Alexandria's Civil War history is important. To the uninitiated, it would appear that our history is exclusively Confederate. Our street names, the Appomattox statue, a plaque at the site of the Civil War Marshall House, Confederate graves in the Christ Church grounds, and publications and exhibits produced by the Office of Historic Alexandria and the Lyceum would lead one to believe that Alexandria was a staunchly Confederate city during the war. The opposite was true.
Alexandria was a Confederate city for less than 24 hours. On May 23, 1861 Virginians voted to secede from the United States. Early the next morning, the United States Army entered the city; 800 members of city’s
six militia companies assembled in front of the Lyceum then fled the city. Over the next few weeks, residents, presumably loyal to the states in rebellion, left the city in droves. One account states that up to two-thirds of Alexandria's population relocated.
A month after the Alexandria militia companies left the city, they were organized into the 17th Virginia Regiment of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Their history is significant. They were instrumental in the Confederacy’s victories at the first and second battles of Manassas and fought at Antietam. At these three sites, the 17th Virginia is appropriately recognized on the ground that they fought. Individual members are also recognized in Alexandria cemeteries. Alexandria’s Confederates never fought in Alexandria but they are appropriately recognized in the locations where they fought and died.
While Alexandria Confederates are recognized, the larger story of the Civil War Alexandria is not. Instead, what one experiences in Alexandria is a carefully fabricated memory created by two post-war groups: the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Theses groups are authors and purveyors of “Lost Cause” mythology that emerged shortly after the war’s end. The central tenets of the Lost Cause are that states rights, not slavery, was the cause of the war, that slavery was more benevolent than cruel, and that the Confederacy only lost the war due to the overwhelming manpower and industrialization of the northern states.
In Alexandria, the lost cause has been manifested for decades and it continues to be the dominant memory of the war. After the Civil War ended, military facilities in Alexandria were knocked down, forts were filled in, and the graves of African Americans who found freedom in Alexandria were literally covered over. From one of the city’s most prominent intersections rose the “Appomattox” statue dedicated to the memory of men who never fought in Alexandria. The message was clear, only certain history is important, only certain people are important. Sadly, that history, deemed more important than all else, is one of human subjugation, treason, and failure.
The complete history of Alexandria in the Civil War continues with American troops entering the city without fight on an early spring morning. With no defenders and Confederate sympathizing residents set to flee, Alexandria was more abandoned than occupied. If you were an African American Alexandrian, the entry of U.S. troops meant liberation from the slaveholders that considered you property and the expulsion of local slave dealers that were ready to break up your family and send your children to deep south cotton plantations. From May 24, 1861 to the end of the war in 1865, Alexandria was an American city, filled with United States soldiers, sailors, medical personnel, aid workers, newly free African Americans, and laborers. The United States Army built the 75-acre United States Military Railroad depot in Alexandria, staffed over 30 hospitals, built and defended five forts connected by miles of rifle pits. These loyal Americans worked at the wharves, stockyards, bakeries, and blacksmith shops that supported the American war effort. Extraordinary Americans found themselves in Alexandria during the Civil War. Their stories need to be told.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, N.C.. After suffering continual sexual abuse at the hand of her slaveholder she escaped in 1835. But rather than abandon her children and flee north to freedom she hid in her grandmother's attic to catch glimpses of her still enslaved children and to hear their voices. During the Civil War Jacobs moved to Alexandria. During her three years here she organized, fed, and sheltered formerly enslaved people who had sought freedom in the city. She recruited relief workers and solicited aid from noted abolitionists. She ordered that barracks be built for the people of Alexandria. They would house the old, disabled, women, children, and orphans. Jacobs distributed donations among these people. From October 1863 to April 1865, Jacobs saw progress for the freedmen in Virginia. While living in Alexandria she also concentrated on setting up schools run by the community. She contributed to organizing the communities of African Americans and to the building of hospitals, churches, schools, and homes for formerly enslaved people. Jacobs and her partner, Julia A. Wilbur, founded schools in Washington and Alexandria at the camps of black refugees. Harriet changed thousands of lives for the better in Alexandria.
Where is the statue of Harriet Jacobs?
At the age of 23, Elmer Ellsworth took a job in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Ill. law office. The young clerk and Lincoln became close friends. When the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him. A native of New York, Ellsworth left Washington to organize and lead the 11th New York Volunteer Regiment, enlisting many of its troops from the city’s volunteer fire departments. He returned to Washington with the regiment and on May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia voters ratified the state convention’s decision to secede from the Union, Ellsworth and his troops entered Alexandria. Ellsworth approached the Marshall House (at the site of today's Hotel Monaco) with four of his troops. His job was to take down a Confederate flag flying from the top of the hotel. Finding no resistance, he took down the flag. As he descended to the main floor, innkeeper James Jackson, a zealous defender of slavery and notorious abuser of enslaved people, shot Ellsworth at point-blank range with a shotgun, killing him instantly. Ellsworth became the first United States officer to die during the Civil War. Ellsworth’s body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state, and then to New York City, where thousands lined up to view the cortege bearing Ellsworth’s coffin. “Remember Ellsworth!” became a Union rallying cry. Today, the name of James Jackson, never a soldier in the Civil War, is engraved on the "Appomattox" statue at Washington and Prince streets. Until very recently Jackson was honored with a brass plaque at the site of the murder with no mention of Ellsworth. Jackson is even honored in the name of Hotel Monaco’s restaurant, Jackson 20.
Where the statue of Elmer Ellsworth?
Herman Haupt was put in charge of the United States Military Railroad, headquartered in Alexandria. Haupt recruited an assortment of frontier woodsmen, skilled craftsman, and freedmen to create a railroad construction corps that achieved amazing engineering and railroad building feats. He instilled a timetable, order, and discipline to operate the railroad. He created innovations like floating railroad barges, pontoon boats, a new type of bridge truss, methods for building and repairing railroad tracks, and fixing and destroying rails. Haupt also expanded the existing Orange and Alexandria Railroad station, constructing 75 new buildings in a 12-block area of Alexandria, to better serve the needs of the U.S. Army. New shops, engine houses accommodating 30 locomotives, a commissary, a turntable with cupola, and rail spurs were built. Haupt revolutionized the use of railroads and had an immense impact on Union victory.
Where is the statue of Herman Haupt?
In June of 1861, three months after the Civil war was initiated, the “restored government of Virginia” was established. The government represented the western counties of Virginia who remained loyal to the United States. The governor of what would become West Virginia was native Virginian Francis Pierpont. Once West Virginia became a state in 1863 Pierpont was placed in charge of the areas of Virginia controlled by the U.S. armed forces including Norfolk, the Eastern Shore, Fairfax, and Alexandria. The Capital of this Virginia was in Alexandria on Prince Street for two years. Once Robert Lee surrendered in 1865, Pierpont moved the government to Richmond. In total Pierpont served as governor of Virginia for six years.
Where is the statue of Francis Pierpont?
A violent explosion ripped through the powder magazine at Alexandria’s Fort Lyon on June 9, 1863. Located near the present-day Huntington Metro station, this fort was one of the largest in the Defenses of Washington.
Twenty six men and a lieutenant had been detailed to remove the powder from shells at the fort. The powder was damp and caked and the work was slow. The lieutenant decided to burn the powder out of a shell. The
powder was ignited, the shell exploded, igniting eight tons of powder and several thousand rounds of ammunition. Twenty-two men were immediately killed, three died the next day. Eleven more were injured. In the days that followed, prominent generals, the secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and President Abraham Lincoln visited the ruins. The funeral procession contained 17 ambulances, each carrying two coffins, followed by officers and men. They marched to mournful music to the soldier's graveyard in Alexandria. The Fort Lyon disaster was probably the greatest loss of life eve in Alexandria.
Where is the memorial to these U.S. soldiers who died in Alexandria?
Nearly 200 African American Alexandrians fought in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. They include 21-year-old free brickmaker Samuel Allen who died in Petersburg, Va.; and Julius Caesar, a young baker who
enlisted in an experimental unit of the U.S. Army, the 1st United States Colored Troops (USCT). Since the local population in Washington, D..C was hostile to the idea of African American soldiers they were camped on what is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island. Nineteen-year-old John Johnson enlisted in company B of the 29th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops and ended up in Louisiana’s African American militia regiment, the Corps D’Afrique where he died of pneumonia. Buck Stafford enlisted in the army at Grand Gulf, Miss. He went on to be his regiment’s enlisted leader as the 1st Sergeant of Company G, 49th USCT. Stafford
served post war duty occupying the city of Vicksburg, Miss. Many members of the United States Colored Troops are buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery, but in the hearts and minds of most Alexandrians
these men do not exist. Only a solitary Confederate does.
Where is the memorial to Alexandria’s men in blue who served with distinction and honor during the war?
The writer, an Alexandria resident, has studied Civil War history for the past 40 years.