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Alexandria, Virginia, and its Jewish Population

by A Jewish Soldier

On the Virginia side of the Potomac, opposite Washington, is the city of Alexandria, or, as it was originally called, Belhaven. It forms a pont d'appui to the left wing of our army, and is protected by a chain of strong forts, of which Fort Ellsworth, so-called after the first victim of this war, a well- constructed earth work, protected by ditches and abatis, is nearest the city, and completely commands the approaches to the city from the South. The roads from the camps to Alexandria, are here called "excellent," and so they are when compared with others I have travelled over in Maryland and Virginia, but, in rainy weather, they would be designated as impassable by Northern travellers, who are accustomed to their graveled and macadamized roads, and are not in the habit of walking a foot deep in the mud, with a fair proportion of pools and pits to relieve the monotony of the march. From the city of Washington, Alexandria is reached by wretched ferry boats from the foot of Seventh Street, where military officers are stationed to examine the passports, an operation which is repeated on arriving at our destination. In Yankee hands, this passage would be made both pleasant to the traveller and profitable to the proprietors, as owing to the immense armies on both sides of the river, the traffic between these two cities is great enough to tax the capacity of large steamboats every fifteen minutes, instead of small propellers every hour, and on Sundays every five minutes instead of every two hours as is, at present, the case; the fare, which is now twenty-five cents, would then not exceed six cents, the distance being about the same as that from Staten Island to New York; but it is in vain to expect "sacred soil" people to understand these matter-of-fact calculations, and we have, therefore, to wait with something like Job's patience until these benighted regions shall have been colonized by Northern men.

The city of Alexandria, is, in these latitudes, considered quite a large city, with probably twenty thousand inhabitants, as I judge from its size, though none of the citizens could satisfy my curiosity on this point. Its streets are well laid out at right angles, containing some fine stores and private dwellings, with manifest evidences of a moderate prosperity, which, I am informed, is principally owing to the Northern merchants, who established themselves in that place years ago, and who are said to have monopolized all its commerce. Two of the principal hotels are at present used as Military Hospitals, another one, "the Marshall House," as barracks for a company of soldiers; the latter is a great point of attraction to strangers, and is very likely to be, for many years, an object of interest to the loyal citizens of this country, on account of the tragic end of the young and gallant Colonel Ellsworth. Judging from its dilapidated condition and location, I should think that this hotel could never have been frequented by a respectable class of citizens, for, although pretty large, it is just the kind of corner house facing two mean streets, that any one would point out as a meeting place for pot-house politicians, gamblers and conspirators. I visited it, of course, for the purpose of seeing the spot where the young soldier was murdered, and ascending the narrow steps up to the third story, found myself in the entry where that lamentable scene took place. The steps, on which he was shot whilst descending, have been so cut up by patriotic visitors anxious to carry home with them a memento of that interesting spot, that Government has been obliged to remove them altogether, and cover the vacant space with new boards, which, nevertheless, bear also marks of frequent depredations, and have evidently furnished many a visitor with "genuine relics taken on the very spot," Strange to say, the door behind which Jackson was concealed whilst firing off his musket, though quite close to the staircase, has been left unmolested, as if that relic had been preserved for the edification of Madam Tussaud's patron's, and was to be removed to England to add to the attractions of the "Chamber of Horrors," or is one day to be worshipped by Jeff. Davis & Co, as having protected a murderer whilst perpetrating his foul deed.

Alexandria became part of the District of Columbia in the year 1790, when Maryland and Virginia ceded to the United States, for a seat of the National Government, hundred square miles lying on both sides of the Potomac, 36 square miles being given by Virginia, which constituted the city and county of Washington. Since then, Alexandria having outgrown the limits of the District of Columbia, many complicated conflicts of jurisdiction, arose between the part belonging to the National and that belonging to the State Government, so that Congress was induced in the year 1846 to return this county and city to Virginia, but, notwithstanding this retrocession, it is pretty certain that, on the reconstruction of the Union, the original limits of the District will be restored.

No city on this continent, except New York and New Orleans, is so favorably situated for commercial purposes as the city of Alexandria, and we can only attribute it to the depressing effects of slavery, that its position has not been turned to account. The harbor is capable of accommodating the largest vessels, and, being to far inland, affords a good shelter from the severe gales that so frequently sweep over the seacoast. It is the natural outlet for the products of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Southern Maryland, and by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, could also command a portion of the Western trade; occupying also a central position between those States and New York, it might be made a commercial depot of considerable magnitude. All it needs to accomplish those results is enterprise, and it would be well if, at the conclusion of the war, some of our Jewish merchants would direct their attention to this quarter, which cannot fail to prove extremely profitable, as there is no harbor between Beaufort and this city that can afford such facilities for the export and import trade. At the present time, of course, the large number of men encamped in its vicinity, have considerably increased the trade of this place, evidences of which may be seen in the continual bustle so uncommon in small cities, and the satisfied looks of the trades people, who consider it quite a piece of good luck to obtain one window in a leading street for the display of their goods. In the principal business street, I could easily identify half the firms as belonging to the well-known Jewish nomenclature; two kosher boarding-houses are already established there, which is not bad for a place where a year ago there was not a single representative of the chosen race, and I was, therefore, not surprised when, on passing Fairfax Street, a man with an alarming proboscis came up to me, and asked: "A Yehudee!" "Rather," said I. "Well," continued he, "there is a man dying in this house, and we want minyan to say Shymas."

The political sympathies of the Alexandria citizens are altogether with the South, and so violent is the hatred manifested by them against the United States, that one feels disposed to believe that they had gone stark mad. One of the most singular circumstances connected with this rebellion, is the fact that the women are the most violent and the fiercest in their expression of their sentiments, and, I have no doubt, they contribute considerably towards the spread of treason in these States. A singular illustration of female character this is, incomprehensible to ordinary observers of human nature: a Dickens might perhaps fathom its source, but I suspect that, after a close scrutiny, he will come to the conclusion that this female rage was owing to the long pent-up envy of their more prosperous Northern sisters, who occupy finer houses and wear better dresses.

An instance, which came under my own observation, will give you an idea of the incredible reality. A lady and her daughters supported themselves by keeping a boarding house. One of the male boarders hoisted, upon the top of the dwelling, the American flag. The young daughters, upon learning that they were moving about under the stars and stripes, became horrified, and declared that the flag should not float on their heads. They accordingly, at great personal risk, clambered upon the roof of the house and tore down the national emblem, trampled it under foot, rent it into shreds, then threw the fragments into the stove, and ended by taking the ashes and throwing them contemptuously into the street. This, mind you, was not done in a jocular manner, but with gnashing teeth, fierce oaths and clenched fists. Nothing but their sex protected them and many other pretty rebels who daily assault our soldiers, from being shot on the spot. So universal is that feeling among the Virginians, that any one, unacquainted with the facts, would be inclined to believe that those people must have been grievously oppressed; but let him inquire of those very rebels what is the cause of their fury, and he will be at a loss to tell you, on questioning them on this point, is that they don't like the Yankees; why, they cannot tell, as was the case with "Dr. Fell." I believe, nevertheless, that this groundless animosity can be accounted for, to a great extent, by the peculiar nature of southern society. The fact is, that the institution of slavery has brought about the same social organization in the south as existed in Europe during the feudal ages, and nearly as old fashioned as the principle of the Scotch clans in the primitive ages, of which Macaulay gives so graphic a picture in the "History of England." In every southern state, the largest slave holders hold the same position in society as the lords did once among the English and Scotch; they are educated, while the rest of the population are extremely ignorant; but so dependant ar the poor whites upon the rich slave holder, and so closely have they been in the habit of identifying their country's honor with the wishes of those proprietors of flesh and blood, that they consider it incumbent on themselves to fight to the death for their barons, and without inquiring whether their lords are right or wrong; they will, like the Scotch clans of the Ossian age, most obediently carry out their behests. If, at the present moment, the first families of Virginia (or as they are laconically termed, F.F.V.) were to declare themselves in favor of the union, all the Virginians would change with them and not consider that, in this sudden transition, they were guilty of any inconsistency. The more I see of this national struggle, the more do I become convinced that we are engaged in defending modern civilization, and let us hope that we may not prove incapable of maintaining so noble a cause, entrusted to our safe keeping.

The union party in Alexandria is chiefly composed of the Northern merchants residing there, and the sons of Northern settlers, together with a slight sprinkling of genuine Virginians who have not, amid the universal defection, sacrificed patriotism to party spirit. One of these, Mr. Joseph Segar, of Elizabeth city, addressed the other night, the Union Association of Alexandria. The Lyceum, on Washington street, was crowded with the law-abiding citizens of that city, to listen to the remarks of that patriot, and I need not say they heard a soul-stirring speech. The Union was his theme, and he swelled upon that incomparable work of our political fathers with an eloquence, patriotic doctrine and logical power, which elicited the most enthusiastic plaudits of the meeting. Although the address lasted two hours and a half, yet it seemed too short for the delighted audience. It was truly refreshing in these days of political degeneracy, to find a man in Virginia who has continued true and steadfast to the principles of the fathers of the Republic.

Sketches from the Seat of War