We’ve had “Occupy Wall Street”. We’ve had “Occupy Washington”. Why not “Occupy Alexandria”? That’s yesterday’s news. We were occupied long before it was cool.
Let’s go back to 1814, during the war with the British that yesterday’s Washington Post called “the Rodney Dangerfield of wars.” After several years of war, the good guys were not doing well. On August 23, 1814, British troops set fire to much of Washington, including the White House. Across the Potomac to Alexandria! Did the Virginians, every man, woman, and child, resist valiantly? No! The city surrendered without resistance, and hosted the occupying British soldiers for five days before they departed. The good new is, we weren’t burned. The City of Alexandria is so proud of this affair it’s recorded with a web page, at http://alexandriava.gov/historic/info/default.aspx?id=49310.
Jump to 1861. Virginians vote to ratify the decision to secede from the Union, on May 23. Within a day, 6,000 Union soldiers have arrived by steamboat and taken over the town. Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln’s, is fatally shot taking down a Confederate flap at the Marshall House hotel (now the site of the Hotel Monaco). He is the first Union casualty. Alexandria remains occupied the duration of the war.
We were inspired to record these occupation events when preparing our current store exhibit of Civil War books, with a focus on the war in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. Here’s an abbreviated chronology that we prepared for the store exhibit.
The Civil War in Virginia, Maryland and Washington:
A -Very Selective Chronology
April 4. Virginia’s convention votes against secession. This vote is reversed after the fall of Fort Sumter. Virginia voters ratify the decision to secede on May 23. The capital of the Confederacy is quickly moved to Richmond.
April 29. Maryland legislature votes against secession. (In D.C., of course, there was no vote either way.)
May 24. Immediately after the Virginia secession vote, Alexandria begins its role as the longest-occupied city within a Confederate state. Six thousand Union soldiers arrive by steamboat. Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln, becomes the first Union soldier killed in the war. Subsequently Alexandria becomes the headquarters of the U.S. Military Railroad and the site of a number of military hospitals.
July 21. The Union Army suffers a major defeat in the first major land battle of the war, in the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas, depending on your background.) The defeated army retreats in the direction of Alexandria. A very long and bitter war ensues, much of it within the boundaries of Virginia, although spilling into Maryland on occasion and into Washington once (see below).
May 8-9. The Battle of Hampton Roads is fought between the C.S.S. Virginia (built on the remnants of the former U.S.S. Merrimac) and the U.S.S. Monitor, becoming the first meeting of ironclad warships in combat.
Alexandria National Cemetery is founded as part of the first group of national military cemeteries, next to the city’s established cemetery district. Arlington National Cemetery is founded the following year on land owned by the Lee family.
August 28-30. The Union Army again suffers a major defeat at Bull Run/Manassas.
Sept. 17. The Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, results in 23,000 casualties on both sides. This has become known as the bloodiest single day in American history. The Confederate Army retreats across the Potomac River to Virginia.
Too much happens in Virginia to mention! The Confederate Army travels through Maryland on the way to defeat at Gettysburg, and on its return to Virginia.
In its final thrust into Maryland, the Confederate Army under Gen. Jubal Early crosses the Potomac into Frederick County and marches south, entering Washington on what is now Georgia Avenue. The march is stopped at Fort Stevens, where President Lincoln witnessed Civil War combat for the only time.
Again, too much happens in Virginia to mention!
Richmond falls, Robert E. Lee (a native of Alexandria) surrenders at Appomattox, Lincoln is killed in Washington, war ends, etc.
We’ve heard rumors of some wartime activity in other parts of the South, as well. Perhaps.