Alexandria was truly the hub of the American Civil War in the East. It was a major port in those days and a railhead for central Virginia and the Valley. Almost every soldier in the Army of the Potomac spent some time here, whether in camp, building fortifications, in hospital or in transit to places like Fort Monroe or City Point. Logistically, Alexandria was far more important than Washington – it was no accident this was the first city seized in May 1861.
Many of the invaders never left. Hardy Yankee farm boys, used to harsh New England winters, were taken by surprise by Virginia’s damp winters. By December of 1861 they found themselves cold, wet and standing in a foot of mud in their campsites up on Seminary Ridge. Firewood ran out early; there is an account of one sick soldier who left the Convalescent Camp in the clear cold of a winter night to grub tree roots for fuel. Many of these same farm boys had never been exposed to childhood diseases such as measles. In the camps, they were exposed to everything. One regimental chaplain of a Massachusetts regiment buried eleven of his Bay Staters at the Seminary in one day in November 1861.
Twenty or more of Alexandria’s largest buildings were used as hospitals. These included hotels and private residences such as the Mansion House Hotel, no longer standing, but located in what is now the front yard of the Carlyle house; Clarens, a fine mansion on Quaker, still standing; and two large brick Italianate mansions at the corner of Wolfe and St. Asaph, one of which remains. The first successful blood transfusion took place in the Lee-Fendall house, which was an adjunct to the larger Grosvenor Hospital. The Grosvenor Hospital at 414 North Washington fell to urban renewal in 1960. The cotton factory on Washington Street held Confederate prisoners and their sick.
Churches were not exempt; they included Washington Street United Methodist Church, still standing; the Fairfax Seminary complex with over 1200 beds on Quaker Lane, plus Episcopal High School next door; St. Paul’s Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church; Grace Church; and the Baptist Church on Washington Street. Appreciate the residual karma of them empty of pews and filled with hospital cots, stoic young men, and earnest nurses.
In an era of segregation, Blacks and Indians had their own hospitals, notably the 717 bed L’Ouverture Hospital, dedicated specifically to the U.S. Colored Troops and occupying the entire block bounded by Duke, Payne, Prince and West. Colored troops also had the large brick house at the corner of Washington and Wolfe, and Claremont, south of Cameron Run with 164 beds. There was a separate hospital for the “contrabands” not in uniform but still serving the army in Alexandria.
Additionally, the tents of Camp Convalescent served the “walking wounded” too sick for the field but too well for the hospitals. This was located on Shuter’s Hill near Fort Ellsworth and the modern Masonic Temple, growing in time to 200 acres as it expanded to hold paroled POWs, disciplinary cases and stragglers. The soldiers called it “Camp Misery”; housed in wedge or Sibley tents without flooring, with poor clothing and few blankets, deep mud everywhere, they faced short rations and scarce firewood. The commander of Fort Ellsworth complained that his abattis had been carried off for firewood. Clara Barton described it as “a sort of pen into which all who could limp, all deserters and stragglers, were driven promiscuously” until they were fit for reassignment or discharge from the army. In October 1862, James Chadwick, recently discharged from hospital, lasted there one day before hiking out to better accommodations at Fort Blenker: “There are about 12,000 or 15,000 men at that “Convalescent Camp”—some stragglers—recruits—paroled prisoners—convalescents—and deserters. It is a horrible place to stay, being very dirty, filthy and infested with vermin. Such a set of fellows as those prisoners from Richmond you never saw—ragged, dirty—LOUSY and without money.” The camp moved in the winter of 1862-1863 to more substantial and sanitary barracks near Four Mile Run.
Between the Convalescent Camp and the Seminary was a veterinary hospital for horses, resting in lush pasturage on the slopes of Clover. However, this was probably nothing compared to the more than 2600 capacity of the horse hospital at Giesboro Point across the river.
One of Alexandria’s Civil War hospitals is about to become the setting for the new PBS series Mercy Street, due to air in January and set in the Mansion House Hotel. This large hotel was built by James Green, who made his fortune building furniture in Alexandria – the Appomattox surrender was probably signed on a Green desk. He built a luxury hotel with over a hundred rooms in the front yard of the Carlyle house on Fairfax Street, incorporating the old mansion and its gardens into the design (hence the name “Mansion House”). The hotel also incorporated the failed Bank of Alexandria next door on the corner of Cameron Street. As the war progressed, the Union Hospital Corps offered to rent the hotel as a hospital for 1000 patients, with the Green family to retain the old mansion; however, the Yankees “forgot” to pay rent in Green’s lifetime.
There was indeed an actual Emma Green, just as there was a Frank Stringfellow. The slightly-built Stringfellow was an Episcopal High School Old Boy who had joined the cavalry and quickly became a spy and scout for Jeb Stuart. His slight build allowed him to pass as a woman, allowing him to attend parties where he could dance with loose-lipped Yankee officers. He is famous for having concealed himself under the hoopskirt of a sympathizer as the Yankees searched high and low for him. He would slip in and out of Alexandria as a spy, sometimes assisted by Emma in his espionage. With her help, he carried news to Manassas of McDowell’s planned advance, contributing to the Yankee rout at First Manassas. Stringfellow spent many months undercover in Washington collecting intelligence from sympathizers in the War Department, consoled no doubt by the proximity of Emma. With a $10,000 bounty on his head, he nonetheless counted these days in the shadow of the gallows as the happiest of his life; he and Emma would later marry and produce five children. They are buried next to one another in Ivy Hill Cemetery on King Street.
There was also an historical Mary Phinney, who recounts being driven to the Mansion House by Dorothea Dix, and being most unwelcome by doctors she describes as being ‘the most brutal men I ever saw.” One was a drunk and none of them proved competent surgeons. The operating ward was a “sea of blood.” Wounded fresh from Cedar Mountain were being offloaded at the wharves at the foot of the street when she arrived. She received a crash course in nursing, working until overcome by exhaustion, sleeping next to the wounded or in the corner of a room. She was appalled at the bad cooking (she ended up cooking for the soldiers herself), food theft, dirtiness and political corruption and profiteering that overshadowed the place. And there was unconcealed hostility by the staff towards the sole female nurse. She had to watch young men die and was especially horrified at the lockjaw cases. She saw her hospital filled to overflow from casualties of Fredericksburg, with the wounded laying on the sidewalks of Fairfax Street. Chancellorsville repeated the horror. She stayed until July of 1863, when a bad case of dysentery necessitated her own furlough.
Mary Phinney may have thought she was the only female nurse at the Mansion House, but one of the “male” nurses turns out to have been Emma Edmonds, who enlisted in a Michigan regiment as a man. She spied behind enemy lines “disguised” as a woman and as a male slave stained black with silver nitrate. She served through most of the war until illness forced her to desert – the doctors would have uncovered her secret. Previously she had broken a leg scouting at Second Manassas and had forgone treatment to prevent discovery, the untreated leg troubling her for the rest of her life. Generous and afraid of nothing, she naturally gravitated towards nursing and ended up at the Mansion House for a time. Her desertion later forgiven, she became the only female soldier to receive a military pension. If she is not a character on Mercy Street, she ought to be.
In conclusion, it is important to note that many of these hospitals were well-run, humane places of refuge. Among the best was the Seminary Hospital, which featured its own bakery, purpose-built wards and special diets suited to the diseases being treated. If one really seeks to explore what a well-run Federal hospital was like, one could do no better than nursing superintendent Woolsey’s autobiography, Hospital Days.
Sources: Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, S. Emma E. Edmonds; Hospital Days: Reminiscence of a Civil War Nurse, Jane Stuart Woolsey; Emma Green: The Making of a Southern Identity, http://sociallogic.iath.virginia.edu/node/196; Civil War Letters of James D. Chadwick, http://sites.allegheny.edu/civilwarletters/tag/convalescent-camp/; Historic Alexandria: An Illustrated History, Ted Pulliam; Adventures of an Army Nurse in two Wars, James Phinney Munroe
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.