Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


UPDATE (7/25/16): Responding to a news story speculating on the sanctuary sign, in July 2016, I contacted the Caruthers family and learned that it was developer Preston Caruthers who created the sign, which the family has long seen as a humorous way to get people’s attention. Here is Caruthers’ statement:

“Thank you for the concern about some my friends and good neighbors’ attention to our sanctuary street sign. It was never intended to be offensive in any way, but rather to point out to citizens and visitors the sad history of our area during the Civil War. The plaque and statues on the school playground provide so little attention to this sad era of our community’s history. I’m very sorry if this has ever offended anyone.”

“I’m 167 years old,” intoned George Dodge, whom I know as an Arlington attorney, history buff and mild-mannered Rolling Stones fan.

But on this March 17, Dodge was displaying his chops as a learned impersonator of a local historic figure: Private Alexander Hunter, a Confederate soldier from the 17th Virginia Infantry who grew up on the slave plantation called Abingdon, on the grounds of what today is Reagan National Airport.

Dodge’s convincing evening presentation at Central Library was part of the Arlington Historical Society’s series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It elicited drama from the fact one of his questioners was black-history activist Craig Syphax, a descendent of Arlington slaves.

To bone up on your local Civil War heritage, you should start with Margaret Leech’s masterful “Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865,” published in 1941. It has myriad Arlington and Falls Church references. There’s fine detail on the Lee family saga on Arlington Heights and nifty lesser-known factoids such as Col. Rutherford B. Hayes commanding the Ohio 23rd Regiment in what today is the Upton Hill Regional Park, from which he could see the Capitol dome.

Arlington is especially rich in remnants of the War between the States. It sited several of President Lincoln’s famous forts ringing Washington, among them Fort C.F. Smith (now a wonderful park near Spout Run) and Fort Ethan Allen, at the Madison Community Center. (If you doubt that the spirit of the old South lives on, check out the plaque in the yard of a private home on nearby Stafford St. decrying “the War of Northern Aggression.”)

The never-quite-ended debate over the role of slavery in the war was central to Dodge’s portrayal of “gentleman” soldier Alexander Hunter. The well-born Arlingtonian who enlisted at 17 learned to shoot in the woods by the Potomac. (We know because he published three volumes of memoirs of his exploits, including escapes after being captured five times.)

Dodge said Hunter would have followed the political and legislative events that led to the war and that slavery was at their core. “Most soldiers looked for adventure, and there was a fear of an invasion by federal troops, which politicians played up,” his character said. “Some people saw slavery as an underpinning of the war, but that wasn’t emphasized by those in the South.”

Hunter’s father owned 50 slaves, “a valuable commodity that his heritage depended on,” Dodge said. Slaves were 11 percent of the population, and Virginia was the biggest slave state. “We saw it has a paternal system, and considered them workers central to our economic order,” his character said. “But we knew there had to be emancipation at some point.”

Syphax asked “Hunter” if, while in union prisons, he had to take orders from “negroes.”

Yes, but he resented it. Hunter would not, however, have tolerated physical abuse of slaves, saying abusers should get capital punishment. “I’m not here to apologize for the system,” said Dodge/Hunter. “But it’s hard to judge a person for the era in which they grew up.”

Many in the audience asked about Dodge’s period equipment-his belt buckle, canteen and cartridge box. His clean gray uniform, made by a modern re-enactor sutler, wasn’t representative, Dodge said. “You should have seen the dirty rags we wore after Antietam.”

He went for more than an hour, seldom breaking character.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com