Last month, Kate Masur recounted in the New York Times Opinionator Senator Henry Wilson's December 1861 crusade against the "sordid conditions" in the Washington city jail faced by African-Americans. In Washington, African Americans were regularly detained by the city's constables as suspected fugitives and held without charges in the city jail through 1862. Not entirely surprisingly, this practice also occurred south of the Potomac in Union occupied Alexandria. 150 years ago this month, Senator Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, rose on the Senate floor to read into the record a scathing critique of the situation in Alexandria's jail.
In May 1861, some secessionists fleeing Alexandria on the eve of the Union invasion paid a fee to deposit their slaves in the jail to prevent them from running away. Amongst the slaves held there were those of John A. Washington, George Washington's great-grandnephew who was serving the Confederacy. What particularly galled abolitionists was that despite the jail now being run by Union authorities, this practice persisted. For example,in January 1862, a Mrs. Marshall, an affluent Virginian was arrested inside Federal lines, disguised. Her apparent purpose for entering Union lines was to retrieve two of her runaway slaves and have them held in the Alexandria jail for "safe keeping."
On December 9, 1861, The New York Times reported that Mr. Allen, the Government detective, had inspected the prison and found the conditions there to be as "equally revolting with those which have come to light in reference to the Washington jail." (Allen may have been a reference to "Maj. E.J. Allen," the pseudonym used by detective Allen Pinkerton at the time.) Senator Wilson, a strong abolitionist, first visited Alexandria's city jail at about the same time to inquire into the conditions of the contrabands there. A month later, he rose on the Senate to read from a follow-up letter that he had received from Dr. Samuel G. Howe concerning the conditions of the contrabands in Alexandria's jail:
"The same atrocities are practiced under the same authority in the jail at Alexandria, which I lately inspected. The building is a wretched one, totally unfit for a public prison. It seems to have been built in the days when accused persons were considered as public enemies, and to be caged like wild beasts. The cells are narrow, darnk, and damp ... In the case of the negroes who are arrested for being without free papers or passes, the board is paid by the master when he comes for them. If no claimant appears, and the poor fellow cannot prove that he is free, he is kept until the fees amount to a sum, when he may be sold..."
|Modern view of the former Alexandria City Jail at the southeast corner of St. Asaph and Princess streets from a similar vantage point as the Civil War era photo shown at the top of this entry. (Photo by author)|
|Another view of what remains of the former Alexandria City Jail. The building has a marker indicating that it was constructed in 1831, though other historical works date the jail to 1827.|
Alexandria Local News, December 11, 1861.
Alexandria Local News, January 8, 1862
New York Times, December 9, 1861.
Washington National Republican, January 20, 1862.