Virginia

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.

The Civil War Created a Refugee Crisis in Washington

Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, July-August 1862. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Civil War changed Washington, D.C. tremendously, but one of the biggest impacts came from the thousands of former slaves who fled from the South and journeyed northward to seek refuge in the nation's capital. By early 1863, an estimated 10,000 of the refugees had arrived in the city, doubling the city's African-American population. The new residents were impoverished and in desperate need of basic wants, and often had no idea how to survive in a city.

David Bowie's First Visit to America Started in D.C. Area

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 1971: A pre-glam David Bowie jams at a party thrown by publicist and future nightclub impresario and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer at lawyer Paul Figen's house in January 1971, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rock superstar David Bowie, who died at age 69 on January 10, 2016, sold 140 million albums in a career that spanned more than four decades and earned fame as perhaps the genre's most flamboyantly inventive performer.

But back on Jan. 27, 1971, when he arrived on a flight from London at Dulles International Airport, Bowie was still a largely unknown 24-year-old singer-songwriter, hoping somehow to break through. His album The Man Who Sold the World, had been released in England three months before and sold disappointingly. But his label, Mercury Records, hoped that he would make a bigger splash if he went to the U.S. and had a chance to meet rock journalists and radio disc jockeys. So Bowie, despite his fear of flying, had gotten on the jet and endured a flight across the Atlantic for the first time.

But instead of flying to New York or Los Angeles, the twin capitals of the American music industry, Bowie's first stop on American soil was in the D.C. area. 

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.

Remembering Arlington's John Lyon

In honor of Veterans Day, the Arlington Historical Society is having a talk about Arlington's fallen sons of World War I tomorrow night at Marymount University. To get you ready, we sat down with the speaker, Annette Benbow, and she told us about one of the men, Lt. John Lyon. Watch the video above and then click through for more information.

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.

Artist's rendering of CIA headquarters built in Langley, VA. (Source: CIA.gov)

Designing America's Spy Headquarters

Can you imagine the world’s most powerful clandestine intelligence agency spread out across a series of ramshackle offices in and around Washington, DC? Well, that’s what constituted the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953, the year that Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles announced a plan to build one large, secure campus that would be home to the rapidly growing spy agency.

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