” about the DEW Haven nonprofit wildlife sanctuary in the central Maine town of Mount Vernon. The second season of “Yankee Jungle” debuts in January, the same month as “Mercy Street.”

A FAILURE BREEDS SUCCESS

Wolfinger didn’t set out to make films. She wanted to act.

Because of her father’s job with Chase Manhattan bank, she grew up mostly outside of the United States, though she came to Maine most summers to stay at family homes in Lincolnville and on North Haven island. She attended a boarding school in Wiltshire, England, housed in a castle built in 1776. At Sussex University in Brighton, England, she performed in and directed plays.

She was on a theatrical track, and many of her college friends went on to be actors. After college she wanted to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England, but didn’t get in.

It was a failure that would lead to success.

“After I tried and failed to get into drama school in London, I somehow thought film production might be the way to go. At least it was a related field,” Wolfinger said.

She came to the family home in Maine after college and decided to take classes at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, now Maine Media Workshops. There, she met Kirk Wolfinger, who had been working in film for some time and was teaching a course.

The pair eventually began working together. They married and have four sons. Three played football for Cape Elizabeth High School, and two are in media-related jobs. Ezra, 24, is an associate producer at Lone Wolf, and Asa, 25, works as a sound engineer.

Kirk Wolfinger said his wife has a particular passion for bringing history to life. He has heard her talk over the years about how so much of American history seems fresh to her, since she didn’t go to American schools.

“She’s fascinated by American history, I think, because it’s the history she didn’t learn,” he said.