Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Snapshots of Alexandria at the Start of the Peninsula Campaign

A few of my recent posts have focused on George A. McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves as they moved across Northern Virginia from Langley to Hunter's Mills and Alexandria in March 1862.  The division established camp on the outskirts of Alexandria at a spot near the Fairfax Seminary (today's Virginia Theological Seminary).  During the course of my research, I discovered several fascinating newspaper accounts about occupied Alexandria at the start of the Peninsula Campaign.  Some of these articles were written by soldiers for their hometown papers back in Pennsylvania.  The Philadelphia Press also published special dispatches by war correspondent George Alfred Townsend, who came to Alexandria as the divisions of the Army of the Potomac converged on the town in mid-March.  These news articles paint a portrait of wartime Alexandria as seen through the eyes of Northern observers.  Together, they reveal a city profoundly transformed by military occupation and civil strife.

Starting around March 17, 1862 and continuing for a few weeks, the Union Army moved 121,500 soldiers, 14,592 horses, 1,150 wagons, 74 ambulances, 44 batteries, and mountains of other supplies and equipment to Ft. Monroe at the tip of the Peninsula.  (McClellan 109.)  Gen. George McClellan used Alexandria as his primary point of embarkation for the campaign.  Most of the Union soldiers waiting in Alexandria were struck by the sheer magnitude of this logistical feat unfolding before them.   The scene made quite an impression on a soldier from the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (or "Bucktails").  As he wrote to the Wellsboro Agitator on April 3:
From the hills adjoining our camp, we have a fine view of Alexandria . . . also the old Potomac is clearly seen for ten miles in extent, thickly dotted with vessels of all descriptions.  The wharfs in Alexandria are crowded with vessels for the embarkation of troops, who are leaving daily for Fortress Monroe, and other places down in "Dixie."  (Wellsboro Agitator, Apr. 9, 1862.)
A soldier from Clearfield, Pennsylvania realized that he was witnessing a truly historic moment:
Last night at its mid-hour I stood on the brow of the gentle eminence on which we are bivouacked, and grazed on the sublime spectacle before me.  The glancing of the [P]otomac moonbeams, the blazing camp fires of a vast army scattered over thousands of acres, and the myriad twinkling lights of the national capital formed a night scene, the likes of which I may probably never look upon again.  (Democratic Banner, Mar. 26, 1862.)
Townsend provided newspaper readers with a dramatic description of his view from atop Seminary Hill outside of Alexandria:
The monument to Washington lifted its stumpy shaft against the hills, and the great dome of the Capitol was purely and beautifully white.  A hundred steam transports lay in the river; half as many clusters of white tents stretched along Arlington Heights; a score of forts bristled upon as many hilltops, and the foreground was a confused plain of wagons, mules, artillery, and men.  The pregnancy of the time and the power of the Government was here revealed at a winkfull, as never, for all ages, it shall be again.  What other generations shall only read I had seen!  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)
Orrin Stebbins, another soldier-correspondent from the Bucktail regiment, editorialized on McClellan's personal involvement in the preparations for the upcoming campaign:
Gen. McClellan is as busy as a bee, every moment of his time; either dashing from camp to camp--at the wharf, or the Capital, or else in his room laying plans to puzzle the brains of common politician, and to crush this great rebellion.  His boat is now anchored in the bay, with his staff and body guard on hand, ready to start at a moment's warning. . . . (Wellsboro Agitator, Apr. 9, 1862.) 
Townsend rode to McClellan's headquarters at "a cosy farm house on a hill top."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)  He captured the sense of importance that had descended on the place:
Here. . . paymasters, quartermasters, commissaries, and brigadier generals have quarters.  Forage of every description surrounds the house; teamsters come lumbering through the rents in the garden fence, and discharge their burdens under the apple tree boughs in the orchard.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)
The nearby Fairfax Seminary also attracted Townsend's attention.  He considered it "a noble building, with wings, dormitories, and chapels."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)  The Union Army had converted the seminary into a hospital to treat the sick and wounded.  With a touch of characteristic melodrama, Townsend lamented that "where tuitions were once made in the quiet mysteries of religion, lives now go out in pain, and the wounded and diseased toss and tremble in the agonies of death."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)

Wartime view of the Fairfax Seminary outside of Alexandria (courtesy of Library of Congress). Townsend took note of "the lofty cross" atop the cupola.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 20, 1862.)  Stebbins described the seminary as "a splendid building. . . situated on a high and beautiful hill, in the midst of a splendid grove."  (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862.)
Stebbins had an opportunity to visit town and offered readers a few observations. He felt that "Alexandria, next to Cumberland, Maryland, is the most forsaken and dilapidated place I ever saw." (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862.) He noticed that "[h]undreds of houses are deserted, and the whole city looks as though it was built before the flood, and had never repair." (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862.) Stebbins passed by the Marhsall House, scene of Col. Elmer Ellsworth's slaying the year before, and discovered that "[t]he old secesh flag-staff is still standing on the top of the house." (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26,1862.)

Townsend contemplated the changes that the war and occupation brought to Alexandria.  As he wrote in an article entitled "Transition Period in Alexandria":
If one fact in Alexandria is more apparent that any other, it is that the city is losing its Southern character.  Alexandria will never again be a Virginia town.  The Yankees have occupied its dwellings, hotels, and warehouses; driven out the negro and the negro-trader, and put his foot upon the old customs, institutions, and laws.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 28, 1862.)
He was particularly struck by the war's impact on slavery in Alexandria:
The slave-pen, as such, is no more. . . .  whatever Congress may enact relative to bondage, here or elsewhere, I am sure that slavery is at an end wherever the Northern army goes.  The soldiers, unused to such scenes, will not tolerate them; and the slave auctioneer -- an old favorite in Alexandria -- would provoke the cry of "shame" if he mounted the block to auction off either man or woman in the presence of these hard-fisted freemen of Vermont, Michigan, or Pennsylvania.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 28, 1862.)
The former slave pen in Alexandria, located at 1315 Duke Street (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Before the Civil War, the city was a major center of the domestic slave trade.  Franklin & Armfield, located here prior to Price, Birch &  Co., was one of the largest slave dealers in the United States.  The firm sent over 3,750 slaves to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South.  Following occupation in May 1861, the Union Army used the slave pen as a guard house. 
Townsend may have exaggerated the strength of anti-slavery sentiment prevailing in the Union Army at the time.  He also overlooked the complicity of the Federal authorities in holding fugitive slaves at the city jail or in taking money from absentee masters to keep slaves locked up.  But some soldiers, like Stebbins, surely were appalled by the vestiges of slavery in Alexandria and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.  As Stebbins explained to readers:
I always, from my earliest recollections, had a natural hatred for that Southern institution, but that hatred grows stronger and stronger, as I see the ignorance and immorality which follows in its train, and the desolated country, dilapidated towns and cities which might hum with industry, with the grass growing in their streets.  (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862.)
Stebbins saw the slave pen in Alexandria, but the words would not come:  "I would describe it if I knew what to compare it to, but I do not, for nothing but a slave-pen can be compared to it."  (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862.)

The Northern presence in Alexandria encouraged migration of all kinds.  Townsend commented on one such demographic shift:
The importation of Northern ladies. . . has not been calculated, thus far, to impress the Virginians with our social superiority.  There are about five hundred women in Alexandria, all of the migratory description, many of whom should have been camp vivandiers.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 28, 1862.)
When all was said and done, Townsend betrayed a sense of affection for the natives, or at least those of wealth and power:
The leading families have gone, and in many respects, Alexandria will miss them.  There was much of hospitality, ingenuousness, and real nobility about these Virginians.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 28, 1862.)
The war correspondent also expressed his hope for the future and his belief in Northern superiority:
With the ascendancy of the wild tribes of the North. . . a new era will dawn upon this beautiful, but neglected country.  I hope to see Pennsylvania barns and stack-houses upon these hills, and Yankee mills by all the steams.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 28, 1862.) 
Townsend and the solider-correspondents witnessed and wrote about the movement of the very army that could win a victory and bring peace to the land.  However the war would unfold in the coming months, they also captured the dramatic changes that had already arrived in Alexandria along with the Union Army.  Lucky for us, their articles survive to tell the story.


City of Alexandria/Alexandria Black History Museum, "Alexandria's African-American History" (web page); Civil War Washington, D.C., "Alexandria's Jail and Contrabands;" The Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery (website); Democratic Banner, Mar. 26, 1862; George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864); Philadelphia Press, Mar. 20, 1862; Philadelphia Press, Mar. 28, 1862; Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 26, 1862; Wellsboro Agitator, Apr. 9, 1862.


Sherman said...

This is one of my favorite things you have ever posted! Thanks.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Sherman! Glad you liked it. It took a bit of time getting all the various articles and quotes together. These excerpts are priceless and really convey a feeling for the times. I can almost see the army spread out around Alexandria!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. You may know this already, but arguably the best-known account of the army encampment around the Fairfax Seminary appeared in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Chiefly About War Matters," from the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. He visited in March of 1862 and wrote about McClellan, close up. (Hawthorne misidentifies the seminary as "Fairfield Seminary.")

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. I will need to check out the account. I had heard about Hawthorne's article, but am embarrassed to admit I have yet to read it!