Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Changing Face of Alexandria, Late September 1863

Newspapers provide interesting and sometimes entertaining insights into a given time and place, which probably explains why I get so much enjoyment from browsing through copies of Civil War-era dailies and weeklies. (Plus I really like those old engravings!) This past weekend I read a few issues of the Alexandria Gazette from the end of September 1863. The articles offer a look at the continuing impact of war on Alexandria. After all, by this time 150 years ago, the Union military had occupied the city for over two years. The proximity of Alexandria to the nation's capital, and its role as a Federal supply depot and hospital center, brought a dramatic transformation during the war years.

Bird's eye view of Alexandria, 1863 print (courtesy of Wikipedia)
The city attracted thousands of new inhabitants, including slaves fleeing to the relative safety of the Union lines. The Gazette noted on September 25, 1863:
Since [1860], the temporary population of the city has been much increased, there being, particularly, an influx of "contrabands," the numbers of whom cannot be accurately ascertained.
A few days later, the paper described the changing face of Alexandria in the wake of this extensive migration:
The influx of strangers and new comers into this place, is very great. An old resident now observes along the streets, but few of his former acquaintances and friends, in the moving mass of pedestrians. . . . The business portion of the population too, is, almost entirely changed. Some few of the old signs remain, but new names, new firms, new occupations mostly meet the eye. (Sept. 28, 1863.)
All of the added population put pressures on the local housing market. According to the Gazette:
The demand for houses for rent is very great just at this time. An advertisement in the Gazette, offering a house for rent, a few days ago, brought twenty or thirty applicants in an hour or two. (Sept. 22, 1863.)
Not unexpectedly, the Gazette reported that "[r]ents are higher in this place, at this time, than they have ever been within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant." (Sept. 22, 1863.) Resourceful property owners found ways to take advantage of the shortage:
What was a very small open yard or court, on King Street, a few days ago, has been roofed in, and front and back walls built up, and six or eight hundred dollars per annum rent offered for the premises at once. (Sept. 22, 1863.)
More people also translated into increased demand for other necessities, like fuel. The Gazette measured the impact and urged caution:
The price of fuel -- wood and coal -- keep up. Consumers, this season, will have to be very economical, in order to keep their expenses at all within reasonable limits. It should be their duty to attend particularly to the use of fuel in their kitchens, offices, stores, dwellings, &c -- For there is often enough wasted, which if saved, would pay for tons of coal and cords of wood. (Sept. 22, 1863.)
The Gazette also kept readers informed about the availability and affordability of food:
The market was well supplied with vegetables and fruit, this morning, but prices remained as high as ever. (Sept. 22, 1863.)
Some inhabitants took matters into their own hands when it came to finding sources of nourishment:
It is said that more cows are kept in town this year, than there were ever before. The demand for milk and cream, all through the summer, has been great, and many families are supported from their dairies. (Sept. 24, 1863.)
Of course, entrepreneurs rushed to capitalize on all of the mouths to feed:
The number of restaurants and eating houses in this place continues to increase rather than diminish. They spring up like mushrooms, in a night, and every day sees a new sign, denoting where the hungry can be fed, -- "for a consideration." If one half of the places designated as "oyster houses" are kept supplied with bivalves, it will take a fleet of craft to furnish the quantity required. (Sept. 24, 1863.)
Businesses also catered to the burgeoning demand for entertainment. The Gazette offered this tidbit to readers:
DICK PARKER'S MUSIC HALL, at the corner of King and Royal streets, is the centre of attraction for amusement seekers. The Hall has been beautifully fitted up, and is well arranged for concerts and musical entertainments. Since it was opened on a Monday night, a full house has greeted each performance and great satisfaction has been given. (Sept. 23, 1863.)
An advertisement placed by Dick Parker's in the same edition of the Gazette boldly promised: "BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, NEW FACES, SPLENDID COMPANY, EVERYBODY DELIGHTED." (Sept. 23, 1863.) For the grand sum of one dollar, a guest could secure a private box. Otherwise, parquet seats could be had for twenty-five cents and orchestra seats for fifty cents.

The war literally took place at Alexandria's doorstep, and the city's inhabitants were surrounded by constant reminders of the conflict. John Mosby and his Rangers continued to wreak havoc across Northern Virginia. According to an article appearing on September 28:
Fifty of Moseby's [sic] men made a descent on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad last night, above Fairfax, tearing up the track, firing Pope's bridge, and cutting the telegraph. One bridge was partially consumed, but has been repaired, and the trains are again running.
Alexandria also saw the delivery of a different sort of cargo from the front:
One hundred and thirteen Confederate prisoners, taken within the past few days by the Army of the Potomac in its advance, were brought to this place this morning, and sent on to Washington. (Sept. 25, 1863.)
Meanwhile, the Union Army remained active in rounding up civilians suspected of disloyalty:
A family by the name of Beach, seven in all, living near Fairfax Station, have been arrested and sent to Washington, charged with complicity with Moseby's [sic] men. (Sept. 22, 1863.)
The war farther afield also preoccupied the people of Alexandria. The recent Battle of Chickamauga took top billing in the Gazette at the end of September. Perhaps many readers were shocked to read this piece reprinted from the Richmond Examiner:
The Surgeon General received a dispatch. . . conveying the melancholy tidings of the death of Major General J.B. Hood, of Texas. He was wounded in the leg by a grape shot in the battle on the Chickamauga, and sank under the effects of the amputation. (Sept. 26, 1863.)
The article, however, got it wrong, as Hood survived the wound he received during the engagement and lived to fight another day.

Alexandria had indeed changed considerably in the space of a few years, and as September 1863 drew to a close, the city continued to experience the consequences of war and occupation. Old residents and newcomers alike lived in a crowded, overpriced, and bustling place. Without a doubt, the importance of Alexandria to the Union war effort ensured that life in the city would not return to normal any time soon.

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