Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Alexandria, Virginia in the Civil War (1861 – 1865)

     The book begins with a look at pre-Civil War Alexandria, the city where Robert E. Lee received orders to suppress John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. An old and prosperous colonial town, Alexandria had a rich a vibrant social and cultural life stretching back to 1742.  Alexandria was both a major hub of the intra-state slave trade and, ironically a major center of free African American population and culture.

     War clouds thickened over Alexandria during the early spring of 1861.  The states of the Deep South had voted for secession, and in May, 1861, Virginia was poised to follow.  Alexandria, the “hometown” of George Washington, with its strong Federalist heritage was initially opposed to disunion.  However, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called for troops to crush the rebellion, the town’s sentiments radically changed.
     As war fever swept the city, militia units drilled.  On May 23, 1861, Virginians voted for secession.  In the early morning hours of the next day, the muffled oars of long boats brought Federal troops down the Potomac River from Washington City.  Union troops proceeded up King Street, where Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, friend and confidant of Abraham Lincoln, noticed the Confederate flag fluttering above the Marshall House hotel.  The colonel and his troops entered the hotel, raced to the roof and seized the flag of rebellion.  Descending the stairs, Ellsworth was met by the hotel’s owner, James Jackson, who fired a shotgun blast into his chest.  Ellsworth died on the sport and Jackson was bayoneted on the spot by enraged Union soldiers.  As the blood of the two men mingled on the steps, each became a martyr to his cause.

    Alexandria, Virginia the “hometown” of George Washington and boyhood home of Robert E. Lee became the first city in the Confederacy to be occupied by Federal troops.         
The invasion of Alexandria would forever change the fabric of the old seaport community.  After order was restored Alexandrians literally walked the streets as strangers.  They were not permitted out at night, their mail was intercepted, and passes were required to travel.  Alexandria itself was transformed into a huge supply center for Union armies fighting farther south in Virginia.  Homes, churches, and local public buildings were commandeered by the military.  Alexandria became the great warehouse of the Army of the Potomac, and the anchor for the defensive forts surrounding Washington.

     Meanwhile, native Alexandrians served in the 17th Virginia Infantry and other units fighting in the major battles of the War.

     By 1864 Alexandria had also become the great haven for freed ex-slaves.  Little neighborhoods of shanties huddled together with no conveniences called Petersburg, Contraband Valley, Pump Town and twenty other names existed within the midst of the city.
    When General Grant launched his 1864-65 offensive against Richmond, thousands of wounded Union soldiers poured into Alexandria.  With mounting casualties, a mortuary industry soon flourished in town.

     The killing and suffering came to an end on April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. 

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