Alexandria Library, Special Collections Document of the Month

A chance find led us to this month's document. While looking through a box of materials that have not yet been processed, a letter from James Downey to his brother John was discovered. In the letter, James tells John about his experiences after enlisting in the army during the Spanish American War. He complains about the awful food the soldiers are given and asks John to send him some money if he has any to spare. The letter sheds some light on an American war that often receives little attention in the history books.


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The letter was addressed to John Downey's store on Cameron Street and postmarked in Richmond and in Alexandria.

Each image is accompanied by a transcript of that page of the letter's text.

A search through our collections of city directories, census records, and birth, death, and marriage records gave us a wealth of information on the Downey family. James Downey, the author of the letter, was born in Alexandria in 1874 and died in Washington, DC in 1903, not long after he wrote this letter describing his military experiences. He was buried in St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Alexandria. Both of James's parents were natives of Ireland, and he had a large family that was involved in the grocery business in Alexandria.

The Alexandria Gazette included James Downey's name in a list of the members of the Alexandria Light Infantry. This unit was sent to Camp Lee in Richmond on May 14, 1898; James Downey's letter was written the next day to inform his family that he had arrived safely. As he indicated in the letter, the Alexandria Light Infantry became Company F of the 3rd Virginia Regiment.

On June 6, 1898, Company F left Richmond for Falls Church, where they were stationed at Camp Alger. In September, the unit was moved back to Richmond where the men were mustered out; the war had ended before they had a chance to be sent to Puerto Rico or Cuba, two of the sites deemed most likely to be their destination. It is unclear from our resources whether James Downey stayed with the 3rd Virginia this entire time, but it seems likely he never saw action.


Related resources:

Special thanks to Rita Holtz for the background research on the Downey family!


Previous Document of the Month exhibits:
April 2001



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