"Mercy Street," a PBS-produced six-part series set in 1862 Alexandria, is scheduled to air on January 17th. The City and the museums have done an outstanding job by offering two-dozen visitor experiences.
One place we don’t see listed is the Alexandria National Cemetery. The omission is certainly understandable with its de-centralized location and the fact the cemetery has no exhibit space or park personnel stationed there.
And I have to admit, these five sacred acres lying at the end of Wilkes Street did not cross my mind last month when I was wondering if there might be other Civil War places one could visit in Alexandria.
Earlier this week I was taking a walk through the cemetery to see the wreaths laid by volunteers with Wreaths Across America. Passing through the front gate, I spotted two new interpretive markers erected by the Veteran’s Administration. One of them features a photo of the Mansion House Hospital, which is the setting for the Mercy Street series. Many of the soldiers who died in the Alexandria hospitals during the Civil War are buried at the Alexandria National Cemetery.
The Mansion House Hospital, which fronted the Carlyle House on N. Fairfax Street, was the largest in the city during the war. Its 700 beds, however, were hardly enough for the sick, diseased and wounded. Alexandria converted more than two-dozen buildings into hospitals.
Despite the numerous hospitals and Federal medical presence in the city, many soldiers died in Alexandria during the war. To bury the dead, the government acquired four acres on the outskirts of town, a hilly terrain bordered by church cemeteries, Hoof’s Run and the railroad tracks south of Duke Street. Four of the five and half acres for the cemetery were previously part of Spring Garden Farm.
The cemetery, originally called Soldier’s Cemetery, filled up within two years. Arlington National Cemetery was established to meet the continuing need for burial space.
Alexandria National Cemetery holds over 4,000 soldiers. It was established in 1862 and is one of the original 14 national cemeteries. As of September 30, 2008, there were 4,247 interments. Most were privates and all but about 40 fought on the Union side of the war.
The story of Alexandria National Cemetery cannot be told without telling the saga of the 229 African American soldiers whose remains rest peacefully in the southern section of the cemetery. These men gave their last full measure as members of the United States Colored Troops. Originally buried in the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery, their remains were re-interred in the Alexandria cemetery.
An interpretive sign at 1323 Duke Street touches on some of this story. For many years, the block of Duke, West, Princess and Payne was the property of slave traders who made a fortune shipping enslaved humans south to New Orleans. The parcel became L’Ouverture Hospital in 1864, which cared for soldiers serving in the U.S. Colored Troops.
Some of these soldiers protested the fact that, despite their service to the Union, their fallen comrades were denied burial at the Soldier’s Cemetery. In 1864, 423 petitioned for the right of black soldiers to be laid to rest at the Soldier’s Cemetery instead of the Contraband’s Cemetery. The marker notes this was “Alexandria’s first, collective civil rights action.”
Their pursuit of justice found a righteous ending. 280 or so black soldiers are buried at the Alexandria National Cemetery.
In 1879, the Daughters of the Confederacy oversaw the re-interrment of the remains of 39 Confederate soldiers. 34 were buried at Christ Church, identified on a large white stone fronting N. Washington Street. Five others were reinterred elsewhere. These 39 soldiers were prisoners of war who died in the Federal Hospitals in Alexandria.
The superintendent’s lodge, which is also referred to by some as the caretaker’s building or gatehouse, was built in 1862. Quartermaster of the Army, General Montgomery Meigs, a highly-regarded officer who oversaw the making of Arlington National Cemetery and the building of the Pension Building (National Building Museum) in Washington, designed the original lodge building in the Second Empire Style.
This small building was destroyed by fire in 1878. The present lodge was built a year later. The walls are red sandstone.
A recent article in The Alexandria Times reported on the occupants of the lodge house. The Russell Mitchell Post 609, Veterans of Foreign Wars, uses the building from time to time as an office, meeting space and a place to conduct patriotic ceremonies. They also raise and lower the flag each day.
The lodge is unoccupied, but the cemetery is managed by Quantico National Cemetery. Work continues to restore the lodge, as well as the original comfort station.
This photograph, taken from one of the interpretive markers, looks westward. The white buildings seen in the background were part of the Slough General Hospital, which stood on the west side of modern day Holland Lane.
This perspective as it looks today.
Nomination Form, National Register for Historic Places.
Alexandria Archaeology (Peggy Harlow researched the Alexandria hospitals.)
Roster of Soldiers, Alexandria Library, Special Collections.
Interpretive Markers, City of Alexandria, Veteran's Administration.
Photo of Black Soldier (Charles Marshall, 1822-1881) taken at Carlyle House. See their exhibit for more information.