Friday, June 3, 2011

Scenes in Virginia at the Start of Occupation

Back in February, I purchased an original copy of the May 31, 1861 edition of the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune.  Given that the paper was published 150 years ago this past Tuesday, I decided to take a look and read the Tribune's coverage of events in and around Northern Virginia at the time.  The Union Army had just crossed the Potomac and occupied Arlington Heights and Alexandria the week before.  The paper contained numerous snapshots of life in the region during the early days of occupation.

By the end of May 1861, the war had already begun to disrupt everyday life in Northern Virginia.  Residents felt the sting of the gathering armies:
Accounts of outrages by Fairfax Secessionists continue coming. They rob farmers of sheep and cattle for camp supplies.
However, the Union troops were equally as capable of raiding local businesses:
An inhabitant of Fairfax Court-House, a Union man, escaped to-day from the rebel forces, by whom he had been held in custody, and brought information to Alexandria of the transportation of five wagon-loads of flour from a mill in the suburbs of the town to the rebel camp. Col. [Orlando] Wilcox sent out a detachment of volunteers . . . to take possession of the mill. This was done without difficulty, and a part of the flour was removed to our lines. The rest will come tomorrow.
The streets of Alexandria were filled with Union soldiers, who sometimes participated in patriotic demonstrations, but the locals were far from impressed:
This afternoon the band of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment saluted [two men] of that State, who went down to look after the interests of the troops.  These gentlemen responded with strong Union and anti-Rebel speeches, from a prominent window in the principal street.  The citizens listened, but did not applaud.
The Tribune described abuse directed towards African-Americans as the occupation got underway in Alexandria:
The Mayor of Alexandria, a violent Secessionist, avenges his wounded dignity by maltreatment of the negroes.  A negro is slow to stepping aside at the Mayor's approach, and he is forthwith knocked down and afterwards arrested and whipped at the whipping-post. Other negroes have been whipped for listening to the evening music of the bands, in opposition to the Mayor's idea of what enjoyment is fit for them.
The Tribune does not indicate whether the Union Army attempted to put an end to these appalling practices that were inspired by the Mayor's apparent willingness to blame blacks for what had befallen his town. It also is not clear whether these blacks were slaves, or freedmen, or both.  (At the time of the 1860 Census, over 1,400 freed blacks resided in Alexandria County.)

Civil War-era photograph of African-American woman in front of old slave pen in Alexandria (courtesy of Library of Congress)
The Confederate forces in Northern Virginia put slaves to work:
It is said that with the 3,000 troops near Fairfax Court-House, there are 1,000 negroes, in the capacity of servants and laborers. Provisions are scarce, and the privation falls first upon the slaves.
And no, I saw no reports in the Tribune about black Confederate soldiers....

Mt. Vernon, c. 1860 (courtesy of Clements Library, University of Michigan)
George Washington's historic home at Mt. Vernon sat down the road from Alexandria.  The armies made sure that Mt. Vernon would get the respect it deserved from visiting soldiers:

It is interesting to know that Ms. Tracy [one of the Trustees of Mt. Vernon] has been assured by both Gen. [Winfield] Scott and Gen. [Robert E.] Lee that no troops from either side will be sent to the vicinity, and that not more than three soldiers at any one time, proceed to Mt. Vernon, and then never in uniform or with arms.
Rumors of impending attack also circulated in Alexandria.  The Tribune correspondent wrote:
I am told that notice has been sent from the Rebels to prominent Secessionists in Alexandria, to the effect that the women and children should be removed, as a large force was approaching to attack the town.  I still doubt that an attack will be made, or that any considerable battle will take place before the Federal forces approach Richmond.  But political expediency may override military prudence, and a starving mob may require a fight to keep up their spirits.
The correspondent was right, and the Confederates never attacked Alexandria.  Instead, the Union would make the first move in less than two months and strike at the Confederate force encamped near Manassas. 

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