Photograph snapshots extraordinary post-war Alexandria


They stand side-by-side, multiracial faces from a bygone era caught by an unknown photographer likely celebrating the Civil Wars end a photograph likely taken hours before the death of a president, perhaps.

When Amy Bertsch of the Office of Historic Alexandria first came across the faded black and white image posted online by the National Archives, it was succinctly labeled: House, Corner of Wolfe and Washington Streets, Alexandria, Virginia.

The unique home with an Italianate flare still stands looming over Washington Street, but Bertsch was more interested in the people posing on the sidewalk more than a century ago. Young and old, black and white, civilian and soldier: some are in their best Sunday clothes while others are haphazardly dressed.

Enter Tim Dennee. An architectural historian in Washington by day, Dennee also serves on the Friends of the Freedmans Cemetery board. After getting his first glance at the photograph in October, from in the Matthew Brady collection, it didnt take too long to track down the back story.

Dennee knew the Wolfe Street house was home to Julia Wilbur, an early aid worker with freed slaves, and escaped slave turned abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs. Comparing the existing known photographs of the friends, Dennee realized Bertschs image captured both of them along with other aid workers, teachers and soldiers in the waning years of the war. 

I thought, Thats pretty terrific, thats a pretty important photograph, he said. To begin with, you dont see a lot of photographs from Civil War Alexandria that have a lot of civilian residents, but to have this mixed group of African-Americans and whites and then to find out that some of them were pretty well known is pretty interesting and pretty exciting.

The home, owned by a family of Confederate sympathizers who fled the Union occupation, barracked soldiers before being converted into shelter for freed slaves making the trip north. When Wilbur moved into the home in February of 1863, the building needed a makeover. 

I would like to have you see a house that soldiers have been quartered in for one year,&contrabands for another year, Wilbur wrote in a letter. You would think that all the rain in the sweet heavens c[oul]d never wash it clean, & years of purification c[oul]d never sweeten it.

Jacobs and Wilbur provided food, clothing and education to the refugees, bringing in teachers from New England to set up a free school for black children. Throughout the war, they dealt with inept doctors, military governors and a haughty reverend, all the while helping the swelling numbers of refugees, escaped slaves and wounded soldiers. 

From 1863 until 1865 Wolfe Street home served as a segregated hospital, a school and a medical dispensary before coming back into the hands of its original owners, the Miller family.

Since Jacobs spent two years in the building and the photograph shows a blooming redbud tree, Dennee believes the picture was taken in April of 1864 or 1865. Pinning an exact date on the image is impossible, but Dennee searched through old newspapers looking for an event that would have been an occasion for a photograph. 

As President Abraham Lincoln made plans for an evening at Fords Theater on April 14, 1865, the people of Alexandria were celebrating the end of the Civil War: the return of the Stars and Stripes to Fort Sumter. Speeches, bonfires, fireworks and a civic parade, marked the day, according to Dennees research. 

Folks were in their Sunday best, some were dressed for play and the people who were living in the houses didnt really dress up or put on coats. They probably just stepped out onto their stoop, he said. One of the many local or itinerant photographers could have snapped the photograph, but were not really sure why or if they were asked to.

Bells ringing in celebration of the wars end, when the photograph was likely taken, were tolling again a day later, marking Lincolns assassination and mourning his death, according to Dennee.

Nearly 146 years later, Dennee wont call the photograph and its history a great find, but its exciting to find another image of Jacobs, a famous Alexandrian, he said. 

Its kind exciting to put [Wilbur and Jacobs] in one spot at the same time, he said. To have this photographic information is really pretty neat.