Late yesterday afternoon, as if by divine intervention, the blue skies over Old Town Alexandria turned gray as a thunderstorm rolled in. Twenty minutes later, the clouds had moved on and sunny skies prevailed.
An hour later, about 40 Alexandrians gathered for an event at the Monaco hotel, where a panel of Civil War in Alexandria experts spoke. 150 years ago to the day, some of the first blood was spilled right there at the corner of King and S. Pitt when Confederate sympathizer James W. Jackson, proprietor of the Marshall House which occupied the site, shot and instantly killed Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who had led the invasion of Alexandria early that morning. One of Ellsworth’s men then shot and killed Jackson.
Moderator Michael Lee Pope, who has written about the war at the Alexandria Gazette Packett, moderated the event. When the passionate feelings heated up a few times, Pope acted as a referee. But don’t worry, the only shots fired were a few citizens making comments to defend their side.
Chuck Mauro, author of “The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers”
Mauro detailed claims Alexandrians made to a Commission in order to receive reparations for damage to their property during the War, or items the Union conviscated. 169 claims were made, with about one-third receiving monies, which averaged $5,000. The most difficult hurdle they faced was the Commission’s requirement they swear allegiance to the Union.
Don Hakenson, author of “This forgotten land: A tour of Civil War sites and other historical landmarks south of Alexandria, Virginia."
With a booming voice, something much appreciated due to the fact that the room we were in was not walled off, Hakenson related his experience as a teenager. Wanting to learn about the Civil War, he could not find any that covered Fairfax County. He collected materials and researched on his own for over 20 years. He then self-published his books.
George Combs, Director of Special Collections – Alexandria Library
Many a researcher at Alexandria’s main library on Queen Street knows George Combs as an expert provider of resources. He gave a rundown on the many resources available at the Library’s Special and Local Collections, and passed along the news that a scanning service will soon be available at the Library. They hope folks will consider coming to the Library with any historical documents and such. You, of course, keep your originals, and get a paper copy plus the digital copy.
Ted Pulliam, author of the newly-released “Historic Alexandria”
Pulliam was proud of his just published book. He spoke about a diary an Alexandria resident wrote. Her name was Isabelle Emerson, and she lived near the corner of Duke and S. Payne. This gave her a front porch view of activities in and around the Railroad Station, and troop movements. Her diary reflected the initial ambivalence Alexandrians had before the war. But like the vast majority in the city, she sided with the South once the conflict began.
Emerson witnessed the capture/surrender of some of the Confederate troops on the day of the Union’s march into the City on May 24, 1861. She also saw wounded Union soldiers who retreated after the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas that summer.
Pamela Cressey, Alexandria City Archeologist
Dr. Pamela Cressey, a lady that needs no introduction when the gathering is made up of researchers and history buffs in Old Town, and someone who has diligently served as the City’s Archeologist for the past 30 years, turned the conversation to the significant number of slaves who fled the Confederacy and became known as "contraband." The South demanded them back but the Union General at Fort Monroe kept them, saying they were Union property, and that because the South had seceded, they had no rightful claims.
This is a chapter of the war in Alexandria that is just beginning to be understood. Half a million slaves found this form of freedom, and a significant number came to Alexandria. An effort is being made to find descendants.
If you are a descendant of an ancestor buried there, contact the Alexandria Black History Museum or the Alexandria Archaeology Musuem. The web site freedmenscemetery.org has a listing of names.
Although it wasn’t discussed, it’s worth noting that two contraband history events will be held in the next two weeks. The National Trust for Historic Preservation will hold one next week. Char Bah will speak at the Alexandria Black History Museum on Saturday June 11. Both spaces are small, so please RSVP.
Barb Winters, author of “Letters to Virginia: Correspondence from three generations of Alexandrians before, during and after the Civil War."
Winters spoke about her book that covers three families, one before the War, one during, and one after. Since no break was given, I missed most of her talk by taking my own small one. You can read about her book at her blog.
All in all, a very good event. The next big one is the reenactment of Bull Run/Manassas in July, which many will say was the start of the war. Can’t argue with that, but 150 years ago, events took place in Alexandria that also put the two sides one step closer to Civil War.