There are cities older than Alexandria, Virginia and
cities that have witnessed as many of America's major
historical events but there are no other colonial cities
that experienced history in such a personal way and none
that can as readily evoke the sense of historical
immediacy. Archeology has proven that humans existed in
the Alexandria region for at least 13,000-years. The
earliest Native Americans hunted and eventual developed
settlements near the Patawomeck Flu, Potomac River. In
1654 the first documented patent for 700-acres of land
belonged to Margaret Brent, a Maryland resident and
first colonial woman to become a landowner.
John Alexander purchased the property on which Alexandria,
Virginia sits today from Robert Howsing in 1669 for 6,000-lbs.
of tobacco. Howsing, an English sea captain, had been granted
6,000-acres for service to the Crown. Alexander's land was
basically used for farming until the early 1730s when Hugh West
built a tobacco warehouse in response to theTobacco Inspection Act of 1730 mandating the centralization of
Virginia's tobacco trade.
In 1748 three Scotsmen, John Carlyle, John Pagan and William
Ramsey selected land on a bay at West's Point on the Potomac
River to establish a trading and shipping port. The governor
signed a bill creating the town Alexandria, named after the
early landowner, the following year. A young surveyor, George
Washington, is credited with platting the land and land that
went on sale July 13, 1749.
The heart of the 60-acre historic district began with a market
square surrounded by 84 lots on ten streets that serve as a
reminder that at the time of the city's founding its allegiance
was strongly English. The main streets Fairfax and Cameron with
Duke, Prince, King, Queen, Princess and Oronoco, named after a
type of tobacco, radiating outward. The east-west streets are
named after figures who contributed to history. After the
American Revolution street names were added including Franklin
The city was immediately a thriving port. There was a tremendous
need for labor and indentured servants and free and enslaved
workers filled that need. Thirteen-years after the founding the
total population was 1,214 with 264 being slaves. Records
indicate that ships docked in Alexandria with cargoes of slaves.
George Washington's close connection to the new settlement began
in earnest in early 1759 when he and new wife Martha moved into
Mount Vernon 8-miles south of Alexandria. In 1763 Washington
purchased a lot at 508 Cameron Street and constructed a
townhouse, dependencies and stable within 6-years. The house
served as both a business office and lodging used when he had to
conduct business in the city or was too tired to make the trip
back home. The 1769 house was torn down in 1855 and
reconstructed in 1960 on its original foundation. It is a short
walk from the places Washington frequented most often.
Market Square is the midpoint of the Old & Historic Alexandria
National Landmark District. It began life in 1753 as an open
field used by locals, including Washington, to sell produce,
animals, crafts and African slaves and was once the site of the
colony's second largest slave market. Washington drilled his troops there in 1754 and
in the latter 1700s buildings were erected around the square.
The square still hosts on Saturdays the longest continually
operated market in the country.
Tours of Alexandria should begin in the Ramsay House, the oldest
house in the city and now a tourist bureau offering complete
destination information, reservations, tours and an orientation
The construction history of the house is murky. Restorationists
have determined that the house predates the city and was
probably built in Dumfries, VA circa 1724. William Ramsay had
the house floated up the Potomac and placed on the waterfront,
at that time the river came up to Fairfax Street, facing the
Potomac in order to monitor his businesses. William, his wife
and 8 children lived in the home until moving to a larger one as
their fortunes grew. The gambrel-roofed house was built as a
2-story with a single room per floor but was expanded to 2 rooms
on each floor.
A few steps from the Ramsay House sits the 1753
Georgian Palladian style Carlyle House. John Carlyle and his new
wife, Sally Fairfax, moved into the house in August and on that
same day their first child was born.
Major General Edward
Braddock chose the mansion as his headquarters when he arrived
on February 1755 in the colonies as the Commander-in-Chief of
His Majesty's Forces in North America to fight the French and
Indian War. Six months later Braddock held a Council of
Governors requesting funds for the war. The 5 governors were not
as agreeable as he felt they should be and it is then that he
arrived at the idea of levying taxes on the colonials to finance
the war. This turned out to be almost as poor an idea as his
plan to attack Fort Duquesne, a plan his aide-de-camp George
Washington pointed out was not a sound one. The seeds of the
American Revolution and Braddock's death were sown.
The symmetrical 2-story house with two rooms on each side of a
center hall was built of local sandstone. Situated 75-feet from
the street it was all the more imposing in a town with most
buildings made of wood. Carlyle House boasts a Georgian-hipped
roof and projecting central pavilion. Documents show that John
oversaw the construction that was carried on by his workers,
both enslaved and indentured. He was one of the largest
slaveowners in colonial Virginia. Up to 25 labored on the
Carlyle House property with others working in his foundry,
blacksmith shop and on his 3 plantations.
The dependencies that were once on the property were demolished
in the 1850s, the mansion was listed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1969 and underwent restoration in 1976. Only
the study and main parlor retain the original architecture and
the floorboards and woodwork are also original.
The mansion is furnished
based on an inventory and contains the bed in which it is
believed Carlyle died.
Tours are regularly scheduled and include a 15-minute
In 1963 Gadsby's Tavern was designated a National Historic
Landmark after more than 200-years of being in the forefront of
Alexander's history. John Wise erected a small tavern in 1785
and the larger City Tavern, later the 3-story City Hotel, in
1792 on the site of a 1743 tavern. Under the management of John
Gadsby from 1796-1808 the hotel and tavern flourished and became
an important public space for the town and hosted the founding
The 1793 Georgian ballroom, the most beautiful and famous room
in the hotel, was dismantled and is now displayed in the
American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Famously Washington attended his final Birthnight Ball here in
1799 and 25-years later Lafayette was feted in the ballroom on
his return visit. The architectural elements are stunning and
special note should be taken of the cantilevered musician's
gallery that hovers over the ballroom. On the exterior a 1793
ice well is an example of one of the sole remaining urban ice
wells in the country. The two buildings are restored to their
colonial appearance and are now greeting visitors as Gadsby's
Tavern Museum. There are displays interpreting Virginia colonial
life and a colonial-inspired restaurant.
Gadsby moved to Baltimore in 1813, taking his 36 slaves with
him, and owned the Baltimore Queen Hotel. He was the largest
slaveowner in Baltimore at that time. In 1836 Stephen Decatur's
widow was forced by debts to sell her DC mansion to Gadsby and
he added slave quarters to the house to accommodate his
household slaves. Upon his death he left 17 slaves, ages 4 to
50, and his furnishings to his wife.
More African Americans, enslaved and free, labored in taverns
than in any other non-plantation industry but few were owners.
One of the rare exceptions was Dominick Barecroft who purchased
his freedom, opened a public house and resided at 315 Cameron
Street. His establishment became famous for his crab dishes and
paid for his emancipation in 1800. He earned enough to purchase
his wife and emancipate her in 1804.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop, Stabler's second, opened
in 1796 and remained in operation for 141-years. The shop
maintains its 19th-century appearance and features
the largest collection of medicinal glass in its original
setting in the nation. Additional highlights include
prescriptions, scales, utensils and patent medicines. The client
list included the Washingtons, Monroe and the Lees.
Philadelphian Edward Stabler, a trained pharmacist and Quaker
minister, established the business. In 1852 John Ledbetter
purchased the business and in 1933 the family shuttered the
doors leaving the contents intact. Stabler founded an
abolitionist society and was known to purchase slaves and free
them. Tours include the first floor shop and the pharmacist's
workroom n the second level. Special note should be taken of the
ingredients used in the medications. In 1982 the structure was
listed as a National Historic Landmark.
During the Revolutionary War many of Alexandria's ships ran
blockades and help supply French arms to the Continental Army.
In the brief time before the onset of the War of 1812 Alexandria
became an even more prosperous port and in 1789 Virginia ceded
Alexandria to the federal government and it became part of the
District of Columbia in 1801. Immediately after the British
attacked Washington In August 1814 the town was looted and
forced to surrender to the British, events from which the town
did not economically recover until the 1820s when the slave
trade became a major industry. So lucrative was the trade that
on July 9, 1846 Alexandria's citizens demanded that the town be
retroceded to Virginia. Some scholars believe that the reason
for their referendum was their belief that slavery was about to
be declared illegal in DC.
Alexandria is an incredibly accessible city and that ability to
"travel smoothly" while there extends to the fantastic number of
tours, informational plaques and thematic trails available to
visitors. All the trails intertwine at some points but you can
concentrate on the 1.33-mile Hayti Trail to ensure that you
visit the most important African American locations. The trail
is named in honor of an 1810 free black neighborhood, an
expansion of the 1798 African American "Bottoms", named after
the island of Haiti where the first successful black revolution
Freedom House is one of the most significant black heritage
sites in the US. The 3-story, L-shaped Adamesque building, was
the office ofFranklin and Armfield from 1828-38 and was the largest
slave-trading firm of the era. In those years they shipped more
than 1,000 slaves to New Orleans annually with company owned
ships, Tribune and Uncas, sailing once each month. Robert Young
built the house in 1812 and F & A added slave pens, holding
areas, along the street.
Joseph Bruin purchased a Federal-style house and 2-acres of land
on Duke St. in 1844 after 4-years of slave dealing. Records
indicate that he, and his partner Henry Hill, were buying and
selling slaves by 1845 with as many as 50 held in the barracks
at a time. Bruin & Hill became the largest and most infamous
slavetrading firm in the region. Harriet Beecher Stowe cites her
incorporation of details of Bruin's slave jail in
Uncle Tom's Cabin and
it was the site of incarceration of the Edmondson sisters who
were involved in the famous
Pearl escape. Bruin fled when Alexandria was occupied but
was later imprisoned in DC. The slave warehouse functioned as a
courthouse in 1863-64. Archeological excations have reveled
hundreds of artifacts including many used in African rituals.
Once enslaved people became aware that Alexandria was held by
the Union they came to Alexandria in droves and from
1864-69 the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery became the site
of their final resting place. In 2014 it became an interactive
memorial dedicated to the nearly 2,000 people buried there. The
9-acre Alexandria African American Heritage Park encompasses a
1-acre Baptist cemetery with 21 identified burials, six of which
have headstones and remain in their original location. Mario
Chiodo's sculpture "The Path of Thorns and Roses," is a focal
point of the memorial as are bas-reliefs by Joanna Blake and
sculptures by Jerome Meadows.
On May 23, 1861 Virginia voted to secede from the Union and on
May 24th federal troops marched into Alexandria
making Alexandria the city that was occupied the longest during
the Civil War. Because of its location, 6-miles from DC,
Alexandria became important for spies, slaves and the sick and
recognizing this unique history of Alexandria, will premiere a
new series, "Mercy Street", in 2016.
Realizing that their 800 troops could not stand against the more
than 2,000 Union troops the Confederates met at Prince and South
Washington Streets and then left the city by rail for Manassas.
Some sources state that Robert E. Lee was with the men. On May
24, 1889 a sculpture of a Confederate soldier was erected where
they mustered. The soldier is as depicted in John Elder's
painting, "Appomattox," looking over the battlefield after the
surrender. The sculpture honors the Confederate dead and is
inscribed with approximately 100 names including that of James
Jackson the owner of the Marshall House Hotel. The statue, head
bowed and arms folded, faces forever south.
Lee's father had moved to Alexandria 54-years earlier and Robert
resided there until he left for West Point in 1825. The 1785
Lee-Fendall House was home to more than 30 family members until
1903 and during the Civil War the house was used as a hospital.
The museum house and garden interpret the 20-year period from
1850-70. Tours are scheduled on a regular basis but you should
Ironically the first Confederate and the first Union casualties
and martyrs were both killed in Alexandria. The day the Union
troops arrived in the city one of the men, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, Lincoln's personal assistant, spied a
Confederate flag flying on the roof of the Marshall House Hotel,
owned by a diehard secessionist. The flag flew on a 40-ft. pole
and, it has been said, could be seen by Lincoln from the White
House. Ellsworth climbed to the roof, removed the flag and was
on his way down the stairs when Jackson shot him dead.
Immediately Union Cpl. Francis Brownell killed Jackson, a deed
for which he received the Medal of Honor in 1877. The flag was
taken to New York along with Ellsworth's body. The Monaco Hotel
stands on the site of the Marshall Hotel and a bronze plaque
located outside honors Jackson as a Confederate martyr.
The Monaco provides perfect accommodations for a tour of
Alexandria. It is located within three blocks of most of the
major attractions as well as across the street from a stop on
the free King Street Trolley line. The hotel is beautifully
appointed with a seamless use of modern amenities and historic
accouterments and design elements. Offerings include free WIFI,
evening wine reception, fitness center, pool and pet-friendly
policy. Chef Brian McPherson presides over Jackson 20, the hotel's
renowned restaurant featuring American cuisine. The Monaco will
offer the very special
"Have Mercy" Package January 17 – July 1, 2016, the
ultimate way to become immersed in the city's history and
includes special themed amenities and a donation to the
Alexandria quickly became one of the most significant transport
and Federal supply headquarters because of its rail, road and
river access. Slaves poured into the city upon learning that it
was Union held and contraband, as they were referred to, filled
the area. Just as supplies were transported out of the city, the
wounded were carried in. More than 30 facilities were used as
hospitals during the war.
Beginning in January 2016 visitors to Alexandria will have a
rare opportunity to interact with history in a very special very
personal manner. On January 17, 2016 at 10 PM a new PBS
television drama, "Mercy Street," based on events in and
inspired by Alexandria's role as a hospital city, will premiere.
The story revolves around two volunteer nurses on opposite sides
of the war. A mind-boggling menu of creative programs, events,
activities, exhibits and tours has been planned around every
aspect of the 6-episode 1862 medical drama. Individual sites
will have exhibitions in keeping with their overall
The primary story related in "Mercy Street" is inspired by
events that took place in the Carlyle House* and Alexandria's
most lavish accommodations, turned hospital and staff housing,
the adjacent Mansion House Hotel. Wealthy and influential James
Green was the owner of the home and hotel and he and his family
refused to abandon their property during Union occupation from
Around 1848 James Green purchased a bank building at Fairfax &
Cameron Streets and transformed it into a hotel. Seven years
later it became the largest hotel in Alexandria when Green
constructed a 4-story addition that hid the Fairfax Street
fašade of the Carlyle House. In 1861 the Green's were given
3-days to leave and a month later the hotel was converted into
the Mansion House Hospital, housing as many as 700 people with
500 beds. The hospital reverted to a hotel after the war and was
torn down in 1973 leaving the Carlyle House visible again.
Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion
House Hospital Carlyle House Historic Park
will be on view January 11 until July 11, 2016. The exhibit will
focus on authentic stories from the historic site and will take
place throughout the mansion. Upper level rooms will represent
1860s hospital rooms, offices and staff accommodations. On the
lower level artifacts will be on display and the role of spies,
women and blacks connected to the family will be interpreted.
Highlights of the exhibits are an example of the type of hoop
skirt worn at the time beneath which a person could be hidden
and the story of Charles Marshall, a member of the US Colored
Troops the only African American ever emancipated by Green.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum did not close during
the occupation and it remained the place to shop. The museum's
exhibition will highlight purchases made by the Green Family and
the Union Quartermaster and stories of the era.
Several dynamic events will take place in the Lee-Fendall House
but visitors should be aware that some of them will have a
single presentation. The Tour is an in-depth exploration of the slave and
contraband experience in
Alexandria. Spies &
Scones – A Special "History Mystery" Tea
and Surgeons & Citizens,
Spirits & Soldiers will also be offered.
Alexandria's History Museum, the Lyceum, has crafted an
outstanding series of walking tours to compliment the "Nurse
Clarissa Jones" exhibit. Tours include
Beyond the Battlefield
and the 3-hour Walking
Behind the Scenes at Mansion House Hospital
The Alexandria Black History Museum's showcase exhibition,
The Journey to be Free:
Self-emancipation and Alexandria's Contraband Heritage
interprets the story of thousands of African Americans who
managed to navigate their way to the city within Union lines.
Freedmen might have been free but they were not safe from
deprivation and disease. The museum is housed inside the former
Robert Robinson Library, a segregated facility built in response
to the country's first sit-in. In 1939 5 African Americans were
arrested at the white Queen Street Library after sitting to read
Nearly 1,800 members of the African American community was
interred in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery* between
1864-1869. The military government created the burial ground
because of the huge death toll. Among the initial burials were
members of the USCT but very quickly other black soldiers
petitioned the government for black soldier's burials to take
place in the Soldier's Cemetery, now Alexandria National
Cemetery, with the same honors as other soldiers. They were
reburied there in 1865 and this formal protest is cited as one
of the first civil rights actions. A small number of the
remaining gravesites are marked within the cemetery and lighter
colored bricks along the exterior walkway are sites of
Alexandria Archaeology Museum (AAM) is located in gallery #327
of the Torpedo Factory on the waterfront. The AAM displays
objects found during area digs. Highlights of a visit here are a
copy of the NY Herald relating the death of E. Ellsworth and a
diorama of the heating system used for hospital tents. The
system dated from the Crimean War and was ingenious. This free
museum is a tiny jewel with a collection of 2-million items.
Fort Ward Museum, 4301 West Braddock Road, was one of 161 forts
built to protect and defend Alexandria and Washington, DC. It
was named n honor of the first Union naval officer to die in the
Civil War, James H. Ward. At the end of the war the fort was
taken apart and the land was purchased by African Americans to
establish a community still known as Fort Hill. The fort has
been reconstructed as a result of the city's first
archaeological dig in 1961. A 3-mile loop, marked with
interpretive plaques, guides you through the fort. Fort Ward
will present a living history
Civil War Surgeon and
Field Hospital Program.
With all the strong emotions and the huge death toll it is not
surprising that Alexandria is filled with legends and tales that
mystify and scare visitors. A costumed docent walks you through
the stories by lantern light on the Ghost & Graveyard Tour.
Tours leave from the Ramsay House, one of many haunted sites.
Ivy Hill Cemetery can be toured on a group tour or be
self-guided. This is the burial site of the Green family and the
spy Frank Stringfellow, showcased in "Mercy Street". The
22.5-acre cemetery was established in the 1830s. Maps are
downloadable and are available at the office.
More than 75% of Old Town Alexandria's shops and restaurants are
individually owned and operated. This is a foodie city and one
of the Obama's favorite places to dine. Antonio Carluccio,
founder of Carluccio's, is the winner of numerous gastronomy
awards and honors. The establishment consists of an Italian
market, cafe and restaurant with food that represents all 21 of
Italy's regions served from 7 AM until 10:30 PM.
Virtue Feed & Grain combines American cuisine, craft beer and
rustic decor with a modern spin inside an 18th-century
warehouse. They have been featured in numerous publications
including Bon Appetit, Esquire and Southern Living.
Alexandria is a year round destination. You can end the year
with a boom, touring, shopping and taking in holiday events or
start the new year with a bang by immersing yourself in special
"Mercy Street" activities. Use the websites listed to plan an
awesome trip to Alexandria.
Smithsonian Magazine's current issue, November 2015, contains an
outstanding article by Edward Ball that features some aspects of
the slave experience in Alexandria. "Slavery's Trail of Tears"
is not to be missed.
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