By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
More than 150 years ago, in an age when most women were expected to “remember their place,” two women – one, a Black, former enslaved servant, the other, a white Quaker relief worker – chose to ignore convention and unite to confront the establishment.
Their determination would result in an uphill battle to improve life for many of Alexandria’s poor and sick.
During the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac used Alexandria as a headquarters for the shipment of supplies and troops and as a defense post for the nation’s capital. However, the city’s strategic location also made it a hub for the care of sick and wounded troops. Alexandria became home to more than 30 temporary hospitals – public and private buildings that the Union commandeered during its occupation of the city. By the end of the war, hospital sites in Alexandria included 6,500 beds.
The city also became home to a growing population of former enslaved people during and following the War Between the States. Between 1864 and 1869, approximately 1,800 African Americans escaped to Alexandria. When they arrived at the city, most suffered from poverty, hunger and illness.
Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist who won her legal freedom following enslavement in North Carolina, was the author of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Jacobs and her daughter Louisa arrived in Alexandria in the early 1860s to provide emergency health care for the freedmen and contrabands and to eventually establish the Jacobs Free School.
Julia Wilbur, an abolitionist relief worker from Rochester, New York, arrived in Alexandria during the war as well. She met Jacobs and joined her health care efforts for the city’s growing refugee population. The two worked in a building at 321-323 S. Washington St. In early 1863, Military Governor General John Slough mandated that a portion of the side-by-side houses serve as a medical facility for African American Union Army soldiers.
The hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. John Bigelow, ignored Slough’s orders. Black troops were sent to another Army facility, and Bigelow used the location to stockpile critical bedding and medical supplies. Six ill women occupied the only beds.
The irony of the situation – the small infirmary in dire need of medical personnel and equipment just steps away from unused stockpiles – was not lost on Wilbur and Jacobs. Wilbur referred to the building as “a loathsome place.”
In her diary Wilbur continued, “[Dr. Bigelow] was authorized to fit up his hospital equal to the best military hospitals and employ competent nurses … and I never heard any good reason why it was not done.”
As was the case with medical care, shelter for refugees was scarce. When the U.S. Army announced its plan to house orphaned children in the city’s Smallpox Hospital, Wilbur and Jacobs, knowing the dangers of such an environment, decided to challenge the establishment head-on. Civilians, especially women, initiating a criticism against the U.S Army was unheard of. In an unprecedented move, both women appealed for adequate care for orphans and other refugees, with Jacobs stating, “I have been a slave myself.” The two women succeeded in halting the transfer of the orphans.
Improvements also began at the hospital on South Washington Street. By the fall of 1863, Wilbur wrote, “The house is now filled with those for whom it was intended, a competent matron and nurses are employed, and I thank God for the blessed change.”
Although Jacobs and Wilbur eventually moved out of Alexandria, they remained friends until their deaths in the 1890s.
Like our city’s volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic, these two Alexandria women – who didn’t “remember their place” – should be remembered.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.