Alexandria

Fortress Alexandria

Fort Ward, Virginia, photo by AjaxSmack (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After Union forces were routed in the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, they rushed back northward in a panic, realizing that Washington was vulnerable to a Confederate counterattack that — fortunately for the Union — the enemy chose not to mount.

A few days afterward, when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was appointed military governor of the capital, he made a sobering assessment of its poor defenses. As a result, the Union launched a crash campaign to protect Washington with a ring of outer defenses, which by the war's end would include 68 forts, 93 artillery batteries and 20 miles of rifle trenches, as well as picket stations, blockhouses and bridgeheads.

Tivoli Brewing Factory

Robert Portner and Alexandria's Pre-Prohibition Brewing History

The history of brewing beer in the United States is a rich and storied one. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin resonate with most beer drinkers across the country as centers for American brewing. For Virginia residents, you might not realize how close Alexandria, Virginia came to being one of those brewing capitals. From the closing years of the Civil War until prohibition turned Virginia into a dry state, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was the leading brewery and distributor in the southeastern United States. Led by its visionary namesake, the Portner Brewing Company became the largest business in Alexandria and remains a fascinating tale of innovation.

Civil War Alexandria's Knights of the Golden Circle

An alleged secret history of the Knights of the Golden Circle published in 1863. (Source: Wikipedia)

During the Union army's occupation of Alexandria (1861-1865), young Confederate ladies would have had no one around to drop a handkerchief for other than Union soldiers. Well, that wasn’t going to work, not when "the slight difference of color [between gray and blue] symbolized all the difference between heaven and hell." So what's the next resort? Obviously, forming a local branch of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

First Union Officer Killed in Civil War Was a Friend of Lincoln

Death of Col. Ellsworth After hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861; Creator: Currier & Ives. (Source: Library of Congress)

Possibly the toughest part of being a President is having to send U.S. forces into combat, knowing that some of them will not return alive.  After the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had to face that terrible reality very quickly. On the morning of May 24, 1861, a personal friend of the President, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, became the first Union officer to be killed in the conflict in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.

 

Memorial to P.O. Box 1142 located at Fort Hunt in Alexandria, VA

P.O. Box 1142: The Secrets of Fort Hunt

December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor smoldered following intense, coordinated attacks by air forces from the Empire of Japan. Within days, Americans were embroiled in the conflict that was the Second World War, while the American military scrambled to establish a competent intelligence gathering operation on the East Coast. Carved from a portion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Alexandria’s Fort Hunt began its life as a coastal fortification during the Spanish-American War. With its close proximity to Washington, Fort Hunt became an ideal location for one of the most secretive group of programs in American history. Codenamed after its post office box in Alexandria, 1142, Fort Hunt became a secret interrogation center for high value German POWs. The layers of secrecy did not stop there. Unbeknownst even to interrogators stationed there, Fort Hunt also held a program whose mission was to communicate and aid in the escape of Allied POWs trapped in several German camps throughout Europe.

The Torpedo Factory Art Center: Alexandria's World War II Landmark

U.S. Naval Torpedo Station in Alexandria, Virginia circa 1922

Silently sitting on the waterfront of the Potomac River, the 85,000 square foot Torpedo Factory Art Center at 105 North Union Street in Old Town Alexandria is a landmark of Northern Virginia history. Today, the Torpedo Factory houses artist studios, galleries, art workshops, and even an archeology museum. Yet during the tumultuous years of America’s involvement in the Second World War, workers produced a different form of art within the Torpedo Factory’s walls – the Mark 14 submarine torpedo used by U.S. Navy personnel in the Pacific theater of the war. Over 70 years after its decommissioning as a munitions depot, the history of the Torpedo Factory is a fascinating tale of politics, faulty weapon engineering, and local spirit.

Construction on the Alexandria Naval Torpedo Station began on November 12th, 1918, one day after Armistice Day ended hostilities in the First World War. Early on, Alexandria shared its responsibilities for manufacturing and maintaining torpedoes and weapon ordnance with the primary Naval Torpedo Station located on Goat Island in Newport, Rhode Island. Goat Island housed the Bureau of Ordnance, the organization responsible for the Navy’s primary weapons development and research. In an attempt to keep money and resources flowing to the Torpedo Station on Goat Island, Congressional delegations from several New England states convinced Congress to cease production at Alexandria and focus all resources toward Goat Island and the Bureau of Ordnance. In 1923, Alexandria ceased production, becoming a munitions storage facility for close to twenty years.

Pope John Paul II during his 1993 visit to the United States. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Pope's Condo in Alexandria

Every house has a history but few can say that they were blessed by the Pope – especially here in America. There is, however, one Alexandria, Virginia condominium unit that can make the claim. In 1976, while still a cardinal, the future Pope John Paul II visited the Parkfairfax apartment of Polish-American journalist John Szostak and offered his blessing... after a near accident with a Batmobile toy belonging to one of Szostak's children.

Fire and Rain: The Storm That Changed D.C. History

British soldiers set fire to Washington on August 24, 1814, prior to the worst storm that had been seen in Washington for years. (Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

D.C. has had more than its fair share of extreme weather lately, setting records for the highest number of days over 90 degrees and the most rainfall ever recorded in a single day, as well as being the site of a toothier type of storm. One day in 1814, however, combined all three - extreme heat, rainfall, and wind - surprisingly, somewhat to the District's advantage.

On August 24, 1814, for the first and only time in our country's history, Washington, D.C. was overrun by an invading army. The British army had easily defeated inexperienced American defenders, and set the city ablaze. The President had fled to Brookeville, MD, and many of the citizens had fled along with the army. Those few residents of the capital who hadn't already fled may well have prayed for anything that could stop the flames. What they got, however, was something far more than they were hoping for: a "tornado" more powerful than any storm in living memory.

Oscar-Winner "12 Years a Slave" is a Reminder of the Local Slave Trade

Director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, serves to highlight a horrific and shameful part of local history — the area's role as a transit depot and resale market for humans held in involuntary servitude.

For those who haven't yet seen it, the acclaimed film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist who in 1841 traveled from his home in New York to Washington, DC, with the promise of a high-paying job as a circus musician. He didn't know that his prospective employers actually were slave traders. 

Remembering the Titans

1971 T.C. Williams High School football team. (Source: Chasing The Frog website)

It's about time for my annual viewing of Remember the Titans. And fittingly so, since today is the anniversary of the 1971 T.C. Williams High School team's victory in the Virginia State High School championship game. Despite what you might remember from the Disney movie, which came out in 2000, the game was not close. There was no trick play in the final seconds to secure the victory. (Too bad -- Denzel Washington's "Fake 23 blast with a backside Georgia reverse" seemed to be quite a play. Maybe the Redskins should try it.)

As you might imagine, the fictional final play was not the only liberty that the movie producers took with this bit of our local history. But while some facets of the film were made up, it did illustrate some truths.

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