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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.


Sign at Alexandria, Virginia about the founding and naming of the twon for John Alexander

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. http://www. visitalexandriava.com

 Market Square at Alexandria, Virginia

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 and Washington. http://www.facebook.com/VisitAlexandriaVA        

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.

The Ramsey House  at Alexandria, Virginia

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 film.

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.

Carlyle House  at Alexandria, Virginia

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.

Sign about history of Carlyle House  at Alexandria, Virginia

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.

Interior of Carlyle House  at Alexandria, Virginia

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 orientation film.

Gadsby's Tavern  at Alexandria, Virginia

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 fathers.

Interior of Gadsby's Tavern  at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.gadsbystavern.org 

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.

Stabler Leandbeater Apothecary Shop  at Alexandria, Virginia

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.

drawers containing potions at Stabler Leandbeater Apothecary Shop  at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.apothecarymuseum.org 

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 took place.

Franklin and armfield house at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.nvul.org/#!freedom-house-museum/c79w

sign at Franklin and armfield house at Alexandria, Virginia

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.

Freedmen's Cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia

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 wounded. PBS, recognizing this unique history of Alexandria, will premiere a new series, “Mercy Street”, in 2016.

Confederate Stature at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.visitalexandriava.com 

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 call ahead. http://www.leefendallhouse.org 

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.

Hotel Monoco  at Alexandria, Virginia

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 military. http://www.monaco-alexandria.com 

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.

Actresses playing in  Mercy Street filimed at Alexandria, Virginia

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 presentations. http://www.pbs.org/mercystreet

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 1861-65. http://www.VisitAlexandriaVA.com/mercystreet

two characters playing in Mercy Street filimed at Alexandria, Virgini

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 façade 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.

Carlyl Mansion featured in Mercy Street filimed at Alexandria, Virgini

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. http://www.carlylehouse.org

Stabler Leandbeater Apothecary Shop museum at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.leefendallhouse.org

Poster for Mercy Street filimed at Alexandria, Virgini

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 http://www.alexandriava.gov/Lyceum 

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 inside. http://www.alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory

Graves at Freedmen's cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia Sculpture at Freedmen's cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia Detail of female in sculpture at Freedmen's cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia

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 additional internments.

Clovis Point found at Freedmen's cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia

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.
 http://www.alexandriaarchaeology.org

gate to fort ward at Alexandria, Virginia

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. http://www.alexandriava.gov/FortWard 

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.
 http://www.alexcolonialtours.com/ghost-graveyard-tour

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.
http://www.ivyhillcemetery.net and
http://www.alexcolonialtours.com

king st trolley at  Alexandria, Virginia

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, café and restaurant with food that represents all 21 of Italy’s regions served from 7 AM until 10:30 PM. http://www.carlucciosusa.com 

Virtue Feed & Grain combines American cuisine, craft beer and rustic décor with a modern spin inside an 18th-century warehouse. They have been featured in numerous publications including Bon Appétit, Esquire and Southern Living.  http://www.virtuefeedgrain.com 

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.  
http://www.visitalexandriava.com and http://www.visitAlexandriaVA.com/holidays 

Reader’s Tip:

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. http://www.Smithsonian.com

 

 

 

 

 


 

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