MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, in our nation's history, perhaps the most epic competition on record occurred between 1861 and 1865. It was a bloody conflict of north versus south, the Union versus the Confederacy. It was the American Civil War. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States. And a city that was instrumental in that start and in the war, in general really, was Alexandria, Virginia.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
On May 21st, Alexandria kicks off its commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Life in Civil War Alexandria, a free-living history event exploring the cities Civil War heritage. Visitors will be able to interact with Union and Confederate soldiers, African-American civilians, even Robert E. Lee who called Alexandria his hometown. There will also be free tours of various Civil War sites, from the Apothecary Museum to Carlyle House Historic Park which will host the program, "Spies and Scouts of the Civil War." To find out more about how the Civil War played out in Alexandria, I headed to Old Town to meet with Lance Mallamo.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
He directs the Office of Historic Alexandria, unit of the city government. And we sat down in the courtyard of the historic Gadsby's Tavern where Lance told me, "Alexandria played a very distinctive role in the Civil War."
MR. LANCE MALLAMO
It was a southern city, actually had Unionist leanings before the war and Virginia did not want to secede from the Union. Twice before April 1861, it had voted not to secede. But after the attack on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina in April of 1861, Virginia quickly realized war was inevitable and that it would be the highway to war.
MR. LANCE MALLAMO
So just a few days after the fall of Fort Sumter, Virginia ratified the ordinance of secession and voted on May 23, 1861, nine to one to secede from the Union.
And the day that went into effect, that was the day federal troops marched in and took over Alexandria?
Yes, that was May 24, 1861. Now, let's remember, it was only the day before that Alexandria had voted to support the secession and at the conclusion of the vote, at the courthouse on Columbus and Queen Street, African-Americans stood outside on the sidewalk and cried. And many of the cities white residents celebrated.
Now, I say many, not all. There were still some Unionists who put American flags in their window to support the Union. But by the vast majority, the townspeople were very pleased with the vote. Probably celebrated and danced and drank into the night.
And when the city was invaded where the Hotel Monaco is today, that was the Marshall House. The proprietor there, when Virginia had seceded a month earlier, had put a huge secessionist flag on top of the hotel and declared that flag was coming down over his dead body.
Well, he got his wish on May 24th. Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of Saratoga Springs, New York -- he was a commander of the New York Zouaves. He was also a personal aide to President Lincoln here in Washington. He marched King Street, saw the flag and decided he was going to take it back to the city of Washington as a souvenir.
This, of course, about 5:30 in the morning, the townspeople were still asleep. He entered the hotel, climbed out to the roof, gathered the flag. And then, descending the staircase, he was confronted by the proprietor, James W. Jackson, with a shotgun and literally blew a hole in Colonel Ellsworth's chest. And Jackson himself was then shot and bayoneted by Corporal Frances Brownell, Ellsworth's assistant.
And frankly, both of these men became martyrs to their own cause. In the North, the motto, "Remember Ellsworth," recruited men by the thousands. And in the South the motto, "Remember Jackson," recruited men by the thousands.
So then Alexandria was occupied for, what, four years? Which I guess was the longest occupation in the Civil War.
That's right. It was occupied from day one right through the last day of the war. And even thereafter for several months because although it was intact physically, its economy was virtually destroyed. It was in tatters. There was little in the way of law enforcement. So Union troops had to stay here to maintain law and order.
Before 1860, in that decade, it was a very prosperous city. The population had grown. The economy was growing very well here. It was a wealthy port city. But, you know, the term murder and mayhem comes to mind on a daily basis in Civil War Alexandria. By the end of the war, only a third of the town's original residents still resided here. Most had fled to other areas. Their homes were taken over for military buildings or barracks or hospitals. So it was a very, very dark time in the city's history.
So the city saw quite a change as a result of the war. How long lasting was that impact?
Really, the change was enormous. It took decades to recover, probably only beginning in the early 1900s. But it was a dramatic time of transformational change. I like to think it took the Civil War to get us where we are today, where we have an African-American president. Our mayor is African-American and Alexandria's diversity is celebrated.
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