First Person Accounts
Alexandria During the Civil War: First Person Accounts
Geographically and politically, Alexandria was directly in the path of the American Civil War. Situated across the Potomac River from the Federal capital in Washington D.C., this Southern city was a major port and railroad hub for routes from the north, northwest, and south. Its citizen militia was drilling in the streets as President Abraham Lincoln and his military advisers assessed Alexandria's strategic importance.
As a vote of secession became imminent, early 1861 brought heightened anxiety to northern Virginians. Rather than risking a military conflict and possible destruction of the city, local militia units left Alexandria on the morning of May 24, 1861. The prospect of a divided country and possible armed conflict prompted eloquent Alexandrians and visitors to the city to record their thoughts in diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and military communications.
When Virginia's vote of succession took effect on May 24, 1861, Union troops moved across the Potomac River into northern Virginia to secure the area. Once captured, the city of Alexandria was held under martial law for the remainder of the conflict, giving it the dubious distinction of being the Confederacy's longest occupied city. It would become a staging area for Union activities as public buildings and private residences were converted to offices, military headquarters, and hospitals. The United States Military Railroad would be based here, and the Potomac River port came under Union control. In the ensuing four years, thousands of Union soldiers were stationed in or passed through the city, and hundreds of civilians came here to work in support of the Union war effort. The city also became a major Union military hospital center, and one of the nation's first national cemeteries was established here in 1862. Although as many as two-thirds of the local residents left Alexandria, many - especially those loyal to the Union cause - remained. Daily life for citizens was disrupted by shortages, military regulations, and uncertainty.
Numerous impressions of events in Alexandria during the years 1861-1865 survive. Residents, soldiers, nurses, journalists, and military government officials are among those who left behind accounts of their experiences. These voices from the past create a vivid portrait of life in Civil War Alexandria.
Alexandria residents, soldiers stationed here or recuperating in the City's military hospitals, nurses and aide workers, war correspondents and others left accounts of Alexandria during the Civil War.
The Civil War in Alexandria