Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Confederates Evacuate Alexandria for the Second and Final Time

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Union occupation of Alexandria, Virginia. (Yes, yet another event to commemorate as part of the Sesquicentennial. . . .)  Probably the best-known story of the invasion is the murder of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, who was shot taking down a Confederate flag flying atop the Marshall House.  Ellsworth's death is a pretty familiar topic by now, so rather than go over old ground, I'd like to shed light on another aspect of the Union takeover on May 24, 1861.

As I discussed in a couple of recent posts, Virginia volunteers evacuated Alexandria at the start of May 1861.  (See here and here.)  Readers may recall that Lt. Col. Algernon Taylor lost his job for abandoning the city in disobedience of an order from Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cocke.  Algernon was replaced by Col. George H. Terrett, a former Marine, who was commander when Virginia voters approved the Ordinance of Secession on May 23.  He would soon have the unenviable task of ordering a retreat that would leave Alexandria in Union hands for the duration of the war. 

Early on the morning of May 24, 1861, three main columns of Federal troops moved quickly to occupy Virginia.  Two of the columns crossed the Potomac at the Aqueduct and Long Bridges.  The 11th New York Fire Zouaves, under Col. Ellsworth, boarded steamers and disembarked at the wharves in Alexandria.  The U.S.S. Pawnee covered the regiment from the river.  After crossing the Potomac at Long Bridge, the First Michigan, under Col. Orlando B. Wilcox, marched down Washington Street towards Alexandria.

Terrett had already put his troops on high alert earlier that morning after learning that a squadron of Union cavalry had entered Virginia across the Chain Bridge.  Around 4:30 a.m., a U.S. Navy officer went ashore from the Pawnee and met with Col. Terrett under a flag of truce.  According to Terrett, the officer "informed me that an overwhelming force was about entering the city of Alexandria, and it would be madness to resist, and that I could have until 9 a. m. to evacuate or surrender."  Terrett wasted no time in organizing an evacuation.  Surrender was not an option.

Civil War-era photograph of the Lyceum at 201 S. Washington Street (courtesy of Historic Alexandria).
The Lyceum in Old Town today.

The Virginia troops, including units that would soon form the 17th Virginia Infantry, proceeded to the Lyceum on Washington Street.  From there, Terrett marched them down Duke Street and away from Wilcox's advancing soldiers.  The Old Dominion Rifles narrowly escaped capture, but in the end, managed to join up with the main body of troops.  The retreat was covered by two cavalry units -- Captain Edward Powell's Fairfax Cavalry and Captain Mottrom Dulany Ball's Chesterfield Troop.

Terrett reported that his Virginians "five hundred in number, retreated in good order."  The Union troops were hard on the tail of Terrett's force, whose rear guard was "in sight of and within two hundred yards of the advance guard of the enemy."  Given the apparent aggressiveness of the pursuit, one wonders how sincere of a choice Terrett was given between surrender and evacuation. 

Ball accompanied Terrett and his men as far as Ball's quarters, "a little west of the railroad depot" on the Orange & Alexandria R.R.  The volunteers continued for a half-mile beyond the depot, where they boarded cars for Manassas.  Terrett asked the cavalry to follow in his rear, but for whatever reason, Ball's thirty-five men took too long, and were captured by the Federals.

As the train headed down the tracks, Terrett had his men burn the railroad bridges behind them. A contingent of Union troops "pursued [the Confederates] a short distance, also burning such bridges as they had spared." (Report of Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heinzelman, July 20, 1863.) Around half past five, Col. Wilcox was able to report to Washington, "Alexandria is ours."

Terrett's force arrived safely in Manassas and joined other Confederate soldiers assembling in the vicinity.  Brig. Gen. Milledge Bonham, commander at Manassas, reported to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee on May 25:
The Alexandria (Va.) troops are here, without cooking utensils, and many without arms. Please send to the quartermaster of this place cooking utensils and other camp equipage for six hundred men, as destitute men are hourly joining me. Caps, ammunition, and arms greatly needed.
Lucky for Bonham, the Federal advance on Manassas was still a couple months away.

Note on sources
For a complete set of reports associated with the Union occupation of Alexandria, see the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 37-44. Further information can be found in Alexandria in the Civil War by James G. Barber (1988) and 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series, by Lee A. Wallace, Jr. (1990).

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