Dead or alive: the Civil War in Alexandria

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Dead or alive: the Civil War in Alexandria
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There are parts of Alexandria, some just a few blocks off of Lee Street, where its not hard to imagine hearing the echoing thud of Union troops marching into the city from Washington. 

Charles Hooffs real estate office on the corner of Duke Street and Reinekers Lane is not one of them. 

Nearly 150 years after the federal seizure of the town, traffic rumbles by as construction workers noisily dig up a section of the sidewalk. Shoppers rush in and out of a Whole Foods Market across the street, the high-rises of Carlyle towering above.

To the casual passerby, the statue of the Edmondson Sisters slave girls made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe not far from Hooffs brick building is the only obvious sign of his offices significance. 

Leaning back on his office sofa, hand pressed to his head, Hooff recalls the trickle of pilgrims and tourists who occasionally stop in to ask about the buildings past a slave jail owned and operated by Joseph Bruin, a notorious human trafficker, in the years before Union occupation. 

Hooffs family has owned the home since the Eisenhower Administration, though he learned of the buildings story only as recently as the past decade. For a lifelong Alexandrian, its still hard to consider it as anything more than another building with a lot of history.

I dont see the ghosts of the Edmondson sisters walking through here, he said between sips of coffee. I dont know there are no ghosts, no vibrations.

Hooff remembers getting a call from a woman across the river interested in visiting. This came after research into the building led to the offices listing on the National Park Services Underground Railroad itinerary. When she learned Hooff didnt have a brochure handy or at all she was outraged, he recalled. 

Which is not to say Hooff is uninterested in the buildings history. Its just nothing new to him. Hooff is old enough to have heard armchair accounts of the war directly. In anger his grandmother once put her foot through a portrait of either William Tecumseh Sherman or Ulysses S. Grant he cant remember exactly being peddled by a Prince Street art dealer.

To Hooffs grandmothers credit, her father had been wounded fighting for the Confederates at Gettsyburg and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. For many of Alexandrias residents, the Civil War years were tough times, Hooff said. When he was a child in the 1940s, the bad memories still lingered.

But even thats begun to fade away.

He smiles and runs a hand along a strip of molding.

You want me to tell you that the house talks to me, right? he says.

GUN-HOLE PLAYGROUNDS

Vince Callahan manicures the strip of grass between the sidewalk of his Jefferson Street home and the curb, not far from where the cannons of Battery Rodgers overlooked the Potomac River. His wife, Yvonne, remembers the previous owner telling them she had grown up playing in gun emplacement ruins as a child. 

Like Hooff, the Callahans can rattle off much of the citys Civil War history and talk animatedly about an occupied Alexandria. Though the sesquicentennial already is underway, the direct connections to the conflict have faded, Yvonne said. 

When she moved to St. Asaph Street in the mid-1960s, Confederate flags were flown around town and the federal occupation wasnt spoken of. She remembers her landlady telling a story of how the townspeople greeted wounded Union soldiers returning via train to Alexandrias plethora of military hospitals: dropping rocks on them from a bridge over the tracks. 

You could really feel it when I moved here in the 60s, Yvonne said. People were more conscious of it There were more stories flying around.

What hasnt faded is the discomfort in dealing with the nations third rail of history. As preparations get underway to observe Alexandrias role in the war, Yvonne isnt sure theres a right way to observe the conflict. 

Its a very touchy subject, she said, hands on her hips. Do you celebrate it or commemorate it? You can come up with a catchy slogan, but is that how you do it?

MARSHALL HOUSE MARTYRS 

When it comes to walking a fine line between sacred ground and tourist attraction, perhaps no one in Alexandria has a harder time of it than Robert Hannigan, general manager at the Hotel Monaco. 

Now a boutique hotel and restaurant, the lodging house sits atop the site of the Marshall House. On May 24, 1861, owner James Jackson gunned down Col. Elmer Ellsworth after the Union officer removed Jacksons Confederate flag. Ellsworths comrades returned fire, shooting Jackson dead. 

Both are listed among of the earliest casualties of the four-year butchering.

Our goal is to remember and commemorate the past, Hannigan said. We want to be respectful, but be true to the story and make sure people who stay in the hotel are aware that this is a very special place.

Hannigans staff is well versed in the locales history the original building is long gone and remain ready to field questions from their guests. Many already know the story, he said, especially as interest in the war grows with the anniversary. When asked about the difficulties of retelling a history with victims on both sides, Hannigan pauses.  

Were reluctant to take sides, he said. Well just say theres a martyr on both sides and everybody can decide which take to have on it, but we absolutely want to run the middle. Its a momentous occasion. Each side has a different image of it and were used to welcoming everybody.

THE DISCONNECT

In his lifetime Hooff has watched the Civil War transform from a living memory to a textbook chapter. In the stories he grew up hearing, he knew characters now featured in documentaries and books as friends, comrades and business associates.

The direct link to that period of history has quietly vanished, he said. For instance, John Wilkes Booth was not a welcome name in the Hooff household when he was a child, owing to the belief Abraham Lincoln would have shown more kindness to the war-torn South.

They were talking about these folks as people they knew. They were flat walking around on the street, spitting tobacco and talking stories, Hooff remembers. When you talk about the Civil War to people of my age, its not something that is abstract.     

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