We've all seen Mercy Street, but what was the real-life Civil War experience like for Union Army doctors? Alfred Lewis Castleman, a surgeon in the Wisconsin 5th regiment, provides a glimpse with his 1862 diary. The job was difficult, to put it mildly — rife with medical challenges as well as bureaucratic ones.
One of the most remembered war correspondents was also the youngest reporter in the Civil War, George Alfred Townsend. Born in 1841, Townsend’s reports on the Battle of Five Forks and the Lincoln assassination gained him wide recognition, but before he had the chance to write those, Townsend visited the occupied city of Alexandria. Among his observations: "It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; now how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie [sic]."
World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.
The St. Asaph racetrack in Alexandria was a hotbed of gambling at the turn of the century, and local prosecutor Crandal Mackey made it his personal mission to shut the track down. But that was easier said than done as the track's owners concocted elaborate schemes to outwit authorities and circumvent Virginia's anti-gambling statutes.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.
Across the country, members of high society celebrated George Washington's 200th birthday by attending costumed balls. But only Alexandria could boast that their ball occurred at the location of Washington's last birthday party.
In 1939 — decades before Virginia schools were integrated, and sit-ins emerged as a primary strategy for protesting segregated businesses and public facilities in the South — Alexandria, Virginia lawyer Samuel Tucker organized a successful sit-in to demonstrate against the Alexandria Library's "whites only" policy. It is believed to be the first sit-in for desegregation in American history.
Today, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is a mainstay of Washington, D.C.’s cultural life. The park’s large outdoor auditorium and beautiful green space play host to a variety of performers. However, 50 years ago, some politicians questioned whether it was a wise decision for the government to accept the land gift from Catherine Filene Shouse and build the performing arts center.
Two hundred years ago, an unknown woman breathed her last in room 8 of Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Her husband prepared her body for death in secret and sealed her coffin personally. After seeing that she was placed in a local graveyard, he vanished. It’s the sort of story that would condemn a person to be lost to history, but the circumstances surrounding this woman’s death and interment sparked centuries of questions and outlandish theories. Even now, no one alive knows her name. She remains the Female Stranger of Alexandria.
If you live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and you are interested in visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) but have not secured tickets yet, this might be a great time to explore the many African American history focused museums, cultural centers and historic houses in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.