Letter to the Editor: Lee Boyhood Home Should Be Museum Again

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Transforming the Lee Boyhood Home in Alexandria, Virginia into the Headquarters of an Interpretive Center and Urban Walking Trails on the Civil War

Various media sites reported at the end of March that the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee, at 614 Oronoco Street, in Alexandria, Virginia, is being sold by its private owners.

The sale of the historic home of the Civil War general, educator, and pre-war head of West Point presents a unique opportunity to make Old Town Alexandria an even greater center of American history than it already is, as the hometown of George Washington, the Lees, and many other important figures and events in U.S. history.

We propose, and ask interested parties to support, the purchase of the Lee Home, and transforming it into the headquarters of a city, state, and/or federally designated Interpretive Center, along with Urban Walking Trails, on the Civil War.

Such a headquarters, visitors center and related trails would be a perfect complement to, and spur to, the expansion of Old Town Alexandria’s already rich array of events, locales, and personalities relating to America’s greatest saga, the Civil War, which speaks to the proud heritage of all Americans.

The Lee House on Oronoco Street, Alexandria, Virginia
Here Robert E. Lee lived with his mother while growing up.
He attended Benjamin Hallowell’s school in the house at the left. (Photo courtesy of LeeFamilyArchive.org)

The Lee Home was in the past a museum, and is time to return it to its traditional, historic status. The abode was the boyhood home of Robert Edward Lee, the former superintendent of the Federal Army’s West Point military academy, and important staff officer during the Mexican-American War, then the Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and after the war the President of what became Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, VA.

The Lee–Fendall House is a historic house museum and garden located in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Since its construction in 1785 the house has served as home to thirty-seven members of the Lee family (1785–1903), hundreds of convalescing Union soldiers (1863–1865), the prominent Downham family (1903–1937), and powerful labor leader John L. Lewis (1937–1969). (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Across the street from the well-maintained private residence and grounds is the Lee-Fendall House, built by businessman Philip Kendall, a Lee relation. During the Civil War the Union Army, after taking control of the town, turned the house into a hospital, where surgeons performed the first successful blood transfusion. (And outside of which a later owner, United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis, was burned in effigy during World War II for staging labor strikes during that conflict.)

Walking trails, along the lines of the self-guided Cultural Tourism walks in Washington, D.C., or Boston’s Freedom Trails, could be readily & fairly inexpensively constructed throughout Old Town. They would complement the historic markers the city has recently placed in Old Town, as well as the famed series of markers the state of Virginia has placed throughout the Commonwealth. There could be a multitude of trails, on different aspects of the war, such the Union Army, Confederate spies, African-American institutions, war-time medicine, and many other themes. The trails would be made up of attractive posters showing the trail map, explanatory text, and illustrations.

Along with fostering interest in Alexandria’s history and scholarship on the war, the Center and trails would be a boon to the city’s economy by bolstering its growing tourism industry.

A brief outline of the historic places just on a major Old Town thoroughfare, Washington Street, just yards west of the Lee and Lee-Fendall homes, shows what a unique opportunity the area presents for exploring the Civil War.

Historic Context

On the west side of Washington Street is the historic home of Edmund Lee, a backer of the American Colonization Society for free “men and women of color”, which led to the establishment of the African nation of Liberia. (Liberia’s capital city is Monrovia, named for one of the antebellum Presidents, James Monroe, who held inaugural festivities at Old Town’s Gadsby’s Tavern.) Within a block to the north is a vast, 1840s-era cotton mill (now condominiums), the perfect symbol of the antebellum South’s economy.

Lloyd House (Archival Courtesy Photo.)

Several blocks south on Washington St. is the stately Lloyd House. It became a schoolhouse for noted Quaker educator Benjamin Hallowell; one of his math students was the young Robert E. Lee, who went on to study engineering at West Point. Another prominent Alexandria Quaker family were the Janneys. John Janney ran the two state assemblies whereby Virginia decided against, and then for, seceding from the Union. (John Janney’s home is three blocks away.)

Kate Waller Barrett Library on Queen Street. (Photo courtesy of The Portrait Gallery.)

Around the corner is the Kate Waller Barrett Library, where in 1939 a group of African-American men staged one of the first sit-down protests against “separate but equal” segregationism. Not far from where Mary Custis Lee–the elderly daughter of Robert E. Lee–had a similar, personal protest, in 1902, on one of the segregated trolley cars of the time. (The home of town heroine Kate Waller Barrett, who grew up on a post-bellum plantation and dedicated her life to public service, is several blocks to the southeast.)

Christ Church at 116 N Washington Street. (File photo)

A block further south is the magnificent English country-style edifice, Christ Church, by the architect James Wren, designer of the eponymous church in Falls Church, Virginia, and descendant of Christopher Wren, architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Confederate soldiers who died in the city’s many war-time hospitals are buried in mounds by the Church entrance. In the Church itself is a commemoration of its most prominent member, Washington, who freed and educated all his slaves based in part on his experiences with black soldiers in the American Revolution. Robert E. Lee contributed a substantial sum of money to the Church.

In 1841, the local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows acquired the property located today at 218 North Columbus St. (Courtesy photo)

Across the street and a block north you’ll find a house of the Society of Odd Fellows, a fraternal order of black and other professionals formed after the conflict. One of whose members was the black architect George Seaton, whose mother was a servant of Martha Washington, who endowed a school on the site. Seaton served on the jury that presided over the trial of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (Seaton’s own home is located a half a dozen blocks away.)

Appomattox Confederate Civil War statue, intersection of Washington and Prince Streets, Alexandria VA, (Photo by Robert Murray.)

Two blocks further south on Washington St. is the Appomattox statue, with its Confederate soldier meditating on the war and the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse by General Lee to General Ulysses S Grant. The bronze figure was sculpted by Czech immigrant Caspar Buberle, who created as well the elegant frieze of Union Army soldiers on the old Pension Building for Union Army veterans, in Washington, D.C., now the National Building Museum. Buberle was selected for that task by Union Army General Montgomery Miegs, designer of Arlington National Cemetery, originally laid out on the grounds of Lee’s Arlington House during the war. The Appomattox statue was unveiled in 1889 by Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, and a former Confederate general, as well as a future Federal Army general of the Spanish-American War.

At Duke and Washington is the Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museum. (Photo by TripSavvy)

This intersection at Washington St. and Duke St. is primed with poignant reminders of many facets of the Civil War. Next to the statue is the Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museum, and a speakers hall that featured such ante-bellum luminaries as John Quincy Adams, the President and congressman responsible for the successful Supreme Court defense of the escaped slaves from the Amistad ship. Half a block north is the attractive façade of the United Methodist Church which, reflecting the nation’s divisions, split into North and South denominations in the run-up to the War Between the States. Occupied as a stable by the Union Army, the federal government later paid the Church restitution.

Beulah Baptist Church at 320 S Washington Street was established in 1863 and was also the first black church founded in Alexandria after occupation by Union troops in 1861. (File photo.)

One block further south is the Beulah Baptist Church, one of the town’s initial African-American places of worship, and one of its first black schools, noted for the education of the free men and women fleeing, or emancipated from, slavery. Prominent African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass visited it and other, extant black churches a few blocks to the south and west. Up the street from the Beulah Church is the Downtown Baptist Church, turned into a hospital where Alexandrian women were blocked by Union soldiers from bringing linen and food to wounded Confederate soldiers reated inside by Union doctors.

Archival postcard of the original Alexandria Academy. (Photo courtesy of careypostcards.com)

Another block south of it is the Alexandria Academy, founded by George Washington as a free public school, for boys and girls, at the same time he endowed what became Washington and Lee University and George Washington University. Before the Civil War, children of James Madison and Lighthorse Harry Lee, the latter Washington’s cavalry commander and Robert E. Lee’s father, were educated there, as were groups of black children. During the Civil War, the Academy became a school and a hospital for freedmen.

The amazingly rich Civil War heritage of Alexandria isn’t limited to Washington St. of course. Old Town and its environs boast scores of other sites. The heritage trails would connect all the sites, but in a compact area only several miles across.

Several of the most prominent locales are:

  • Carlyle House

    The Carlyle Mansion, home to the Green family and a Union Army hospital that was the real-life locale of the “Mercy Street” PBS television series

 

 

  • The site of the first fatality of the Civil War, the Marshall House Hotel stood where the new modern Alexandrian Hotel is at King and Pitt Streets. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

    The Marshall House hotel, now the site of the Alexandrian Hotel, where Union Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and pro-Southern hotel owner James W. Jackson killed each other in a firefight, over a Confederate flag that Jackson had unfurled at his hotel, thus becoming among the first fatalities of the war.

  • The unique “Bank of the Two States”, a grand merchant bank that hosted the twin, war-time governments of Union Virginia, as opposed to the Confederate state of Virginia, as well as including the breakaway state of West Virginia. Confederate General John Mosby, later a U.S. ambassador in the Far East for President Grant, conducted secret war-time surveillance of the place.
  • The former publishing house of the Alexandria Gazette newspaper, burned by Union troops after its editorials backed the refusal of the reverend of a nearby church, designed by architect of the U.S. Capitol Benjamin Latrobe, to endorse “either President”, Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, in his sermons. The fire-blackened walls are still visible, as is the fire house, across the street (now a private home), whose firemen attempted to douse the blaze.

 

Steps to Developing the Interpretative Visitors Center

This notion for an interpretative visitors center and walking trails on Alexandria’s large role in the Civil War is a preliminary one. It is hoped this document will spur discussion and generate interest in this fascinating and educational topic.

The next step may be to establish a group to attract interested parties and funds for the purchase of the Lee Home, and to begin planning its transformation into a Civil War museum and interpretative center, as well as the construction of themed walking trails in Old Town.

If you or your organization is intrigued by this exciting, once-in-a century project of living history, kindly respond with interest and ideas.

Together, we could transform Alexandria into one of the prime places in America–along with Gettysburg, Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.–on the exploration of the Civil War, America’s most enthralling saga!

Respectfully yours,

Edward P. Moser

Historian, author, professional tour guide

Alexandria, VA

savvyveteran@gmail.com

 

 

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