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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.

Civil War Points of Interest

Download Civil War Resources

Make Alexandria Your Civil War Base Camp


Alexandria Archaeology

  • 105 N. Union Street, Torpedo Factory Art Center
  • Third Floor, #327
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Because of the heavy Union presence in Alexandria, archaeologists have discovered a rich buried Civil War history, documenting important features, like a Crimean oven in a former camp, and recovering…Learn More

Alexandria Black History Museum

  • 902 Wythe Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Antebellum Alexandria represented both the oppression of slavery and the opportunities that freedom offered to African Americans. Once home to two major slave trading businesses, Alexandria became a…Learn More

Alexandria Colonial Tours

  • 201 King Street
  • Suite 302
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Alexandria's Original Ghost & Graveyard Tour. These fun ghost tours often include stories dating back to the Civil War, and the company also offers individualized tours looking at the Civil War in…Learn More

Alexandria's Footsteps to the Past

  • Alexandria Visitors Center
  • 221 King Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Owned by a ninth-generation Virginian, this company offers a daily 90-minute history tour from Ramsay House Visitors Center. March-Dec, (Jan-Feb by appointment only). Also offered by appointment a…Learn More


  • 201 Prince Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Built in 1851 as the Bank of the Old Dominion, Robert E. Lee did his banking here. When Union forces occupied Alexandria during the Civil War, they took over the building and used it as a commissary…Learn More

Carlyle House

  • 121 N. Fairfax Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

A grand hotel before the war, the building that once surrounded the Carlyle House was known as the Mansion House Hospital and could hold up to 700 sick and wounded soldiers. Nurse Mary Phinney…Learn More

Christ Church

  • 118 N. Washington Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

George Washington and Robert E. Lee had worshipped at Christ Church, an English country style church completed in 1773. Christ Church attracted many Union soldiers stationed around Alexandria who…Learn More

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial

Between 1864 and 1869, the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria to escape from bondage. New in…Learn More

Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site

  • 4301 W. Braddock Road
  • Alexandria, VA 22304

Fort Ward is the best preserved of the extensive network of Union forts and batteries known as the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Fort Ward Museum interprets the site’s history, life within the…Learn More

Freedom House

  • 1315 Duke Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

This building was once home to Franklin and Armfield, one of the largest dealers in the domestic slave trade, and enslaved people were held here and in an adjacent yard. During the Civil War, Union…Learn More

Friendship Firehouse

  • 107 S. Alfred Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Established in 1774, the Friendship Fire Company built its historic firehouse in 1855. Friendship survived the Civil War but some other fire companies disbanded because their equipment was destroyed…Learn More

Gadsby's Tavern Museum

  • 134 N. Royal Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

The City Hotel, as Gadsby’s Tavern was called in the 19th century, was a popular tourist attraction during the Civil War for journalists and Union officers alike because of the site’s famous…Learn More

George Washington Masonic Memorial

  • 101 Callahan Drive
  • Alexandria, VA 22301

In 1922, construction of the George Washington Masonic Memorial began on Shuter's Hill, which had played a significant historical role during the Civil War. There were two forts on the hill: Fort…Learn More

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

  • 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway,
  • Mount Vernon, VA 22121

The beautiful riverside estate of George Washington includes the Mansion, outbuildings, tomb, & working farm, and new visitor facilities with 25 galleries and theaters. The new Orientation Center and…Learn More

Gunston Hall

  • 10709 Gunston Road
  • Lorton, VA 22079-3901

The 1755 Georgian-style mansion was the home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a framer of the U.S. Constitution. Daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed major holidays.…Learn More

Ivy Hill Cemetery Historical Preservation Society

  • 2823 King Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22301

Ivy Hill is one of Alexandria's largest and most historic cemeteries with graves of Civil War veterans on its grounds. It also offers a wealth of protected flora and fauna. Educational and cultural…Learn More

Lee-Fendall House Museum & Garden

  • 614 Oronoco Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314-2308

Robert E. Lee’s father purchased the lot where this historic home sits and sold it to his cousin who built the house in 1785. Between 1785 and 1903, it was home to 37 Lee family members. This period…Learn More

Lyceum, Alexandria's History Museum

  • 201 S. Washington Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

For two decades before the Civil War, The Lyceum, built in 1839, was the intellectual and cultural center of Alexandria. Like many churches and other large structures in town, this building was seized…Learn More

Robert E. Lee Camp Hall Museum

  • 806 Prince Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Union troops seized this residence and converted it to a hospital. After the war, it became the hall of Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans, established in 1884 and named in honor of…Learn More

Soldiers Cemetery / Alexandria National Cemetery

  • Wilkes & Payne sts.
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

First known as Soldiers' Cemetery, this sacred military burial ground was designated by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The first burials were soldiers who died in and around Alexandria. By 1864,…Learn More

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

  • 105-107 S. Fairfax Street
  • Alexandria, VA 22314

Since 1792, Alexandria patrons from Martha Washington to Robert E. Lee relied on tonics dispensed from the Apothecary. During the war, the Apothecary remained open after owner Mary Leadbeater signed…Learn More

Woodlawn - Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House

  • 9000 Richmond Highway
  • Alexandria, VA 22309

George Washington gave the estate to his adopted granddaughter and his nephew as a wedding gift. Dr. William Thornton, first architect of the U.S. Capitol, was then commissioned to design the mansion.…Learn More

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:
Cue Sheet

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
Freedman's Village
Fort Ethan Allen

Washington, D.C. (6 Miles)
Ford's Theatre
The Petersen Boarding House
President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home
The African American Civil War Museum
Fort Stevens
Lincoln Memorial
National Archives
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
Fort Marcy
St. Mary's Church
Fairfax Station Railroad Museum
Sully Historic Site
Dranesville Tavern
Franconia Museum

Vienna, Virginia (20 miles)
Freeman Store/Museum

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



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