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The Civil War in Arlington

The Arlington Historical Museum, located at 1805 South Arlington Ridge Road, contains many Civil War artifacts, many that are visual — sketches and photographs — and many artifacts and relics that were saved or discovered over the decades, from both the museum's collection and the collections of private individuals.

The museum is open Saturday and Sunday on the first four weekends of the month, from 1-4 p.m. For more information about this exhibit, the Arlington Historical Museum, or other programs and activities of the Arlington Historical Society, please call the museum at 703-892-4204.

In 1865, the area now known as Arlington County (then called "Alexandria County") lay devastated. During the years 1861-1865, the entire county was occupied by Union troops in defense of the nation's capital. Crops were trampled and destroyed. Fence rails were used for fire wood. Livestock was confiscated by the military or sold for a fraction of its value and driven away on hoof to feed the troops. Most of the standing timber was cut to supply building materials or facilitate the firing of artillery. Rifle trenches and ammunition bunkers were dug along the ridges and high ground. Barns, outbuildings and private homes were occupied, damaged or destroyed to accommodate more than 100,000 Union troops who were either stationed at the 22 forts and other encampments in Arlington, or who swarmed through the "gateway" to and from the South during the four years of war. Only a few Arlington residents living in Arlington County in 1860 were still there in 1865. At the end of the war, the entire County was completely devoted to the defense of the nation's capital.


Prior to 1870, the city of Alexandria was part of Alexandria County. The "country part" of the County beyond the city's boundaries (essentially consisting of the area that is now Arlington) was a rural community inhabited primarily by people dependent on farming for their livelihood. A number of landowners were residents of the District of Columbia or the city of Alexandria and visited their "country" landholdings from time-to-time. Other than farming, there were only 2 occupations which might be called industry. A brickyard was located near the southern end of the Long Bridge (site of the present-day 14th Street Bridge) and milling operations were located primarily along Four Mile Run, including the Arlington Mill near the crossing of Columbia Turnpike.

According to the U.S. Census of 1860, the "country part" of Alexandria County contained 1,486 persons. There were 251 slave holders and 982 slaves recorded.

Gathering war

As war clouds gathered across the nation, military conflict became a reality. Fort Sumter fell on April 14, 1861. Several days later, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops. The Virginia Convention adopted the Ordinance of Secession in mid-month. (George Brent, a resident of the "country part" of Alexandria County, signed the Ordinance.) Colonel Robert E. Lee, the most prominent resident of the County, was offered command of the Union Army on April 18, 1861, but declined. Two days later, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army after 32 years of continuous and distinguished service. He left his home at Arlington House for the last time on April 22 and accepted command of the Virginia forces in Richmond the next day.

The first Union troops crossed the Potomac River into Alexandria County during the early morning hours of May 24, 1861. An officer reported that it was a beautiful moonlight night and the moon beams glittered brightly on the flashing muskets as the Regiment silently advanced across the bridge.

Eight Union regiments under the command of Colonel J.F.K. Mansfield crossed the river and took up positions in Virginia early on May 24. The first unit to cross was one under Major W.H. Wood which moved via the Aqueduct Bridge (at the site of the present Key Bridge) from Georgetown, then out the Georgetown Wagon Road (Wilson Boulevard), and camped near present-day Clarendon.

The second unit was the 7th New York Infantry under Major Samuel P. Heintzelman which marched over the Long Bridge (14th Street Bridge) and reached the Virginia side about 4:00 a.m. The third, under Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who became the first casualty of the war, proceeded by water to the city of Alexandria.

The only opposition encountered by Union troops was from some pickets at the southern end of the Long Bridge. There were no casualties. Some Confederate volunteer units organized in the city of Alexandria withdrew in good order.

Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee and his family, was occupied almost immediately. General Charles W. Sandford of the 8th New York State militia established his headquarters there.

By the time the first Union troops arrived in Alexandria County, many officials known to be Confederate sympathizers had left. This included military and law enforcement officers as well as the Clerk of Courts. People was remained after the troops came were Union sympathizers or "quiet" Confederates.


Construction of the earliest fortifications in Arlington required about seven weeks — to mid July 1861. Forts were thrown up right and left, trenches cut through pastures and gardens, forests cut down, troops encampments were all about. Possession of property in Arlington was taken with little or no reference to rights of owners or occupants of the premises, according to Union Major General J.G. Barnard, writing at a later date.

The first goal was to build fortifications to protect the bridges across the Potomac. Fort Corcoran overlooked the Aqueduct Bridge (Key Bridge). To protect it, For Bennett (above Rosslyn) and Fort Haggerty (opposite Roosevelt Island) were built.

Fort Runyon was located astride the important junction of the Washington Alexandria and Columbia Turnpikes, a half-mile south of the Long Bridge. The largest fort in the Defenses of Washington, it covered 12 acres and had a perimeter of 1,484 yards. Construction began on May 24, 1861 and was completed in seven weeks. Fort Albany was built on the high ground to protect the rear of Fort Runyon (under present day I-395 near overlook park at S. Nash St. and S. Arlington Ridge Road).

Congress and the general public believed that the war would be short. Socialites and other curious civilians gathered at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861. Union forces were defeated and retreated north toward Arlington and Washington.

After the First Battle of Manassas, both the North and the South realized that the war was not going to be short. The Nation's capital was even more vulnerable to invasion. The military recognized not only the need to greatly improve defenses for Washington be also to retrain and better equip the Union Army of the Potomac.

Arlington Heights was strengthened by connecting all forts from Fort Corcoran to Fort Albany (from Key Bridge to the 14th Street Bridge). Accordingly, a number of "lunettes" were built: Forts Craig, Tillinghast, Cass, and Woodbury. Next, Fort DeKalb (later called Fort Strong) was built near today's Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. In 1863, new works were added: Forts Whipple, Berry, and C.F. Smith.

A total of 22 out of 48 defensive works constructed during the entire war were located in the "country part" of Alexandria County.

After the First Battle of Manassas, Munson's Hill (located midway between Seven Corners and Bailey's Cross Roads) became the site of a Confederate signal station and later the site of the famous Confederate "Quaker guns," logs painted to look like artillery pieces.


In April 1862, President Lincoln emancipated all slaves in the District of Columbia and nine months later issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which confirmed the U.S. Government's opposition to slavery, offering hope of total abolition nationwide. Many blacks from nearby states sought refuge in the District of Columbia. Those who came under Union control were known as "contraband." This term originated in a ruling by a Union commander that slaves escaping to his lines were "contraband of war" and would not be returned to their masters.

The resulting large number of impoverished freed slaves and contraband created a problem. In May 1863, the Quartermaster of the Washington Military District recommended their resettlement in the "pure country area" of the Arlington estate. Freedman's Village, Arlington, one of many throughout the U.S., was formally opened on December 4, 1863.

During the war

Union troops stationed in Alexandria County before 1864 were said to have a "soft assignment" because of the lack of action. No battle was ever fought there, only a small skirmish or two. An enlisted man wrote home "... with exception of drilling, guard mounting and inspection of knapsacks, we had but little to do, the time passed pleasantly enough, each day shortening our term of service..."

However, in 1864, Alexandria County's forts were stripped of able-bodied and disciplined infantry to provide replacements for General Grant's army as it pushed south toward Richmond — the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, where the going was tough and losses were great.

New technology of war was used in Northern Virginia. The manned balloon for military observation was first undertaken by Thaddeus S.C. Lowe who organized an Aeronautical Corps in the U.S. Army. During the summer of 1861, he made several ascensions with a balloon from Arlington Heights and Ball's Crossroads (near Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard) to observe Confederate positions in nearby Fairfax. Telegraphy also was coming into its own as a means of communicating.

A number of different locations in Arlington were used as hospitals. Mt. Olivet Church and Hunter's Chapel were requisitioned by the Union forces, first to serve as hospitals, then for other used such as stabling horses. They finally were razed for their timbers. Private homes too, such as the Vanderwerken place (located off Glebe Road in North Arlington) and the Cruit farm house near Clarendon (on N. Highland St. in Lyon Village) were requisitioned for use as hospitals or sleeping quarters. There also was a Convalescent Camp in South Arlington on the grounds of today's Army Navy Country Club.


The surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 effectively ended the Civil War. After the surrender, for the sake of economy it was decided that the majority of the defensive works around Washington should be dismantled. However, neither the Chief of Engineers nor the War Department felt that the City of Washington should be returned to the defenseless state it was in 1861. General Order 89 dated June 23, 1865 directed that 25 out of a much larger total should be maintained. The rest of the forts should be abandoned and the land restored to the rightful owners.

The Southern Claims Commission was set up after the war to help settle claims for damages incurred by citizens. Its records give many details about losses of property by residents of Alexandria County.

The Confederate government was headed by President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi from February 1862 until April 1865. He was arrested, imprisoned and charged with treason. However, after spending two years in prison he was released on bond without trial. He died at his home in Mississippi in 1889.

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