By Kris Gilbertson
Mercy Street portrays the interactions of two Civil War nurses, one from New England, the other Virginia, at the real Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria. The series is not about conflict on the battlefield; rather, it dramatizes the extraordinary challenges ordinary people faced behind the frontlines.
But there is more to understanding the backdrop—Civil War Alexandria—than can be depicted on TV. Local historians often focus on the Colonial period—the Revolution, hometown of George Washington—but by the mid-19th century, Alexandria was a municipal force to reckon with in the Mid-Atlantic.
Prosperity on the Potomac
Alexandria was a medium-sized city for that time—some 12,000 residents, including a free African-American community of 400—experiencing widespread economic success. The Alexandria Canal linked to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal at Georgetown, bringing Virginia coal and lumber to Alexandria wharves. Rail lines to the Shenandoah Valley brought agricultural commodities to city mills and bakeries and sent locally made goods like furniture and stoneware throughout the region.
Potomac River shipyards built ships; the Virginia Locomotive and Car Works built engines and rolling stock for railroads and engines for factories. The gas works lit up streets; a utility on Shuter’s Hill piped water into subscribers’ yards and to pumps on street corners.
But for all its commercial value, the city’s overarching importance lay in its location just across the Potomac River from the White House.
“When Virginia secedes,” says Jim Mackay, director of The Lyceum, “the first thing you’re going to do is march over the river and occupy Alexandria, because you can’t let all this be in Confederate hands, just a stone’s throw from Washington.”
By 1860, change was being felt. Disruptions to basic services crept in. Mail delivery became spotty. Certain private shipping companies refused orders. Adams Express Company, for example, had routinely shipped freight up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Early in 1861, they were shipping ammunition from northern armament manufacturers to the south. The early Confederacy was stockpiling arms and ammunition. Adams Express, just one pipeline, was eventually was cut off.
Steps to secession
In the 1850s, most Americans considered state government, not the Federal government, to be their main authority. John Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on October 17, 1859, while newsworthy throughout the region, was considered merely a bothersome incident in Alexandria.
During the period, Alexandrians tended to be politically conservative and remained so as the election of 1860 approached. From the hometown of George Washington, Alexandrians had fought in the Revolution and War of 1812. They identified as part of the Union. People wrote editorials and articles about how secession would be the worst thing they could possibly do.
Alexandria Gazette editor Edgar Snowden asked if “the yeomanry of Virginia [would] be willing to do all the fighting and brave all the dangers of civil war, to gratify the whims of Cotton States Disunionists? If not, vote for Bell.”
John Bell was a Constitutional Unionist and strong advocate of keeping the Union together while still supporting protection of states’ rights and the institution of slavery.
Most Alexandrians—some 60%—did vote for him. But Abraham Lincoln was elected and, in December 1860, South Carolina made good on its threat to secede, followed by five other southern states through early spring.
At a community meeting in January, many Alexandrians agreed that South Carolina and the other “Cotton States” had acted rashly. “They were still looking for that middle road,” says Mackay, “and there really wasn’t one.”
When the Virginia legislature convened to take up the secession issue early in 1861, delegates that Alexandria sent to Richmond were instructed to vote against secession, and they did.
Everybody knew they were coming
The attack on Fort Sumter by South Carolina troops in April 1861, and President Lincoln’s subsequent call for 75,000 men to put down the rebellion, changed many minds.
Scores of recruits joined local militia units such as the Alexandria Riflemen, the Old Dominion Rifles, the Mount Vernon Guards, and the Alexandria Artillery. The units held regular meetings and drilled all spring.
But there was still a festive air. Local militiamen who left memoirs about this period wrote of standing post on street corners and trying to catch girls’ eyes in their brand new uniforms. Certain places in town were thought to be prime postings for guard duty because there’d be a brewer on the block who’d give you free beer.
James Jackson, proprietor of the Marshall House Hotel, hoisted a very large Stars and Bars flag over the building to show his support for the Confederacy. He rashly vowed to shoot any man who tried to take it down. (Marshall House is now Hotel Monaco at King and S. Royal Streets.)
The secession ordinance passed the Virginia Legislature in late April 1861. This was not a dictate from Richmond. It had to be voted on by communities across the Commonwealth. On May 23, 1861 the Ordinance of Secession was ratified by a wide margin, including 90 percent of votes cast in Alexandria.
As soon as word of the outcome was known, all Alexandria knew that Union Army troops already mustered on bridges and aboard ships were coming. General Robert E. Lee had ordered Colonel George H. Terrett and his Alexandria Battalion of 400 men not to surrender Alexandria unless the situation became impossible, which quickly became obvious.
At 4:30 a.m. on May 24, the Southern defenders gathered in front of The Lyceum, at Prince and S. Washington Streets, made a strategic retreat to the Duke Street railhead, and went off to Manassas. Soon after, five Union Army regiments (5,000 men) invaded from different directions.
The first fatal incident in Alexandria occurred that morning. As Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Regiment marched up from the waterfront, he saw James Jackson’s Stars and Bars flying over the Marshall House Hotel.
Ellsworth climbed to the roof and tore down the flag. As he descended the stairs, Jackson, who had sworn to defend the flag with his life, did so. But first he shot Ellsworth dead. Ellsworth’s company returned fire. Both men instantly became martyrs for their cause.
The reality of occupation
When the Union Army first occupied Alexandria, there hadn’t yet been any big battles in Virginia. They began to seize large public buildings for future use. But once the real fighting started at the First Battle of Manassas, and from then on, Alexandria, with its rail and river connections—the main value of the city to the Union Army—became the ideal place to treat the wounded. “That’s when they start turning buildings into hospitals,” says Mackay. “They could just take buildings from people who they believed or claimed were secessionists.”
About one third of the population of Alexandria left before the occupation. The Union Army considered these properties to be abandoned, so they could take the house, the furniture, the livestock and do with it whatever they wanted.
During the first year of the occupation, until a stable military government was established, there were problems with the troops, particularly looting.
“These are guys from wherever in the North; they’ve never been anywhere in their life and they get to come in and occupy some southern town,” says Mackay. “Most of them had never seen a black person before. They were fascinated by the slave jail on Duke Street; it’s a big tourist draw. They look at those cells, but they’re breaking into people’s houses, taking stuff, a lot of the time under the guise of ‘we need to inspect’ or ‘we’re here to look for contraband’— all kinds of flimsy excuses.”
This comes through in diaries from the time. Ann Froebel lived in the countryside, west of Alexandria. In her diary published by Fort Ward, she wrote about Union depredations and how the soldiers “act like they can do what they want. There are all kinds of illegal searches and seizures. But what are you going to do? Who are you going to complain to?”
Over time, however, most Alexandrians got used to the presence of so many soldiers in their midst. Resented by their neighbors who hated the Union Army’s presence, loyalist Alexandrians occasionally even reported on “secesh” (secessionist) members of the community to the authorities.
Defenses of Washington
Following the First Battle of Manassas during the summer of 1861, occupying troops began work on the Defenses of Washington, the string of forts and gun batteries that would eventually encircle the Washington area. Forts, gun emplacements and camps dotted the hills around Alexandria.
The soldiers working on these fortifications were quartered in camps nearby. When demand for housing outstripped the availability of seized structures, the army started building its own. Temporary housing soon provided barracks, hospital wards, warehouse space, and offices. The soldiers assigned to them provided thousands of new customers for local merchants, restaurateurs and saloonkeepers.
President Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the attack on Fort Sumter brought a response far greater than the Federal government was prepared for. “The whole thing was kind of thrown together,” says Mackay. “When the war starts, first, they’re mustering these guys in who may or may not be in very good physical condition. All ages, all backgrounds, varying degrees of health. The medical process, the screening, is virtually nonexistent for people entering the military at that time.
“You basically sign up, you’re given your little signing bonus, you report to a certain camp, get your uniform and they start teaching you how to march. The food is not that great, and it’s not like they’re doing calisthenics. There’s a huge gulf between the way we incorporate people into the military today and what was done back then.”
One result of this was thousands of men ending up in military hospitals with complaints ranging from hernias or a general “disability,” to fevers and intestinal problems brought on by squalid camp conditions. Two-thirds of deaths during the war resulted from disease, not combat wounds.
There were about three dozen military hospitals in Alexandria. Some of them used throughout the war, some for a period of months. Although the temporary hospitals were razed immediately after the war and many historic buildings have been lost over time, at least 16 buildings that housed Civil War hospitals in Alexandria are still with us.
The hospital wards in Mansion House, accurately depicted in the Mercy Street series, were not typical of hospital wards in the city or anything like hospitalization today. Wards were usually large rooms with several long rows of beds closely spaced. Privacy was non-existent; noise was constant. Still, spurred by necessity, great medical and surgical advances were made. For example, the first successful blood transfusion was reported at the Grosvenor Branch Hospital at N. Washington and Oronoco Streets.
But conditions varied. Mansion House Hospital was cited as providing high-quality care. The New York Times reported that in March 1862, a Court of Inquiry convened to investigate allegations that Dr. J.B. Porter, U.S.A., was mistreating his patients at Mansion House Hospital. After thorough investigation, Surgeon Porter was exonerated and praised for his service, many of the complainants reneged, and the hospital itself was commended, with the sole negative note being that the quality of food served the patients needed improvement.
At the other end of the scale was the first Camp Convalescent (known familiarly as Camp Misery), a poorly provisioned camp near Shuter’s Hill built to house troops who had mostly recuperated but were not yet ready to return to their units.
Patients there reported having insufficient fuel to stay warm and sometimes having to forage food on their own. The tents had no ground coverings and the beds no blankets. Julia Wheelock, a Michigan relief agent, described men pacing back and forth to keep warm at night, then trying to sleep when it was a little warmer the next day. Camp Convalescent was finally disbanded and replaced with another facility, also called Camp Convalescent.
Occupation allowed Alexandria to survive intact. Unlike scores of communities throughout the South that were heavily damaged in the fighting, the city emerged from the war nearly unscathed, physically. Commercially, however, Alexandria was nearly ruined and would not fully recover for nearly a century.
Innovations by the personnel in Alexandria’s Civil War hospitals from 1861 to 1865 helped to reform medical care in the U.S., to include a system to manage mass casualties, well-ventilated and clean hospitals, the importance of sanitation and hygiene, experience and training of thousands of doctors, formation of the Sanitary Commission (precursor to the American Red Cross), and the introduction of women to hospital care.
Women made a critical contribution on a large scale by leaving their households to care for the sick and wounded. And, finally, the Civil War ended slavery in the United States. See Contraband: The Path from Bound to Free.