Monday, October 15, 2018

Alexandria, Virginia in the Civil War 1861-1865

The Marshall House at King and Pitt

     In the 1850s, Alexandria was the commercial center for all of Northern Virginia and boasted a busy waterfront, a commercial canal and expanding railway traffic.  Alexandria took great pride in being the “home town” of George Washington.  It was on the steps of Gadsby’s Tavern (the City Hotel in 1861) that Light Horse Harry Lee declared George Washington, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
     Alexandria, with its long history of service to the Union, initially opposed secession.  Many citizens would gladly have remained in the Union or remained neutral, but were prepared to cast their lot with the Confederacy if it came to war.  The tide turned toward secession on April 12, 1861 when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and Mr. Lincoln called for seventy five thousand volunteers to crush the rebellion. 
     Long before dawn on the morning of May 24, 1861 eight Union regiments crossed the Potomac River to seize Alexandria and Arlington Heights.  By two o’clock the in the morning a large luminous moon shimmered over the river as Federal long boats touched their oars into the muddy waters.  For an hour muffled oars pulled against the river.  The red trousered New York Zouaves sat tensed in silent anticipation.  They docked quickly and quietly unloaded into the deserted streets of Alexandria.
     The entrance of the Federals was unopposed.  Colonel Elmer Ellsworth led his men down the empty streets until he came to a hotel (The Marshall House) flying the Confederate flag.  Ellsworth, followed by his soldiers, went inside, hurried to the roof and, with a knife borrowed from a private soldier, cut down the emblem of rebellion.  In a shadowy hallway he met the proprietor of the inn, James Jackson.  Jackson produced a shotgun and killed Ellsworth.       War had come to Virginia.  For the next four years Alexandria was an occupied city, and became a major supply hub for the Union army.
     Alexandria was an important railroad center.  The Union army seized the railroads immediately. Brigadier General Herman Haupt, a railroad construction engineer revolutionized military transportation in the United States and was one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.  He repaired and fortified war damaged railroad lines in the vicinity of Washington, arming and training the railroad staff, and improved telegraph communications along the railroad lines. His well organized trains kept the Union Army supplied and carried thousands of Union wounded to hospitals.
     Haupt’s nemesis was the Confederate raider John S. Mosby, who, with fewer than two hundred and fifty men, immobilized 30,000 Union troops by his daring raids.  It seemed that the “Grey Ghost” was everywhere.  He destroyed railway tracks, robbed Union paymasters, captured pickets, and shot down stragglers.  Mosby single handedly crossed Long Bridge into Washington City in the full light of day and returned unharmed to Virginia.
     Alexandria’s strategic location on the Potomac River was as important as its railroads.  Alexandria was always a busy port.  After the Federal occupation, Alexandria businessman Benjamin Barton wrote,  “Alexandria… is quite a stirring place, of course most of the business has some connection with the National government, all the supplies of the armies, in this section of Virginia, arrive here by land and by water, the great number of steamboats, sloops, schooners and brigs required, arriving at this port, and passing up to Washington, has the appearance of a fleet opposite our City.” One of the war time highlights for Alexandria was the arrival of Imperial Russian war ships on a goodwill visit.
     Alexandria became an important hospital center for the Union army.  Four churches and many large houses were converted into hospitals, totaling fourteen facilities in all.  Facilities were overcrowded and often unsanitary, especially after a major battle.  One volunteer chaplain wrote, “Through all the wards confused heaps of torn and dirty clothes and piles of bloody bandages, tired attendants doing their best to make comfortable the poor fellows torn and mangled with shot and shell in every imaginable way.”
     Alexandria was an essential link in the chain of fortifications guarding Washington.  Sixty eight major forts, connected by military roads and rifle trenches ringed the Federal capital.  This was the Union’s last line of defense against the Confederate Army.
This formidable network of earthwork fortifications bristled with more than nine hundred cannons and ninety eight mortars.  After the war, when asked why the Confederate Army did not attack Washington after the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862, Robert E. Lee said, pointing to Fort Ward, “I could not tell my men to take that fort when they had nothing to eat for three days.”  

     This book represents the most complete photographic history of Alexandria, Virginia during the period of the Civil War currently in existence.  The photographs in the book are taken from three rare photo collections: the Civil War collection of the Library of Congress, the William Francis Smith Collection of the Alexandria Library, Special Collections Branch and Mollie Somerville Collection of the Alexandria Library, Special Collections Branch.  Almost all of the photographs in this book are actual Civil War era photographs.  In a few instances, where Civil War photographs of specific significant locations were not available, we have selected photographs of the location at the nearest point in time to the Civil War as possible.

Women Doctors in the Civil War

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

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