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When a House is More Than a House

History reveals black Union soldiers were treated in this hospital during the Civil War.

History is all around Alexandria. Homes throughout the city date to the early 18th century. Famous founding fathers walked the very streets citizens traverse today. Family homes get passed down from generation to generation, many with a storied history, some with secrets.

One such home is 217 S. Payne Street. In 1864, it was a hospital for black Union soldiers. It was built in 1858 and was originally used as a private residence. Over the years, it has alternated between residential and commercial property. Ben Dudley, a well-known builder in Alexandria, bought the property and it remained in the Dudley family’s hands until 1935. Its current owners, Hope Gibbs and Robert Lennox, purchased it in 1998.

“We really didn’t know much about the history of the house when we bought it,” Gibbs said.

“We had been looking for a home in Old Town for a couple of years and, when we saw the house, it was right for us,” said Robert Lennox.

The Greek Revival building is a three-story structure. “It was big enough for our family and, for some reason, it just spoke to me,” Gibbs said.

Before Gibbs and Lennox bought the house, it was a doctor’s office. “Many of the walls were covered with cork board and the floors were covered with an ugly carpet,” Lennox said. “Structurally, the house was in great shape, but we had to completely re-do the interior.”

As the couple worked on the interior, filling the rooms with murals that Gibbs painted and uncovering beautiful old hardwood floors, they began to learn more about the house. “Our real estate agent brought us an article on the house about a year after we bought it,” Gibbs said. “That’s when we first learned that it had been a hospital during the Civil War.”

L’Ouveture Hospital, in fact, the headquarters building. Named for Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of an African Caribbean revolt on Haiti against British, Spanish and French forces, the hospital for black Union soldiers opened its doors on Feb. 15, 1864.

L’Ouverture was one of the Union Army’s general hospitals, which provided care for seriously sick and wounded soldiers who required long-term care. While the facility was meant to care for black soldiers, the staff did provide some medical treatment to contrabands who were not soldiers but who were military dependents or Army civilian employees.

CIVILIAN ORGANIZATIONS such as the U. S. Sanitary Commission provided supplies and assistance to the Army medical operations. Julia Wilber, a Quaker teacher from New York, worked for the Sanitary Commission and was responsible for delivering supplies to L’Ouverture, to care for poor contraband families, to visit the sick and to help organize Sanitary Commission assistance. Her role brought her into contact with a broad range of conditions and people in various medical facilities.

“She was amazing,” Gibbs said. “She really seems to have taken this hospital under her wing and made it her personal project. She cared deeply for the soldiers and their families and fought to see that conditions were improved. Her diaries are an amazing resource.”

Wilber attended the funeral of the first black soldier who died in Alexandria. Private John Cooley, of the 27th U. S. Colored Infantry from Ohio, died on May 5, 1864, of unknown causes. Instead of being buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery, Cooley was buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery, which had been established in January of that year. For the remainder of 1864, approximately 125 black soldiers who died at L’Ouverture were buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery, causing great turmoil among the soldier patients.

Finally, on Dec. 27, 1864, 443 patients at L’Ouverture signed a petition requesting proper burial in Alexandria National Cemetery. “We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U. S. Army, we have cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side-by-side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.

"As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color,” the petition read in part.

IN JANUARY, 1865, an order cam down from Major General M. C. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the U. S. Army, that all soldiers, including black soldiers, could be buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery until there was no longer space and, after that, could be interred in Arlington National Cemetery. All of the black soldiers who had been buried at the Freedmen’s Cemetery were subsequently disinterred and reburied at the Alexandria National Cemetery.

“Julia Wilber really worked with these men to see that justice was done in terms of their right to be buried in the National Cemetery,” Gibbs said. “And she is still looking out for the house. I feel her sometimes walking on the stairs. She isn’t haunting the house; she’s just watching over it to make sure that we are caring for it properly.”