Occupied City: Life in Civil War Alexandria
Exhbition Open through March 23, 2014
Few Americans have ever experienced occupation of their community by the military, and a restricted life under martial law, and yet Alexandrians spent the duration of the Civil War living this way. The majority of residents opposed secession at first, proud of their ancestral role in helping to form the Union, and as the hometown of George Washington. However, swept up with others in the war fever that gripped the South following the attack on Fort Sumter, and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for men to put down “the rebellion,” many Alexandrians left for war and never returned. Those who stayed behind were often eyed suspiciously, treated as traitors, had their homes and businesses seized for government use, and made to endure repressive and arbitrary policies. Those who left and were fortunate enough to return found their town significantly changed in many ways.
From the contemporary accounts that have survived, it appears that residents settled into a new routine with the Union Army in town, and got used to massive construction projects, piles of equipment, men in uniform everywhere, and the wounded from both sides filling buildings across town. Behind it all was the constant sound of heavy horse-drawn freight wagons and puffing trains moving tons of supplies. Also new were hundreds of additional African American faces . . . former slaves, freed by the war and by the Emancipation Proclamation, who moved north behind Union lines to find work, homes, and new lives in freedom. They built houses, businesses, churches and schools, many of which still exist today, and their families endured and prospered.
This exhibition examines the experiences of Alexandrians and others who lived through this period in our city and much of the story is told by these people themselves, as their words appear throughout. As you tour the exhibition, think about some of the war’s causes and legacies: the interaction of the government and the governed in times of crisis; the rights of individuals during similarly stressful periods; and the meaning of the Civil War for us today.