In the index of his book, “Alexandria in the Civil War,” James Barber lists Andrew J. Russell, seven times. That’s the same amount as Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the commander of the Union force that marched into the city in May 1861, and quickly became a martyr and a hero.
So who was Russell?
In a program titled, “A Visual Tour of Civil War Alexandria,” Wally Owen provided the answer last night at the Lyceum in Alexandria. An audience of about 100 filled the upstairs auditorium, used as a convalescent center during the war. Owen is the co-author of, “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to Civil War Defenses of Washington,” and Assistant Director of the Fort Ward Museum.
Russell (1830-1902) was a Captain with the 141st New York Infantry. He learned photography from Egbert Guy Fowx, who worked for the famed photographer Matthew Brady. General Herman Haupt, in charge of the military railroads during the war, saw something in Russell, and gave him a special assignment in 1862 - photograph the military railroads in Alexandria.
Russell took over 1,000 photographs of Alexandria, which had become a major supply depot during the war. Owen presented several dozen of these, some from private collectors and some from his own collections.
Some of Russell’s best work took place at what is now "Old Town Village" and "Old Town Station" near Route 1 South and Duke Street. Hints of history are found there today, the Roundhouse Lane street sign, and the community center built in the same shape as the roundhouse that stood one block to the east, at what was then the corner of Wilkes and Henry.
Russell stood on top of one of the station's buildings and took an array of photographs in each direction. Landmarks still standing helped the audience pinpoint the view, and Owen provided the orientational guides too.
After General Meigs replaced Haupt, he tasked Russell with taking pictures of buildings in the city. A lot of oos and aahs could be heard in the audience, perhaps the person seeing their house or what was there before.
Russell went on to distinguish himself in other parts of the country, including his famous “Joining the Rails” photograph of the meeting of the first transcontinental railroad.
Owen indicated that the Library of Congress has digitalized over 7,000 Civil War photos. Once scanned and published on the web, historians can glean more information. The speaker showed us several dramatic examples of this zooming in. The future is very promising in this regard.