Alexandria History

The Time When Martial Law Was Declared in Alexandria

Nearly 160 years ago, on the morning of May 24, 1861, Union soldiers traveled from Washington D.C. to occupy Alexandria.

Capt. F.W. Whittlesey, provost martial during the occupation of Alexandria.
(Photos: Alexandria archives)

Alexandria, VA – Nearly 160 years ago, on the morning of May 24, 1861, Union soldiers of the Eleventh New York (Fire Zouaves) and the First Michigan Infantry regiments traveled from Washington D.C. to occupy Alexandria. Virginia’s ordinance of secession went into effect that morning. Because of the city’s proximity to the nation’s capital, Federal forces needed a foothold in what had become enemy territory.

The Navy’s sloop-of-war, Pawnee, with her ten naval guns, was sent to Alexandria’s waterfront to provide artillery support for these troops. But by the time Union forces arrived, Confederate units had abandoned our seaport town and left it to its fate.

Union troops had little trouble securing their objectives, except for one incident at the Marshall House Inn. The commander of the New York soldiers, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, led a small detail of men into the Marshall House and removed a large secessionist flag from its roof. In the process, Ellsworth was shot dead by the hotel’s owner, James Jackson, who was in turn killed by the New Yorkers.

The town swiftly fell under military control. Colonel Orlando B. Wilcox of the First Michigan declared martial law. He named Captain F.W. Whittelsey of his regiment to serve as provost marshal and Company H as the city’s Military Police.

A rare surviving copy of the martial law proclamation is in the Fort Ward Museum collection.

On May 26, residents woke to find copies of the martial law proclamation posted around town, informing them of new restrictions. Alexandrians would have new rules to follow, including applying for passes if they wanted to leave town. Soldiers of the First Michigan Infantry printed the broadside after the editor of the Alexandria Gazette, Edgar Snowden, refused to publish the orders. Alexandrians had no idea how much or for how long their daily lives would be disrupted.

Under Union control, Alexandria became a major base of Union campaigns. Military railroad operations were headquartered here. Hospitals were established in public and private buildings to serve the wounded. Alexandria’s port bustled with military traffic throughout the war. Due to Alexandria’s growing strategic importance, fortifications like Fort Ward were built and linked to those protecting Washington, D.C.

Alexandria would remain under Union occupation until the war’s end. A rare original copy of the proclamation of martial law is held in the City of Alexandria’s Fort Ward Museum collection.

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