Discovering the Decades: 1860s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1860s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Mar 10, 2021 at 8:37 PM

Points in Time

  • 1860: Lincoln elected president; South Carolina secedes from the Union
  • 1861: Civil War begins at Fort Sumter, South Carolina; Lincoln calls troops from states; secession of Southern states and formation of the Confederacy; 50 counties of western Virginia secede from state; Alexandria occupied by Union troops; first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas); U.S. Navy establishes “paper” blockade of the South
  • 1862: Peninsula Campaign; Union occupation of New Orleans; “Battle of the Ironclads”; second Battle of Bull Run; Battles of Shiloh, Antietam and Fredericksburg
  • 1862: Homestead Act 
  • 1863: Emancipation Proclamation 
  • 1863: Conscription Act and New York draft riots
  • 1863: Battles of Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga
  • 1864: Battles for the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Nashville; Sherman’s March to the Sea; Lincoln defeats McClellan and “peace Democrats” in presidential election
  • 1865: Sherman’s army drives through the Carolinas; Confederates abandon Petersburg and Richmond; Lee surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse; Lincoln Assassinated; 13th Amendment ratified
  • 1868: President Johnson impeached  
  • 1868: 14th Amendment ratified
  • 1869: Jay Gould attempts to corner the gold market  

No other decade had such a profound effect on Alexandria's social, political, and economic fabric than the 1860s. In 1860, however, the city's inhabitants could not have foretold the death and destruction that would follow and, there would be few who would not lose husbands, brothers or sons in the coming conflict.

In 1860, Alexandria was a vibrant southern city boasting a population of 12,652 and 96 firms which produced everything from bark to tin-ware. During the U.S. Presidential campaign in the fall of 1860, business-minded Alexandrians were decidedly pro-Union and cast a majority of their ballots for John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist candidate who opposed secession. The Alexandria Gazette of September 28, 1860, remarked that

the Union men of Alexandria made the most imposing demonstration...last night, which had ever taken place in this city. If there has ever been a doubt of the intense enthusiasm which the Union cause and its candidates have erected in their good old town, that doubt must have been dissipated by the outpouring of popular sentiment last night.

Marshall House Hotel image
The Marshall House Hotel, King and Pitt Streets, during the Civil War. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.)

In an effort to see that Virginia remained in the Union, Alexandrians elected George Brent, an opponent of secession, as a delegate to the February 1861 meeting in Richmond. When South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and President Lincoln subsequently called for 75,000 troops to crush the rebellion, the mood of Alexandrians shifted dramatically from accommodation to war. To celebrate Virginia's vote for secession, James Jackson, the local proprietor of the Marshall House Hotel, raised a Confederate flag to the cheers of a local crowd.

War fever swept the city, and militia units composed of the town's youth drilled at the old Catalpa Lot on the west side of the 600 and 700 blocks of North Washington Street. On May 23, 1861, townsmen went to the polls and voiced their approval of the articles of secession by an overwhelming vote of 958 in favor and 106 against.

Because of Alexandria's strategic importance as a railroad center and port, federal troops under the command of General Charles Sanford of the New York State militia lost no time in invading the town by land and sea on the morning of May 24, 1861. This same day, a regiment of New York Fire Zouaves, led by Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, landed at the foot of Cameron Street. With a few recruits, Ellsworth proceeded up King Street where he glimpsed James Jackson's Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze over the Marshall House. The colonel and his retinue entered the hotel, climbed to the roof and seized the banner. Descending the staircase, Ellsworth was shot in the chest by Jackson. In return, the hotel proprietor was shot and bayoneted by Union Corporal Brownell. Both Jackson and Ellsworth were mortally wounded and each quickly became a martyr to his respective cause.

As Federal forces occupied Alexandria, elements of Virginia's 6th Battalion gathered in front of The Lyceum, then marched out Duke Street and boarded a train bound for Manassas Junction. On July 10, 1861, these troops were activated into the 17th Virginia Regiment, commanded by local hero Col. Montgomery Corse. They fought with the Army of Northern Virginia from the Battle of First Manassas in 1861 through the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 and suffered tremendous losses over the years of hard fighting.

The invasion of Alexandria forever changed the social, cultural and economic fabric of the old seaport town. For four years Alexandria was occupied by Union forces; indeed, the city endured the longest military occupation by Union troops of any town during the conflict. Although there was little fighting near Alexandria, the influx of so many soldiers meant that life changed considerably for the town’s residents. Upon taking office as Military Governor of Virginia in 1862, General Slough instituted a curfew and a ban on sales of alcohol to soldiers, noting that there had been for days previous, a reign of terror in Alexandria. The streets were crowded with intoxicated soldiery; murder was of almost hourly occurrence and disturbances, robbery and riot were constant. The sidewalks and docks were covered with drunken men, women and children and quiet citizens were afraid to venture into the streets and life and property were at the mercy of the maddened throng-a condition of things perhaps never in the history of this country to be found in any other city.

Even after some level of order was restored, Alexandrians walked their streets as strangers. Most had earlier fled South, and those that remained were not permitted to go out at night. Their mail was intercepted, and passes were required to travel to Washington and outlying environs. Those who failed to swear obedience to the United States Government were suspected of treason and arrested on the slightest pretext.

Railroad Roundhouse image
The U.S. Military Railroad Roundhouse. Detail of Charles Magnus lithograph, “Soldiers Rest, Alexandria, VA,” 1864.

During the war Alexandria was transformed into a huge logistical supply center for Federal armies fighting in Virginia. Private houses, churches, and local public buildings were commandeered for military barracks, hospitals and prisons. A string of forts surrounded the capital area, including Alexandria. The U.S. Quartermaster Department constructed substantial warehouses along the bustling waterfront and bakeries, sawmills, trains sheds, stables and all other manner of support facilities throughout the city. Stockades were erected across the major east-west streets to thwart threatened Confederate cavalry sorties against the huge U.S. Military Railroad headquarters and train yard complex on upper Duke Street and other transportation and supply facilities. A source of the day wrote

This ancient city has now come a center of commercial importance, being the great warehouses as it might be termed, for supplies of the Army of Potomac. Miniature mountains of hay and pyramids of oat bags, high up in the air, meet the gaze as one approaches the city from the river. Spacious and antiquated storehouses along the wharves are filled to repletion with all kinds of stores for the use of our brave army, hordes of contrabands [former slaves who escaped into Union lines] are busily at work unloading vessels... Alexandria for the past two years can boast of more shipping at its wharves than any other city of its size in the Union... The old residents of Alexandria have mostly departed. Not one third of the original inhabitants now remain and the places of absent ones are filled by traffickers and dealers in military goods.

The Union army confiscated numerous large building hospitals throughout the town, for use as hospitals.. Churches, homes, the city’s largest hotel, and other buildings were taken over as medical facilities. A Quaker Meetinghouse, a girls’ seminary, a home belonging to the family of Robert E. Lee – all accommodated wounded and diseased patients. Elsewhere, hospital complexes extending over city blocks were built based on plans drawn up by the Quartermaster-General in Washington. 

With the expansion of Union occupied territory, African-American refugees, most of them former slaves, streamed into Alexandria and Washington, contributing mightily to the Union labor force but putting major stress on the area's ability to house and feed the multitudes. By 1864 Alexandria had changed from a quaint old town as its outskirts and vacant lots were filled up with shanties and its vacant homes were filled with new arrivals.

These houses, huddled together with no conveniences for drainage, swarmed with a mass of men, women and children. Little neighborhoods called Petersburg, Contraband Valley, Pump Town and twenty other locales existed within the midst of the city.

The killing and suffering of the War did not come to an end until after April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysees Grant at Appomattox Court House. For most native Alexandrians, it was a day of despair and gloom. Union soldiers and sympathizers, however, celebrated wildly in the streets as a victory parade formed at the end of North Washington Street and wended its way through the city. [William Francis Smith and T. Michael Miller, A Seaport Saga: Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia]

Following the end of the Civil War, Alexandria found itself in a state of physical, mental and economic depression. With the withdrawal of most of the troops, little commerce remained. Hundreds of returning Confederate soldiers, many missing limbs, faced the daunting prospect of beginning life anew after their homes and businesses had been confiscated, and their former way of life swept away by the conflict. The town was filled with refugees, white and black, and the City was forced to set up charity soup kitchens each winter to stave off starvation.

The surrounding landscape was totally denuded of trees, the harbor lay in ruins with its wharves rotting in the sun, and hundreds of buildings were in desperate need of repair. Beginning in the summer of 1865 the outlying forts, blockhouses, and army camps were dismantled and surplus materials sold at public auctions.

Reconstruction and racial relations

While pro-Confederate whites began to return to Alexandria, the massive influx of freed blacks nonetheless significantly changed the racial composition of the city. Immediately after the war, the population was nearly fifty percent black, a situation which introduced additional racial tensions. A riot between African-Americans and former Confederate soldiers on Christmas Day, 1865, persuaded some Unionists to call for the introduction of more Federal troops into Alexandria.

The political landscape of Virginia and the South was further altered in the spring of 1867 when the U.S. Congress passed a series of radical Reconstruction Acts which transformed Virginia into one of several districts to be ruled by the military. If vacancies occurred in Alexandria's municipal government, military officers exercised the legal authority to choose substitute candidates from a list of "loyal" citizens supplied by the Republican Party.

On March 30, 1868, General Schofield issued General Order No. 33 which addressed the removal of municipal officials. Hugh Latham, the relatively conservative mayor of Alexandria, was removed from office. Because of the orders, no municipal elections were held in Alexandria in March of 1868 or 1869; this was the first time in the city's history that elections had been canceled. Former Confederate soldiers and citizens who had voted for the Ordinance of Secession were disqualified from holding office. Indeed, candidates who aspired to public office were required to take an oath swearing allegiance to the United States and its Constitution.

Military rule in Virginia remained until 1869, and the state not fully re-admitted to the Union until 1870. For a few years after the war, an army garrison was responsible for maintaining order in Alexandria. Troops often consisted of African Americans, adding to the complexities of race relations in the troubled city.

The stated purpose of Reconstruction was to reintegrate and rebuild the Southern states, yet the program was taken over by the dominant Radical Republican  faction in Congress which wished to punish the South and keep those whom they viewed as traitors from having any influence in government. Due to motives ranging from sincere belief in racial equality to a desire to humble white Southerners, the Radical Republicans also sought to give blacks the right to vote and to assume positions of authority in the governments of the former Confederate states.

Due to military protection and a ruling coalition of native Unionists and "carpetbagger" Republicans, African Americans did experience unprecedented freedom and autonomy, including the passage of Constitutional amendments which abolished slavery and recognized their full rights as citizens.

In 1865, Alexandria hosted a statewide convention of blacks to discuss their future and their role in politics and society. On March 2, 1867, two to three hundred black men met at The Lyceum with a number of Unionists to demand the right to vote as full citizens in the municipal elections. By Election Day, the question had still not been resolved. Mayor Latham and Judge Moore travelled to Washington and consulted with President Andrew Johnson and the Attorney General. It was agreed that African Americans could cast ballots but that their votes would not be counted in the final tally. To keep the peace, two companies of U.S. troops and a battalion of cavalry were sent to Alexandria as about 1,000 African Americans voted for the Union ticket. It was not until 1870 that the Fifteenth Amendment  was passed, granting voting rights to black citizens. The following year, the first African-American members of the Common Council and the Board of Aldermen were elected.

What initially looked like a promising future for local blacks, however, proved illusory. The Freedmen's Bureau, established by the Federal government to assist refugees and freed slaves, was forced to curtail most of its activities at the end of 1868 due to the hostility or indifference of many in Congress. White Southerners generally favored a new system of social relations to replace slavery-racial segregation. Under a series of discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws, blacks began to be systematically denied access to public and private accommodations, denied the right to vote, and denied equal justice. As early as 1868, for instance, blacks on the Washington & Alexandria Railroad were being forced to occupy segregated seating areas. Also in the late 1860s, Ku Klux Klan-type groups arose in Northern Virginia, but were most active in Fauquier County. Long before Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, more conservative forces had re-established their power in all of the Southern states.

Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.

Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.