Civil War History
Early 1861: Alexandria was a vibrant Southern town with a population of more than 12,000. With the country edging closer to civil conflict, Alexandrians wanted Virginia to remain in the Union since the city's proximity to Washington, DC meant they would be in immediate danger of invasion by Union troops if Virginia did secede.
But when President Lincoln called for troops to crush the rebellion at South Carolina's Fort Sumter, the city's attitudes shifted dramatically. James Jackson, local proprietor of the Marshall House Hotel, raised a Confederate flag, and war fever swept the city. On May 23, 1861, townsmen voted overwhelmingly for secession.
The next morning, Union troops invaded.
They included a regiment led by young Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a close friend of President Lincoln. Ellsworth glimpsed James Jackson's Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze. The colonel, with a small group of his men, entered the hotel, climbed to the roof and seized the flag. Ellsworth was shot in the chest by Jackson. In return, the hotel proprietor was shot and bayoneted by Union Corporal Brownell.
Both Jackson and Ellsworth died and each soon became a martyr to his respective cause, with Ellsworth lying in state at the White House and thousands lining New York streets to see his coffin.
Within months, Alexandria was transformed into a bustling logistical supply center for Federal armies fighting in Virginia. Homes, churches and public buildings were commandeered for barracks, hospitals and prisons. A string of forts, including Fort Ward in Alexandria's West End, were constructed; today Fort Ward is the best preserved of those remaining.
Because Alexandria was behind Union lines, African American refugees streamed into the city, contributing to the Union labor force but putting major stress on the area's ability to house and feed those in need. Alexandria's outskirts and vacant lots filled with shanties that would eventually form vibrant African-American neighborhoods. The Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery was the burial place for approximately 1,700 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape bondage.
The years after the war were far from easy, but with its central position in the capital region, unmatched historic beauty and rich diversity, Alexandria would surpass even its glorious beginnings.
Download Civil War Resources
Historical Overview Walking Tour
Virginia Civil War Trails Map
Explore Civil War Alexandria iPhone Application
The Alexandria Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail:
Make Alexandria Your Civil War Base Camp
Alexandria had a unique and pivotal role in the Civil War. Within eyesight of Washington, DC, it was the Confederate territory longest held by Union troops. While the citizens suffered terribly, the town was spared from significant military action. Its buildings and architecture remained largely intact - making it the perfect base camp today for exploring the region's Civil War history. Visitors today can easily stroll through a town that looks much as it did 150 years ago and visit dozens of historic sites that witnessed the strife of that period.
All this can be done while enjoying the finest shopping and dining available for connoisseurs of more modern delights.
Alexandria is at the heart of a region rich in Civil War sites. Within 20 miles you'll find...
Arlington, Virginia (5 Miles)
Arlington National Cemetery & Arlington House/Custis-Lee Mansion
Fort Ethan Allen
Washington, D.C. (6 Miles)
The Petersen Boarding House
President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home
The African American Civil War Museum
Library of Congress
Clinton, Maryland (14 miles)
Surratt House Museum
Fairfax, Virginia (15 Miles)
Fairfax Museum & Visitors Center
Civil War Interpretive Center at Historic Blenheim
Ox Hill Battlefield Park
St. Mary's Church
Fairfax Station Railroad Museum
Sully Historic Site
Vienna, Virginia (20 miles)
For those who wish to travel further afield, Alexandria is the perfect spot to come "home" to after a full day of learning about Civil War history in Virginia. Significant Civil War sites close to Alexandria include:
Manassas, Virginia | 21 miles
Fredericksburg, Virginia | 42 miles
Richmond, Virginia | 100 miles