- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

The intriguing story of Alexandria’s years under Union occupation has long been neglected, an anomaly in a state that celebrates its Civil War history.

Instead, the city would highlight its days as a hometown of sorts for George Washington, or let its history speak for itself through the architecture and ambiance of its popular Old Town district.

But the history of the first city to fall in the Civil War is so impressive that officials are now trumpeting it in an effort to capitalize on the potentially lucrative niche of Civil War tourism.

“We already draw people who are interested in history,” said Laura Overstreet, a vice president with the city’s visitors association. “What we’re trying to do is give them an incentive to take some time to study our history in more depth.”

She said the association’s research “shows that Civil War tourists tend to stay longer and spend more” than the average tourist.

Civil War tourism is usually associated with battlefields such as the nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park, which draws 750,000 to 1 million visitors a year. But the millions who have toured battlefields and participated in re-enactments are looking to broaden their experience, said Jeremy Harvey, a marketing specialist in the tourism bureau who this year wrote a 50-page book on the city’s Civil War history.

“A lot of re-enactors are getting bored with the battlefields. I’m kind of tired of them,” said Mr. Harvey, himself a re-enactor. “But they’re still interested in the story of the Civil War. And this gives you a different story.”

Alexandria’s Civil War history is full of firsts and mosts. The first Union officer killed in the war, a friend of President Lincoln and a celebrity even before the war, was shot during the invasion and became a martyr to the North. As the first Southern city to fall to the Union army, on May 24, 1861, Alexandria is recognized as the Southern territory occupied the longest.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee grew up in Alexandria, and the city’s secessionist residents protested their occupation in ways large and small, at sites throughout the city.

Mr. Harvey’s new book coincides with a self-guided walking tour put together by the tourism bureau, a private group that receives city funding. The tour leads people through Old Town, already known for its shops and restaurants.

“When you go to a battlefield, that’s it; that’s the destination,” Mr. Harvey said. “Alexandria is a better destination for a family” because it offers something even if a spouse and children don’t necessarily share an interest in the Civil War.

Alexandria draws nearly 2 million visitors a year, including many with an interest in history, thanks in part to spillover tourism from the nation’s capital. Most of those tourists, though, don’t necessarily have any specific knowledge of Alexandria’s history.

Miss Overstreet said tourists cite the city’s general “historic ambiance” as a reason for visiting. Tours and marketing that flesh out the history help build on that, she said.

“The historic ambiance creates a setting, and the walking tour helps to bring out the history,” she said.

Mr. Harvey’s book highlights some fascinating tidbits that have been largely forgotten, even by local residents.

The first Union officer to die in the war was Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, nationally known for touring the country showing off the “Zouave” unit he fashioned after the French units of the Crimean War, which were known for fanciful, acrobatic military discipline.

In May 1861, Ellsworth led an expedition into Alexandria, stopping when he saw a massive Confederate flag flying atop Marshall House on what is now King Street.

Ellsworth and his men climbed to the tavern’s rooftop and removed the flag, which had been visible from the Capitol. On their way down, the tavern owner, an ardent secessionist named James W. Jackson, fatally shot Ellsworth, and then was killed by Union troops.

Lincoln ordered that Ellsworth’s body lie in state at the White House.

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