Spirits, Suffering, and Society

Saturday, OCTOBER 19, 6-9 PM

Join us on October 19th for a unique experience that can only be had in Alexandria, Virginia. As part of Alexandria’s commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War, join the Lee-Fendall House Museum in exploring the way Americans dealt with loss during this destructive conflict in our second-annual living history program.

Americans lost their loved ones at an astonishing rate, and at the prime of their lives. In struggling to cope with this loss, these citizens and soldiers turned to religion, traditional mourning rituals, and the rising movement of spirituality. You can visit a soldier facing his own death, comforted by the Army surgeon, a volunteer nurse, and other hospital personnel. Visitors will see a casket displayed in proper 19th century American style, surrounded by the grieving family and friends of a lost loved one. Listen and watch as a spiritualist tries to sell her services to those in need of hope and closure.

Program presented every half-hour from 6:00-9:00 PM.

Call 703.548.1789 or email contact@leefendallhouse.org for information.

Tickets are $15. Purchase tickets:

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            The Civil War brought death to Americans in numbers no one anticipated. The nature of death in the war, and the scale on which it occurred, left many families without any closure. Over forty percent of all Union casualties were unknown soldiers. Even men treated in hospitals well behind the lines, and days, weeks, or months after being wounded might be buried in unmarked graves. The advanced nature of weaponry also marred dead soldiers to the point that identification was absolutely impossible. Sometimes there would be no remains left at all. Families could no longer engage in the traditional means of mourning, and funerals with empty or no caskets became common.

When traditional religion could not give the closure that families craved, the survivors turned to non-traditional sources. Spiritualists swore they could contact the dead through seances and the use of planchettes (an early form of the modern Ouija board). Attempts to communicate with the dead became very popular during the Civil War, to the point that Mary Todd Lincoln even hosted seances in the White House.

Predictably, many of the spiritualists were blatant frauds. A significant portion of Americans were vehemently anti-spiritualist, but the needs of grieving families kept up a brisk business.


Alexandria, as with most cities throughout the eastern United States, was predominantly Protestant. Clergy served not only as spiritual guides, but as community leaders. Union officials viewed the clergy as ardent secessionists, a claim that most clergymen would not have denied. On occupying the city, the Union seized virtually every church and converted them into hospitals for the dying and wounded soldiers from the front. In an attempt at diplomacy, many clergymen were permitted to continue preaching to their flock. The occupying forces imposed a rule dictating that clergymen had to give a prayer for the president and the United States, but it was virtually unenforced.

In 1862, one of the occupying units, a regiment of cavalry from Illinois, decided that the command was being too lenient. The troopers attended a local service and waited for the preacher to omit the “required” prayer, then arrested him from the altar. Though released the same day by the military governor, this infringement on Alexandrians’ religious life did nothing to ease tensions between the citizens and the soldiers.

The army brought in its own chaplains to tend the wounded. In 1863, the military governor of Alexandria made efforts to reduce the number of army chaplains in the city. In protest, the chaplains petitioned Abraham Lincoln himself. In this petition, we can see the difficulties faced by the surgeons in the occupied city:


            Even with the present number, each Chaplain is obliged to hold Three, and sometimes, four Services each Sunday. This amount of labor, taken in connection with the burying the dead, visiting, talking and praying with, furnishing reading matter to, writing letters for, and doing numberless offices for the patients, take up every hour of our time. So that we have no time for Studying, and for writing Sermons. If the number be reduced to One in each Division, the Soldiers will suffer for the want of Religious instruction, and other kind offices; for, to use the language of one of the Surgeons, “The Chaplains in that case will have time to do nothing more than bury the dead.”


The obstacles faced by the clergy both among native Alexandrians and the occupying Union army were difficult, but did not deter the men of the cloth from tending to the wounded and the people of the city.




            The assumption at the beginning of the war was that nurses would be men. Women, however, quickly spurned this notion, and took it upon themselves to prove their use to their nation. Most prominent in this area was Dorothea Dix. A famous lobbyist and medical reformer, she managed to secure a position as Superintendent of Army nurses for all hospitals in Washington, and had been gradually expanding her control. She narrowly edged out the New Yorker, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in United States history.

Dix, Blackwell, and others all wished to serve their nation as nurses, but also to avoid social stigma that might accompany such a task. Unaccompanied and often single women working among countless single men who they did not know often bred scandalous gossip. To avoid such a stigma, women took pains to portray themselves as matronly, or familial, shunning any notions of romance or feelings beyond matronly, nurturing care.

While all women seemed to agree that this was the way they wished to be seen, there were considerable differences on how to go about achieving this. Dix imposed strict rules over her hospitals, insisting that women be “plain” both in their physical appearance and their clothing, and refusing to hire any nurse under the age of thirty five. She was often at odds with the surgeons of the hospitals in the region, attempting to fire any nurse who didn’t conform to her expectations, regardless of their actual abilities. Dr. Blackwell, on the other hand, focused almost entirely on a woman’s medical experience. Her position was quickly overturned by the organization that she was supposed to be representing: the Sanitary Commission. The other women of the Sanitary Commission sought to give an air of social respectability to the position of nursing, which did not necessarily require either medical experience or conformity to Dix’s standards.

In this atmosphere of complex and varied methods and approaches, almost any woman could become a nurse, provided they did their best to appear as a respectable, matronly woman. Once a woman became a nurse, she could easily run afoul of Dix, the Sanitary Commission, the local surgeon, or some combination thereof.


The Ambulance Corpsmen

            In August of this year, General George B. McClellan issued General Order #147, officially creating the Ambulance Corps. The Corps was created in response to the continual failure of the army to attend to the wounded on the field, needlessly allowing thousands to needlessly die of wounds that otherwise might have been treated. Previously, musicians might be used to evacuate the wounded from a battlefield, but they were not trained for the purpose, and a lack of formal organization failed to triage patients effectively, leaving many of the worst cases to die in the field. The structure for evacuation sometimes collapsed completely, with virtually all cases being left on the field for days at a time.

The Ambulance Corps is barely two months old, but has already saved countless lives. Last month was the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle in the war to date. Over twenty three thousand soldiers were killed and wounded in a single day, and the Ambulance Corpsmen drove wagons, carried litters, settled the wounded into rail cars, and loaded them onto steamboats. The hospitals of Washington and Alexandria are flooded with the wounded, many of them rescued off the fields in Maryland by Ambulance Corpsmen.

Only three blocks west of the Grosvenor Branch Hospital, a new Ambulance Corps Stables has been established by the quartermaster of Alexandria. Wagons, horses, and horse-tack are stowed and repaired at the stables. Working here are wagon drivers, farriers, and possibly stretcher bearers. It is two of these bearers who have been called to the Grosvernor Branch Hospital to remove the corpse of the dying soldier once he has been passed. They both are veterans of the Battle of Antietam. Much like their fellow Ambulance Corpsmen, they have seen indescribable suffering and death on an unprecedented scale. Their method of coping is similar to that of men in the field, and typical of soldiers of the period. Desensitization of the soldiers and Ambulance Corpsmen breeds a gallows humor.



The City of Alexandria

            It is October of 1862, and the city of Alexandria has been occupied by Union forces for a year and a half. Early in the occupation, low level guerrilla warfare was conducted along the outskirts of town, including the death of the popular Union officer Elmer Ellsworth, but now there is relative calm. The citizens of Alexandria are still staunch secessionists, and tensions are very high.

The past year has seen massive building projects by the occupying forces, including a dock to refuel gunboats with coal, a series of stables, and a massive expansion to the railroad station. This effort also created Fort Ward, which was completed just over a year ago. Fort Ward is just the first in a series of forts that would encircle the city, including Forts Farnsworth, Lyon, O’Rourke, Willard, and Weed. Facing a scarcity of resources, however, the Union attempts to use existing structures for as many purposes as possible.

Beginning in 1861, the Union took on a policy describing fleeing slaves as “contraband.” This classification circumvented the tricky politics of casting the war effort as a purely emancipationist endeavor, but still allowed the Union forces to free slaves. Many of these “contrabands” have been settled temporarily in a “contraband camp” in Alexandria. The occupying army has also re-purposed the infamous Alexandria Slave Pen to a prison to house the local secessionists and Confederate prisoners of war. Both of these actions further angers the local population.

Virtually every church in town has been converted into a hospital, as have hotels and other large structures. The first casualties to come into the city hobbled in on foot from the Battle of Bull Run. Since then, the army has made a concerted effort to streamline the process of evacuating the wounded with the recent creation of the United States Ambulance Corps.

The city has just experienced a large influx of disabled soldiers in the wake of the Battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam, which left 17,300 wounded on both sides. The new Ambulance Corps has efficiently evacuated the survivors by rail and wagon to hospitals throughout Washington and Alexandria. Some of the Corpsmen (stretcher bearers, drivers, and attendants) who participated in this effort now work only a few blocks from Grosvenor Branch Hospital at the Ambulance Corps Stables on Princess Street.
There are several graveyards around town, but most are for the residents themselves, and adjacent to churches. Some soldiers are buried in Union army graveyards scattered around the defenses of the city, but others are sent up to Arlington, the former home of Robert E. Lee, where they are buried in his wife’s garden.


The Lee-Fendall House

Harriotte Cazenove owns the house at the corner of North Washington and Oronoco. Ten years before, her husband and father in law died, leaving her the house. In 1856, she moved out of the house, moving three miles away to Seminary Hill, where she lived with her children in a two story house named Stuartland, after her maiden name. Earlier this year, Union forces occupied Seminary Hill, and her home may have been used as a headquarters by General George McClellan.

While living at Stuartland, Harriotte rented out the Lee-Fendall House to the Miller family, who earn their living as railroad contractors. It is likely that the Millers ran afoul of the occupying forces, as the Chief Surgeon of Military Hospitals in Alexandria, Edwin Bentley, has gotten permission to seize the house for use as a branch of the much larger Grosvenor Hospital down the street. The justification for seizing the residence is stated as Harriotte’s refusal to sign a loyalty oath or pay taxes. It has been officially designated as a hospital for two months. The Millers still live in the house, but know that they will soon be forced to leave. In the meantime, Chief Surgeon Bentley has started to move in, slowly turning the second floor into his personal quarters. The house is named the Grosvenor Branch Hospital.

There is an outbuilding in the back corner of the garden, which has been converted into use as a dead house for the storage of the deceased patients, waiting for transport to graveyards around the city, and possibly for Arlington. There are several dead houses listed on various maps created by the Quartermaster by the end of the war. Considering the number of hospitals and patients, it is therefore likely that some of the most serious cases were treated at one of the hospitals along Washington Street accompanied by dead houses, including the Grosvenor Branch Hospital.