Mail service came to a halt. Citizens had to have a pass to leave. Those who wanted to run a business had to obtain a proper license, which meant taking an oath of allegiance to the federal government. Churches that agreed to say a prayer for the president of the United States during their services were allowed to continue unimpeded; those that refused often were seized and put to use as hospitals. The Alexandrian men away at war, most of them part of the Confederacy’s 17th Virginia Infantry, could not return home on furloughs for the duration of the war.
“Alexandria is filled with ruined people; they walk as strangers through their ancient streets, and their property is no longer theirs to possess,” George Alfred Townsend, a correspondent for the New York Herald, wrote in 1863, adding that it “has become essentially a military city. Its streets, its docks, its warehouses, its dwellings, and its suburbs have been absorbed to the thousand uses of war.”
Among those uses were “the appetites and needs of these soldiers,” said Barber, the Smithsonian historian. “All of a sudden you see oyster houses and saloons. Houses of ill repute suddenly begin turning up.”
As the war wound down, Alexandria had begun to regain its footing. Its population ballooned to nearly 17,000 residents, though many of its new inhabitants were Northerners and free blacks.
The headaches and heartaches of its four-year occupation came with at least one silver lining: Alexandria never saw a day of combat. The city remained largely intact, as if preserved in amber.
“It was ironically fortunate in many ways,” Barber said. “Union occupation had a lot to do with preserving [Alexandria]. . . . It remained the quaint, 18th-century early Federal period town that is still there.”
Despite the chain stores, traffic lights and other reminders of modern life, the soul and the structure of the old town remain.
At the corner of Pitt and King streets, the Hotel Monaco stands on the site of the Marshall House hotel. A plaque honors James Jackson as “the first martyr to the cause of Southern independence.”
Outside Christ Church, the remains of 34 Confederate soldiers, prisoners of war who died during the federal occupation, lie in a communal grave. Union troops who perished mostly from disease lie less than a mile away at Alexandria National Cemetery. And off Washington Street sits the site of the Freedman’s Cemetery, the final resting place of many former slaves who came from across the South during the war, seeking refuge.
Their graves serve as a reminder of Alexandria’s role as a unique site in the Civil War — a place where Northerners and Southerners coexisted in relative peace; a place that evolved and adapted as the nation around it changed; a place where, even today, the past remains on display, in nearly every churchyard and down nearly every brick-lined street spared by occupation.