The Alexandria Slave Pen: From Misery to Museum

Ken Lopez
Posted by Ken Lopez on Sep 10, 2021 10:02:52 AM

Hidden away in plain sight in Alexandria, Virginia, sits one of the most historically significant buildings in America. In a matter of hours in 1861, when the Union Army took over Alexandria, 1315 Duke Street's use quickly transitioned from a place where humans were once bought and sold to a place that would eventually come to embody right vs. wrong as the Freedom House Museum.

That day, May 24, 1861, Alexandria itself would also transition from a place of fear for most African-Americans to a safe haven. That duality is one of the things that makes Alexandria special. On the one hand, Alexandria was for generations home to the largest human trafficking business in America. On the other, subsequently, it was the first city liberated by Lincoln and the Northern Army.

I've written extensively about the Alexandria events at Marshall House on King Street that happened that same morning. Somehow, I hadn't noticed the item above in the OurHistoryMuseum collection previously. This same day, a company of Confederate soldiers was captured and brought to the "slave pen" in Alexandria for a proper surrender.

Here is the article that appeared alongside the illustration published June 1, 1861, just a week after the taking of Alexandria:

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Writing about the same image, the Office of Historic Alexandria [PDF) wrote:

The scene is pictured from the south side of Duke Street, somewhere near its intersection with Fayette Street, looking to the northwest. The context of the image and the accompanying text suggest that the two lines of troops lining both sides of Duke Street are the Michigan volunteers described in the text (the 1st Michigan regiment, which crossed into Alexandria from Washington, D.C. on the morning of May 24th), armed and standing at attention, and the surrendering cavalry is mounted and entering the scene from the left, as if being brought into town from the west where they were surrounded. Colonel Wilcox, of the First Michigan, appears to be the rightmost of the two mounted figures in the center, accepting the sword of the captain of the surrendered cavalry on the left, who is identified by his name on his haversack as W.W. Ball and the plume in his hat. The caption indicates that these cavalry troops are surrendering, but the text describing the scene is headlined with the word “CAPTURE”. Perhaps this scene is a staged formality to make the capture and/or surrender official, or perhaps the distinction between a surrender and a capture is not relevant or important.

Here is a present-day view of the same location plus the image below for easy comparison:

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 6.14.15 PM

Main image harpers weekly


Only the main building still stands at 1315 Duke Street, and the support structures are gone. As for the "slave pen" itself, it no longer exists. The 1830 census revealed that 145 enslaved persons were accounted for there. Men were kept in the west section, and women and children were held in the east. The iron gated section you see below separated the two.


source: Wikipedia

Other images of the "slave pen" include:

Duke & Payne St.


Duke & Payne St.








Finally, if you're interested in this place or the museum itself, I strongly encourage you to visit the website and read this excellent historical analysis of the building [PDF]. Also, don't miss this OurHistoryMuseum article that features a detailed description of the liberation of the "slave pen."


Other articles at OurHistoryMuseum related to enslaved persons:

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Topics: Civil War, Alexandria, VA, Slavery, Franklin & Armfield, Price, Birch and Co., Duke Street, Alexandria Slave Pen, Payne St., Freedom House Museum, Places, Things

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OurHistoryMuseum is a crowdsourced and virtual history museum that anyone can contribute to. We are prototyping with our hometown first — Alexandria, Virginia. The app will be available nationally in early 2022. In the meantime, sign up for our blog or follow OHM on social media (both below) to keep updated.

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