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The Union loyalists who lived in rural areas outside the town of Alexandria rejected secession.
Although Virginia was part of the Confederacy, its control did not extend all the way through Northern Virginia.
During the American Civil War, this division led to the formation of the state of West Virginia, which comprised the 55 counties in the northwest that favored abolitionism.
Largely as a result of the economic neglect by Congress, divisions over slavery, and the lack of voting rights for the residents of the District, a movement grew to return Alexandria to Virginia from the District of Columbia.
At the same time, an active abolitionist movement arose in Virginia that created a division on the question of slavery in the Virginia General Assembly.
Pro-slavery Virginians recognized that if Alexandria were returned to Virginia, it could provide two new representatives who favored slavery in the state legislature.
From 1840 to 1846, Alexandrians petitioned Congress and the Virginia legislature to approve this transfer known as retrocession.
The residents of the City of Alexandria voted in favor of the retrocession, 734 to 116; however, the residents of Alexandria County voted against retrocession 106 to 29.
The county's name "Arlington" comes via Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, a Plantation along the Potomac River, and Arlington House, the family residence on that property.
(Ultimately, the name is a variant of Harlington, London, seat of the first Baron of Arlington; it in turn derives from Hygerǣd, an Anglo-Saxon noble's name.) George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of First Lady Martha Washington, acquired this land in 1802.
In addition, Congress had prohibited the federal government from establishing any offices in Alexandria, which made the county less important to the functioning of the national government.
Alexandria had also been a major market in the American slave trade, and rumors circulated that abolitionists in Congress were attempting to end slavery in the District; such an action would have further depressed Alexandria's slavery-based economy.
Virginia legislators were concerned that the people of Alexandria County had not been properly included in the retrocession proceedings.