Walking Tour: Women of Civil War Alexandria

Liz Maurer from the National Women's History Museum led a walking tour that focused on Northern and Southern women in Alexandria. (The "virtual" museum posts exhibits on its website and sponsors events in the community.)

Remember that the Union occupied Alexandria from the beginning of the war to the end, with inevitable tensions among the Union military and civilians who came, the black and white populations who stayed, and the blacks who moved in to escape slavery.

Julia Wilbur (in spirit) and I joined the tour, and we mostly kept quiet.  Below are some of Liz's stops, along with a few relevant diary excerpts from Julia Wilbur and other background that I checked after the tour.

Lyceum and Washington Street Churches/Hospitals

The walking group met in front of the Lyceum on South Washington Street, where Liz took on the formidable challenge of briefly explaining the background leading up to the war. She highlighted the social movements of temperance, abolition, and women's rights, as well as the massive changes brought about by industrialization, immigration, and other economic forces.

The Lyceum, built as a cultural center by city leaders in 1839 and now a museum, was used as a Union hospital during the Civil War and hosted fundraising fairs. On December 28, 1864, Julia wrote:

We went to the Fair, [which] is being held at Lyceum Hall (Hos.) for the benefit of the soldiers. It is a nice place for a Fair.

(This may sound like faint praise for a fair, but on other occasions, she commented on the waste of time and money expended on these types of events, so that was a compliment of sorts.)

  The Lyceum during the Civil War. Photo from City of Alexandria .

The Lyceum during the Civil War. Photo from City of Alexandria.

From there, we walked by several churches-transformed-into-hospitals, the Downtown Baptist Church and Washington Methodist Church, where Liz explained how the vast numbers of sick and wounded on both sides required new medical systems. (The Office of Historic Alexandria has background information about the 30+ Union hospitals established.) 

An encounter that Julia had at a similar hospital (Grace Church on South Patrick Street) illustrates the fate of many:

December 20, 1862: Went to Grace Ch. Hospital. Found Jas. Mears of Rochester [a former student from when she taught]
December 21, 1862: ...wrote a letter for him to his sister...
January 14, 1863: ...Mary Mears called... [she came down to tend her brother, as many family members did]
February 3, 1863: Went to Grace Ch. Hos. & was surprised to learn that James Mears was dead & that his remains had been sent home this morning. I had supposed he was getting well, but after his death, the bullet was found in his brain.

Leaving the battlefield alive did not guarantee survival.

Christ Church and George Washington's Town Home

Next stop: Christ Church. Its fame George Washington's place of worship kept it apart from other churches in Alexandria. Union officers and troops worshipped there, to the consternation of the local parishioners, and many others visited to see Washington's pew. 

On January 2, 1864, when Julia was taking a visitor from Boston on her own version of a "Civil War walking tour," they stopped at the Church. She wrote:

Mr. Parker of Boston has been here. Mrs. J. & I went with him to Grantville & to Summerville (on our way stopped at Christ Church, sat in W’s pew, & Mr. P. lent me a knife to cut 3 buttons or tufts from the cushions. Those were about all there were left, & I thought I might as well have them as any body.)

Then, 504 Cameron Street, a replica of George Washington's townhouse, which he used when he came into Alexandria and also lent to friends, is now a private residence. But it has a plaque and a large bust of GW visible in a picture window, so the residents must not mind the attention.

 

Liz told us about the efforts by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to keep his main home at Mount Vernon separate from the hostilities. Julia Wilbur and friends took boats from Alexandria to see the home on several occasions--where, as the Christ Church incident above might indicate, she collected other relics, including live plants.

  Mount Vernon in 1858. Doubtful that much renovation took place in the early 1860s, so this is what visitors saw.

Mount Vernon in 1858. Doubtful that much renovation took place in the early 1860s, so this is what visitors saw.

 

Provost Marshall Office and Mansion House

The Provost Marshall was responsible for keeping order, a challenge with a mostly uncooperative local white population, thousands of entering troops (many bored and rambunctious), and mostly destitute freedpeople. A number of men rotated through the position, from reasonably sympathetic Captain John Wyman when Julia first arrived to Col. H.H. Wells, who publicly called her "an interfering and troublesome person."

From there, we walked in front of Carlyle House, the Civil War-era home of the Greens and location of their hotel, Mansion House--now known as the setting for the PBS series Mercy Street. According to Julia, Mansion House had a comparatively good reputation as a well-run hospital. For those of you who have seen the series, that does not bode well for conditions in the other hospitals in the city.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary 

  This oath, in the Library of Virginia, is NOT Mary's but gives an idea of what it was. There were various versions and format. The list of Alexandrians who signed is online through the Alexandria library.

This oath, in the Library of Virginia, is NOT Mary's but gives an idea of what it was. There were various versions and format. The list of Alexandrians who signed is online through the Alexandria library.

This apothecary, now another Office of Historic Alexandria site, was a good place for Liz to talk about some of the women who stayed, including Mary Leadbeater, and how they survived. The apothecary served as a sort of wholesaler, providing compounds to other shops and businesses throughout the area. To operate the family business, Mary had to sign an oath of allegiance to the Union, either out of conviction or economic necessity. Other women took in boarders, sewed piecework, or otherwise tried to survive.

(As an aside, someone from the Apothecary told me she recently came across old records that include medicines ordered for contrabands, or freedpeople, in mid-1862. The documentation is sketchy but she is doing research on the transactions. Could they have paid for the medicines themselves? Did the military? A puzzle to unravel....)

Contraband Hospital and Clothing Room

When we stopped across the street from the Clothing Room-Contraband Hospital on South Washington Street where Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs worked, I piped up and told the group about them. 

Appomattox Statue

We ended back at the Lyceum, where Liz talked about the Appomattox Statue, recently in the news about whether or not to move it. She pointed out that the United Daughters of the Confederacy--who were young women during the Civil War and whose lives obviously changed--were behind it in 1889 and state legislation is required to move it. 

This was the Museum's last walking tour of 2016, but the Civil War Alexandria tour and a tour of women's suffrage sights in the District will resume in spring 2017. 

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