Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The Civil War continues to reverberate around Arlington, known during that conflict as Alexandria County.

Though our resident ancestors hosted no battles, Arlington was a vital strategic defense line and thoroughfare to epic points south. There was no shortage of local drama in the 1860s.

This May 20, the county attracted 250 enthusiasts to a “Civil War Camp Day” at the Walter Reed Community Center, at which uniformed reenactors pitched tents and explained training and military drills done at Arlington’s string of federal forts that protected the nation’s capital. Lots of period music was recreated.

Longtime local historian Kathryn Holt Springston continues her regular Smithsonian Resident Associate tours of Arlington during the Civil War. She reports that Arlington’s population of 1,500 tolerated the arrival over four years of 150,000 Union encamped troops. And she points out sites where McClellan and troops marched through and where Mosby once lived.

I just finished reading an evocative, Arlington-centric novel set during the War Between the States. “Two Hills: A Story of Survival between the Lines” was published by Arlingtonian George Axiotis, a defense consultant. Its elegiac narration by a 15-year-old girl describes how she and her father navigate the “enemies of Virginia or the Federals” while eking out a living hauling goods in the “up-county” area between Halls’ Hill and Minor’s Hill.”

Axiotis brings alive the era’s economy—“People commuted to the district just like today,” he told me. His bibliography reflects exhaustive research in local libraries, the National Archives, and Arlington Historical Society sources.

Last month I heard a personalized tale of the havoc the Civil War imposed on a single family, the Marceys, whose farmhouse stood near today’s Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

Jessica Kaplan, an archivist, spoke to the Arlington Historical Society about years of research into wartime clashes that unfolded on her property on the 2600 block of N. Richmond St. She tracked the lives of brothers James and Lewis Marcey, farmers who “endured waves of invasions and disruption,” she said.

The family ownership of the land Kaplan traced to 1800, and the Marceys’ original cabin to 1843. Before the war, they cultivated corn, oats, rye, cabbage and potatoes, profiting also from an apple orchard, pigs and milk cows for markets in the district and what we call Old Town Alexandria.

In the referendum of 1861, the Marceys joined the majority in rural Arlington in opposing slavery. Armed pro-secessionist vigilantes tried to intimidate them when they voted at Ball’s Crossroads (Ballston).

But their against-the-grain sympathies did not impress the union troops bent on defending Washington, who confiscated their crops and eventually cut down some 17,000 trees. “They unleashed pandemonium to the Marcey farm, and overnight they became paupers,” Kaplan reported. The deforestation was deemed vital for the construction of forts Ethan Allen and C.F. Smith.

According to the obituary of a Marcey descendant who died in 1959 at 101, New York troops gave the Marceys coffee but “mean” troops from Massachusetts stole their hens. “The chaos,” Kaplan said, brought camp followers–women, children, prostitutes, runaway blacks. The tree cutting was done to build the corduroy roadway still called Military Road, accomplished in three days.

Like many Arlington property owners, the Marceys in the 1870s took their demands for federal restitution to the Southern Claims Commission: Having asked for $5,272, they were awarded $1,047.

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The online Black Heritage Museum of Arlington climbed another rung on history’s ladder last Saturday at a dual-purpose reception celebrating the birthday and legacy of founder Evelyn Reid Syphax (1926-2000).

County and school board and historical society members joined Syphax’s sons, fellow educators, church mates, sorority sisters and Arlingtonians she inspired to sing praises at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads.

Syphax, a former school board member and founder of the county’s first African American pre-school, has an Arlington education center named for her.