First Person Account: An American War Correspondent

Read of American war correspondent George Alfred Townsend's experience in Alexandria during the Civil War, from his book "Campaigns of a Non-Combatant."

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George Alfred Townsend

George Alfred Townsend, photo by Mathew Brady ca. 1860-1875. Library of Congress, call number LC-BH83-1836.

First Person Account: An American War Correspondent

George Alfred Townsend was a noted war correspondent and novelist. During the Civil War he wrote for the New York Herald.

From Campaigns of a Non-Combatant

by George Alfred Townsend

I rode through Washington Street, the seat of some ancient residences, and found it lined with freshly arrived troops. The grave—slabs in a fine old churchyard were strewn with weary cavalry—men, and they lay in some side yards, soundly sleeping. Some artillery—men chatted at doorsteps, with idle house—girls; some courtesans flaunted in furs and ostrich feathers, through a group of coarse engineers; some sergeants of artillery, in red trimmings, and caps gilded with cannon, were reining their horses to leer at some ladies, who were taking the air in their gardens; and at a wide place in the street, a Provost—Major was manoeuvring some companies, to the sound of the drum and fife. There was much drunkenness, among both soldiers and civilians; and the people of Alexandria were, in many cases, crushed and demoralized by reason of their troubles. One man of this sort led me to a sawmill, now run by Government, and pointed to the implements.

“I bought ’em and earned ’em,” he said. “My labor and enterprise set ’em there; and while my mill and machinery are ruined to fill the pockets o’ Federal sharpers, I go drunk, ragged, and poor about the streets o’ my native town. My daughter starves in Richmond; God knows I can’t get to her. I wish to h––l I was dead.”

Further inquiry developed the facts that my acquaintance had been a thriving builder, who had dotted all Northeastern Virginia with evidences of his handicraft. At the commencement of the war, he took certain contracts from the Confederate government, for the construction of barracks at Richmond and Manassas Junction; returning inopportunely to Alexandria, he was arrested, and kept some time in Capitol—Hill prison; he had not taken the oath of allegiance, consequently, he could obtain no recompense for the loss of his mill property. Domestic misfortunes, happening at the same time, so embittered his days that he resorted to dissipation. Alexandria is filled with like ruined people; they walk as strangers through their ancient streets, and their property is no longer theirs to possess, but has passed into the hands of the dominant nationalists. My informant pointed out the residences of many leading citizens: some were now hospitals, others armories and arsenals; others offices for inspectors, superintendents, and civil officials. The few people that remained upon their properties, obtained partial immunity, by courting the acquaintance of Federal officers, and, in many cases, extending the hospitalities of their homes to the invaders. I do not know that any Federal functionary was accused of tyranny, or wantonness, but these things ensued, as the natural results of civil war; and one’s sympathies were everywhere enlisted for the poor, the exiled, and the bereaved.

My dinner at the City Hotel was scant and badly prepared. I gave a negro lad who waited upon me a few cents, but a burly negro carver, who seemed to be his father, boxed the boy’s ears and put the coppers into his pocket. The proprietor of the place had voluntarily taken the oath of allegiance, and had made more money since the date of Federal occupation than during his whole life previously. He said to me, curtly, that if by any chance the Confederates should reoccupy Alexandria, he could very well afford to relinquish his property. He employed a smart barkeeper, who led guests by a retired way to the drinking—rooms. Here, with the gas burning at a taper point, cobblers, cocktails, and juleps were mixed stealthily and swallowed in the darkness. The bar was like a mint to the proprietor; he only feared discovery and prohibition. It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; nor how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie. I stayed but a little time, having written an indiscreet paragraph in the Washington Chronicle, for which I was pursued by the War Department, and the management of my paper, lacking heart, I went home in a pet.