Torn asunder during the Civil War, Alexandria prepares to commemorate 150 years since Union occupation

Torn asunder during the Civil War, Alexandria prepares to commemorate 150 years since Union occupation

In the first few moments of May 24, 1861, just hours after a dwindling Alexandria population voted to secede from the United States, federal troops seeped through the night from Washington with eyes fixed firmly on Alexandria. 

Soldiers from New York, New Jersey and Michigan crossed the Potomac River, which overnight became a glistening symbol of the fissure between North and South. The men had been waiting to move on the port city, a town residing on the border of good and evil, righteousness and treachery depending on ones loyalties. 

Wealthy families packed their silver and became refugees, heading south to escape the impending occupation. Some ditched other property slaves at the jail on the corner of St. Asaph and Princess streets for safekeeping, according to historian James Barber.

Old Towns streets, bustling with culture and commerce before the war, had been hushed. The boots of Col. Elmer Ellsworth and his men would shake them awake as they marched to the Marshall House, an inn on the corner of South Pitt and King streets, to take down an unashamed Confederate flag. James Jackson, the inns owner, shot and killed Ellsworth in protest before being shot himself, providing both the North and South with their first martyrs, writes George Kundahl in Alexandria Goes to War.

Alexandria had an identity crisis. Most residents voted for John Bell, a presidential candidate loyal to the federal government, indicating a Southern town with Northern tendencies, caught amid Rebel fervor and its geographic proximity to Washington. Alexandrians at war were simply fulfilling their duty, upholding personal honor, not caught up in the political argument over a states right to secede or the moral question of owning slaves, according to Kundahl.

But those left in the city voted for secession by a landslide. And the city council refused to aid Federal troops with their cavalry that night, prompting Col. Orlando Wilcox to declare marshal law. 

Alexandria is ours, he declared. The Union would occupy Alexandria for the next four years, transforming it from a ghost town into an important hub for the Northern cause.

As todays Alexandria commemorates the 150th anniversary of its occupation this Saturday, the citys plurality of experiences will be remembered, but so too will the pattern of divisive splits that occurred a century-and-a-half ago: religious congregations disbanded over their beliefs, slaves became unbound from their owners, families broke up. Friends became enemies. In some cases, even Alexandrias brothers and sisters turned against one another.


As the Civil War rolled into Alexandria from the north, two young men left the Port City in the opposite direction, taking up the battle flag of the Confederacy. Their older brother Tom, living in Kentucky at the time, would remain loyal to the Union. 

Local author Barb Winters chronicled Tom, John and Hector Eaches in Letters to Virginia: Correspondence from three generations of Alexandrians before, during and after the Civil War. Hector and John would spend most of the war in a federal prisoner of war camp, writing lengthy letters to their relatives in occupied Alexandria and their elder brother. 

John would bear a grudge against his pro-Union brother until his death in 1868, a feud he blamed on the War Between the States. 

I have written two letters to Tom since I have been a prisoner and can hear nothing from him, John wrote home in 1863. I suppose he thinks (although my brother) I deserve nothing from him but silence and contempt because hes a Union man and I a poor God forsaken Rebel…

But Winters, who pored over the boxes of letters after they arrived at Alexandria Librarys special collections in 2000, believes Toms silence had less to do with Johns politics and more with his drinking habit. 

He never seemed to understand that was part of the problem, she said. Because of Johns drinking, Tom washed his hands of [him].

They were not the only Eaches to go separate ways. Their sister, Carrie, married a secessionist in St. Louis. Missouri would not follow Virginia, but her husband, Thomas Russell, had broken with President Abraham Lincoln and his party. 

I loved the old government. I loved the Stars&Stripes so long as they represented a government rendering justice to all, but since that glorious and makeshift ensign has been prostituted to represent Black Republicanism, over despotism, I retire from beneath its folding with the greatest regret, he wrote to his sister-in-laws husband, Towny Fendall, in 1861. 

Fendall sympathized with the Confederacy, but like Russell, disliked Lincoln more than he supported the south. He would spend the war in an occupied Alexandria, under what amounted to house arrest, according to Winters, afraid the Union would seize his property if he left.

Among the surviving letters from the Eaches, Russell and Fendall, there are few open declarations of allegiance one way or the other. They were caught up in the moment more than anything else, Winters said. 

I think [Fendall] went along with what the city went along with, she said. If they had stayed Union, he would have been pro-Union.

And while Tom generally kept from taking too many jabs at his Confederate brothers, Hector also wrote home without any fervor for secession. Despite ending up on opposite sides of the great conflict, the two remained close after the war.

Theres no letter saying I have decided I am for the South and I am off to war, Winters said. I think Hector was sort of swept up in the excitement: were going off to war, were going to defeat the Union.
Events examining Alexandria’s occupation, 150 years later

May 24 marks 150 years since Union troops claimed Alexandria and occupied it for four years during the Civil War. Back then, Alexandrians probably met the troops by shuttering their windows. Today, the city is commemorating the event as a turning point in Alexandria’s history, and examining the plurality of experiences that the Port City’s residents underwent. The commemoration kicks off Saturday, May 21, at Market Square, but events last all day long.

The Civil War in Alexandria: A 150th Commemorative Event

Discover how Alexandria was transformed by the Civil War on the 150th anniversary weekend of Alexandria’s occupation by federal troops. “Life in Civil War Alexandria: A 150th Commemorative Event,” a kick-off for Alexandria’s Civil War commemoration, will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. in Old Town at Market Square, 301 King St. This extensive living history event will feature an opening ceremony; music by the Federal City Brass Band; interpretations of Robert E. Lee, a Civil War photographer, an army surgeon, Union and Confederate soldiers and African American civilians; as well as a U.S. Military railroad portrayal; the Victorian Dance Ensemble; and a variety of other interpretive activities to help tell the story of Alexandria’s experience during the Civil War. This free event will also offer information tables on Civil War historic sites, museums, events and organizations in the local area. For more information, visit or call 703-746-4554.

New Civil War Tours of the Apothecary

On this afternoon, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, 105-107 South Fairfax St., is offering its new Civil War tours for free. From 2 to 5 p.m., tour the Apothecary to learn why Mary Leadbeater signed the Oath of Allegiance to the Union, what popular remedies she sold to both civilians and soldiers, and more. For more information, visit or call 703-746-3

Spies and Scouts of the Civil War Family Festival

When Union troops occupied Alexandria on May 24, 1861, the citizens were forced to choose sides. Loyalties were often divided and those who sympathized with the South had to live in an occupied city. Many people became spies for both sides of the war, and Carlyle House was a site known well to spies Frank Stringfellow and Sarah Emma Edmonds. Now families and children of all ages are invited to join in on the action at Carlyle House, 121 North Fairfax St., with free crafts and activities from 2 to 5 p.m. Decode a secret message, try on a disguise, participate in a scavenger hunt and more. Learn about Stringfellow, who pretended to be a dentist to spy on Union soldiers in Alexandria, and Edmonds, who dressed as a man, served as a soldier, and crossed enemy lines. For more information, visit or call 703-549-2997.

Tours at R.E. Lee Camp Hall Museum 

Commemorate the start of the War Between the States and the occupation of Alexandria by touring the R.E. Lee Camp Hall Museum, 806 Prince Street, Alexandria’s only museum dedicated to the local companies of the 17th Virginia Infantry. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., visit this historic building that served as a hospital during the Civil War and see Robert E. Lee’s camp chair and other Lee family items. Learn about the Appomattox statue at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets, meet General Montgomery Dent Corse and other costumed re-enactors and speak with descendants of “Alexandria’s Own,” the 17th Virginia. Local authors will be signing copies of their books, including Mary Mackall with “In the Shadow of the Enemy,” Barb Winters with “Letters from Virginia,” and Don Hakenson with “This Forgotten Land, Confederates Buried in Alexandria.”  Tours start on the half hour.  Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.  For more information, email or call 703-519-2123.