Alexandria, Virginia, often thought of as merely a suburb of Washington, D.C., is actually one of the most historic towns in the United States. The town, founded in 1749, predates the nation’s capital and the nation itself. While most towns and cities (such as Charleston, Philadelphia, New York or Boston to name a few) set aside museums, parks, and houses where George Washington may have spent an evening or had a meal, Alexandria, Virginia has the distinction of being Washington’s hometown. Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, is only nine miles south of Alexandria. Washington literally helped survey and lay out the very streets of the town in 1748. Washington spent a considerable amount of time of his life with friends and family at Alexandria and became a leading citizen in the town.
Today, visitors can see numerous places that had a close association with George Washington and the American Revolution there. Gadsby’s Tavern was where Washington dined frequently throughout his life and where he celebrated his birth night ball, a tradition that continues to this very day. Nearby, a replica of George Washington’s townhome sits today on Cameron Street where his original townhome once stood. Just two blocks from there is Christ Church, where Washington worshipped and was a vestryman. Despite the fact that this is a beautiful and historic building where Washington worshipped, the modern congregation there has sought to distance their association with Washington (because he was a slaveowner) by moving a plaque located in the church.
Washington was also a member of the local Masonic lodge. Today, the entire town of Alexandria is anchored on the west end by a massive Masonic Temple dedicated to memory of George Washington. Inside is a large statue of Washington and museum that includes many Washington relics and mementoes, including the trowel Washington used to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building.
In addition to all of these Washington sites, the town of Alexandria has even more Revolutionary War history. The men from Alexandria largely joined the 3rd Virginia Regiment in 1776 when the war broke out. One of the town’s most prominent citizens was a “broad-shouldered Irishman” named John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald would become a captain in the 3rd Virginia Regiment. In November of 1776, Fitzgerald was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and joined Washington’s headquarters as an aide-de-camp. Fitzgerald would be by Washington’s side at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge, and was wounded at Monmouth. While many Alexandrians would go on to fight in the war across the country, the war came to Alexandria in 1781. In April of 1781, a British raiding party was sailing up the Potomac River towards Alexandria. Col. John Fitzgerald rallied the local Virginia militia soldiers and marched down to Jones Point to scare off the British. The British never landed and sailed away. Later in life, Fitzgerald would become famous for founding the first Catholic Church in Virginia (St. Mary’s) and became mayor of the town. Today, multiple plaques in the city honor Col. Fitzgerald. While John Fitzgerald was undoubtedly a true hero of the Revolutionary War, the town has chosen to remove his name from a square on the waterfront because he was a slaveowner.
On the northern side of the town, a state historic marker denotes the location of where part of Washington’s army encamped while marching to Yorktown in 1781. In addition to Christ Church, you can also visit the First Presbyterian Church, where memorial services were held for Washington in 1799 and where his personal physician who attended to him all his life, Dr. James Craik is buried. In the Churchyard you can also see the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier.
In Alexandria also stands Carlyle House, where General Edward Braddock launched his ill-fated expedition into Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War in 1755. It was also the home of George William Carlyle, a 17-year-old boy who valiantly died during the Revolutionary War in South Carolina at the Battle of Eutaw Springs in 1781. Another person who called Alexandria home, Light-Horse Harry Lee, served with Carlyle at the battle and described him as “the gallant young Carlyle of Alexandria.” Today, Light-Horse Harry Lee has a bar named after him today in Alexandria. In addition to his important service as an officer in the Revolutionary War, Lee became famous as the man who eulogized his fellow Alexandrian George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He was also the father of Robert E. Lee, who would grow up in Alexandria.
Robert E. Lee would attend the same church as Washington and married into Martha Washington’s family, making his home at nearby Arlington House (which was not only a home, but the nation’s first memorial to George Washington). Robert E. Lee said of Alexandria: “There is no community to which my affections more strongly cling than that of Alexandria, composed of my earliest and oldest friends, my kind school-fellows, and faithful neighbors.”
Alexandria’s expansive history associated with George Washington and the Revolutionary War is only rivaled by its important history during the American Civil War. Alexandria was the scene of the first deaths of that war in 1861 and was the longest occupied town in the war.
With such an extensive George Washington and Revolutionary War history, the town makes the perfect location for the inaugural Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium later this month. We hope you make the effort to come to this historic town and learn about how these men and women transitioned from colonists to Americans. While you are in town, we hope you get a chance to visit some of the numerous Revolutionary War and Washington sites!