One-hundred sixty years ago today, 1,000 U.S. soldiers marched into Alexandria, Virginia, before dawn. Abraham Lincoln's close friend, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, was in command of the troops who arrived in town at 4 am by steamship. The Civil War had just started six weeks back, and Virginia had just voted to secede from the United States days before.
Ellsworth was under orders to take the telegraph office to prevent word of the invasion from being transmitted southward. However, on the way there, he was distracted by the enormous secessionist flag flying atop Marshall House, a hotel at the corner of King and Pitt streets.
Ellsworth boldly entered the hotel with only a handful of soldiers and a reporter, and he successfully cut down the flag. On his way down the stairs from the rooftop, Ellsworth was shot at point-blank range by James Jackson, the innkeeper. Jackson was immediately shot, stabbed, and killed by Private Francis Brownell.
Ellsworth died immediately and was the first officer killed in the Civil War. Upon receiving the news, Lincoln reportedly shouted, "My boy! My boy!" He and Ellsworth were extremely close. Ellsworth laid in state at the White House before being taken to his home state of New York, where thousands more paid their respects.
To call this the 9/11 of the Civil War might sound like hyperbole, but I don't think it is. "Remember Ellsworth!" would become a rallying cry for the remainder of the war. Countless souvenirs, propaganda, sheet music, and patriotic envelopes were printed bearing the likeness of Ellsworth. Included in this series of OurHistoryMuseum articles are some of the items from our collection.
A New York Tribune reporter was embedded with Ellsworth's regiment that day, and the account he gave appears in live text below, possibly for the first time. For the remainder of this week, I'll be sharing various items from what was undoubtedly Alexandria's most historic moment that few people know about.
A first-hand account of the events 160 years ago today follows, albeit with some transcription typos. It occupied the full front page of the New York Tribune:
The Taking of Alexandria
Full details of the Movement
Tearing Down the Rebel Flag
The Murder of Colonel Ellsworth
Minute and Accurate Account
From our Special Correspondent
Washington, Friday, May 24, 1861.
I have already given by telegraph a brief account of the successful movement of today, and our sorrowful calamity, and I hasten to send such details as my own observation enables me to supply. The part of the expedition with which I moved was that under the command of the late Colonel Ellsworth. His regiment of Zouaves was certainly the most actively employed, and was the earliest upon hostile ground; and with him were associated the most startling events of the day. Of the general forces which are now assembled in Alexandria, others can speak better than I, for their operations were holy distinct, until the time of the junction, when they were combined under one command. Exact nature of the inroad, as well as the means by which it was to be affected, were of course withheld from the public up to the latest hour, and the only sure method of gaining accurate knowledge of the result was by joining what seemed likely to be The leading body in the movement.
It was generally understood in Washington, on Thursday evening, that in advance of some sort was contemplated, though the rumors fixed no exact time or point of assault. But as the night advanced, the slight fever of excitement which the half authorized intelligence created, war away, and the city fell into its usual tranquility. The contrast between its extreme quiet and the bustle which provided some sort of the expectant camps, was very remarkable. I crossed the Potomac, from seventh Street, in a little boat, and before I had half reached the suave a camp, usual Indications of busy preparation came echoing over the water. The night was peculiar Lily still and clear, and the moon so fall and lustrous, that the camp was almost visible from the opposite sure. Above the slight murmur caused by the Russell of arms and marching, a song would occasionally be heard and once the whole regimen burst out into “Columbia, the gem of the ocean,“ With all the fervor they could bring to it. It was not early when I reached the camp, but the exercise was still progressing Under the vigilance of the kernel who threw in now and they’re now and then clear and energetic councils for the guidance of his men in the mornings work. Before midnight everything needful have been done. And the troops were scattered to their tents for for two hours of rest. The kernel did not sleep until much later. He sat at his table contemplating the official arrangements which remained to him, and setting carefully before his subordinates the precise character of the duties they were to be charged with. After this he was alone, and I thought, as I entered his tent a little before he turned to his straw and blankets, that his pen was fulfilling a tender task then the rough planning of a dangerous exploit. He was so much a stranger to fear, this brave little colonel, that his friends sometimes wondered at him; but it seemed, then, that he was not insensible to the awful hazards of his station. I hope that those who were nearest to him will find a touch of consolation in the assurance that the last moment he passed alone were given to them.
For more than an hour the encampment was silent. Then it began to stir again, and presently was all alive with Action. At 2 o’clock, steamboats appeared off the shore, from one of which captain Dalgren, the commander of the Navy Yard, came to announce that all was ready for the transportation. The men marched forward in line. And were drawn up by the companies to the beach. At this time the scene was animated in the highest degree. The vivid costumes of the men— some being wrapped from head to foot in their great red blankets, but most of them clad in their gray jackets and trousers and embroidered caps; the peak of the tents, regularly distributed, all glowing like huge lanterns from the fires within them; the glittering rows of rifles and sabers; the woods and hills, and the placid river, which here meet in exquisite proportion, unfolding all—And all these suffused with the broad moonlight, we’re blended in such a picturesque Ness that no man among the throng could fail to be moved by it. The invitation was rapidly conducted, and, although the spot chosen was not apparently the most advantageous, was completed in less than two hours. The entire regiment, excepting the small guard necessarily left behind, nearly 1000 men, were safely bestowed and on their way down the river by 4 o’clock, just as Don began to shine over the hills and through the trees.
The night had passed without any noteworthy incident. It had been thought possible that the rebels, who could buy some means undoubtedly have gained premonition of the movement, might fire the bridge by which other regiments were to advance on them, and that diminish the attacking force for a time. Nothing of this kind, however, had been attempted, and we all steamed Down the river (very slowly, for the boats were heavily laden), there was no sign that we were expected, or that any inroad was provided against. This seemed at first suspicious, especially as on nearing Alexandria We found it sharing the same appearance of repose. It could hardly be credited that at least a rumor of warning should not have reached them. But if it had, it would appear that their enormous self-confidence was not to be even does disturbed, For it afterword was found that no preparation either for resistance or for evacuation have been made until the early morning, when, if I am rightly informed, the slope of war punny had sent assure a summons to surrender the town, which I believe the Garrison were considering, or head partially I sent it to, when we arrived. It was not until our boats were about to draw up to the wharf that our approach was noticed in anyway; but at the latest minute a few sentinels, whom we had long before discerned, fired their muskets in the air as a warning, and, running rapidly into the town, disappeared. Two or three of the Zouaves, fencing that the shots were directed towards them (which they certainly were not), discharged their rifles after the retreating forms, but no injury to anybody followed. The town was thus put on guard, But yet so early was the hour, and so apparently unlocked for our arrival, that when we landed, about 5:30 o’clock, the streets were as deserted as if it had been midnight.
Before our troops disembarked, A boat, filled with armed Marines, carrying a flag of truce, put off from the pony, and landed ahead of us. From the officer in charge we learned that the pony had already proposed terms of submission to the town, and that the rebels had consented to vacate with in a specified time. This seemed to settle the question of a contest in the negative; but in the confusion of mustering and forming the men, the intelligence was not well understood, and received but little attention. Indeed, I am quite sure that the ponies officer did not seek Colonel Ellsworth, to communicate with him, and that the kernel only obtained a meager share of the information by seeking it directly from the bearer of the flag of truce himself. No doubt this omission arose from the confused condition in which the affairs then CERT. But it would have caused no difference in the Colonels military plans. No attack was mediated, except in the case of a forcible resistance to his progress. On the other hand, the idea of the place being under a truce seemed to banish every suspicion of a resistance either from multitudes or individuals. It was just possibly this consideration that lead Colonel Ellsworth to Ford go the requisite personal precautions, which is taken, would have prevented his unhappy death. But I am sure none of that us at the time estimated the probability of the danger which afterward menace us. Perhaps the thought of actual bloodshed and death in war was too foreign to our experiences to be rightly weighed. But it certainly did not enter our minds then, as poor Ellsworth's fate has since taught us it should have done, that a town half weight, half terrified, and under truce, could harbor Any peril for us. So the kernel gave some rapid directions for the interruption of the railway course, by displacing a few rails near the depot, and then turned toward the center of town, to destroy the means of communication southward by telegraph; a measure which he appeared to Regard is very seriously important. He was accompanied by Mr. HJ Windsor, military secretary to the regiment, The chaplain, the Reverend EW Dodge, and myself. At first he summoned no guard to follow him, but afterward turned and called forward a single squad, with Sergeant from the first company. We passed quickly through the streets, meeting a few bewildered travelers issuing from the principal hotel, which seemed to be slowly coming to its daily senses, and were about to turn toward the telegraph office, when the kernel, first of all, caught sight of the secession flag, which has been so long swung insolently in full view of the President's house, he immediately sent back the sergeant, with an order for the Advance of the entire first company, and, leaving the matter of the telegraph office for a while, pushed on to the hotel, which proved to be the Marshall house, a second class in. On entering the open door, the kernel met a man in his shirt and trousers, of whom he demanded what sort of flag it was that was hung above the roof. The stranger, who seemed greatly alarmed, declared he knew nothing of it, and that he was only a boarder there. Without questioning him further the kernel spraying up the stairs, and we all followed to the top most story, Wentz, by means of a ladder, he clambered to the roof, cut down the flag with Windsor‘s knife, and brought it from its staff. There were two men in bed in the Garret whom we had not observed at all when we entered, their position being somewhat concealed, but who now rose in Great apparent amazement, although I observed that they were more than half dressed. We had once turned to descend, private Brownell leading the way, and Colonel Ellsworth immediately following him with the flag. As Brownell reached the first landing place, or entry, after a descent of some dozen steps, a man jumped from a dark passage, and hardly noticing the private, leveled a double barrel gun square at the kernels breast. Brownell made a quick pass to turn the weapon aside, but the fellows hand was firm and he discharged one barrel to it’s a game, the slugs or buckshot which it was loaded entering the Colonel's heart, and killing him at the instant. I think my arm was resting on poor Ellsworths shoulder at the moment. At any rate, he seem to fall almost from my own grasp. It was on the second or third step from the landing, and he dropped forward with that heavy, horrible, and long wait which always comes of a sudden death inflicted in this manner. He’s a sealant head turned like a flash to give the contents of the other barrel to Brown now, but either he could not command his aim for the suave a was too quick with him, for the slugs went over his head, and passed through the panels and wainscot of a door which sheltered some sleeping lodgers. Simultaneously with the second shot, and sounding like the echo of the first, Brownell‘s rifle was hard, and the assassin stand staggered backward. He was hit exactly in the middle of the face, and the wound, as I afterward saw it, was the most fruitful I had ever witnessed. Of course Brownell did not know how fatal his shot had been, and so before the man dropped, he thrust his saber bayonet through and through the body, The force of the blow sending the deadman violently down the upper section of the second flight of the stairs, at the foot of which he lay with his face down on the floor. Windsor ran from above crying, “who is Hitt?“ But as he glanced downward by our feet, he needed no answer.
Bewildered for an instant by the sudden Ness of this attack, and not knowing what might be in store, we for Beau to proceed, and gather together defensively. There were but seven of us all together, and one was without a weapon of any kind. Brownell instantly reloaded, and while doing so perceived the door through which the assailant shot had passed, beginning to open. He brought his rifle The shoulder, administer the occupants, to travelers, with immediate death, if they stirred. The three other privates guarded the passages, of which there were quite a number converging to the point where we stud, while the chaplain and Windsor looked to the staircase by which we had descended and the adjoining Chambers. I ran down the stairs to see if anything was threatened from the story below, but it soon appeared there was no danger from that quarter. However, we were not at all disposed to move from our position. From the opening doors, and through the passengers, we discerned a sufficient number of forms to assure us that we were dreadfully in the minority. I think now there was no danger, and that the single assailant acted without concert with anybody; but it is impossible to know accurately, and it was certainly a doubtful question then. The first thing to be done was to look to our dead friend and leader. He had fallen on his face, in the streams of blood that flowed from his wound had literally flooded the way. The chaplain turned him gently over, and I stooped and called his name allowed, at which I thought then he murdered in articulately. I presume I was mistaken, and I am not sure that he spoke a word after being struck, although in my dispatch I repeated a single exclamation which I believe he uttered. It might have been Brownell, or the chaplain, who is close behind me. Windsor and I lifted the body with all the care we could apply, And laid it upon a bed in a room nearby. The rebel flag, stand with his blood, and purified by this contact from the baseness of its former meaning, we laid about his feet. It was at first difficult to discover the Precise locality of his wound, for all parts of his coat were equally saturated with blood. By cautiously loosening his belt and unbuttoning his coat, we found where the shot had penetrated. None of us had any medical knowledge, but we saw that all hope must be resigned. Nevertheless, it seemed proper to summon the surgeon as speedily as possible. This could not Easily be done, four, secluded as we were in that part of town, and uncertain whether an ambush might not be awaiting us also, no man could volunteer to venture forth alone, and to go together, And leave the kernels body behind, was out of the question. We wondered about the Long delay of the first company, for the advance of which the kernel had sent back before approaching the hotel, but we subsequently learned that they had mistaken a Street, and Don a little out of their way. Before they arrived we removed some of the unsightly stains from the Colonel's features, and composed his limbs. His expression in death was beautifully natural. The Colonel was a singularly handsome man, and, excepting the Haller, there was nothing different in his countenance now from what all his friends had so lately been accustomed to gladly recognize. The detachment was heard approaching at last, a reinforcement was easily called up, and the surgeon was sent for. His arrival, not long after, of course sealed our unhappy belief. Hey sufficient guard was presently distributed over the house, but meanwhile I had remembered the kernels earnestness about the telegraph seizure, and obtained permission to guide a squad of Zouaves to the office, which was found to be entirely open, with all the doors ajar, yet apparently deserted. It looked a little like another chance of surprise. The men remained in charge. I presume it was not holy in order for me, a civilian, to start upon this mission, but I was the only person who knew the whereabouts of the office, and the kernel has been very positive about the matter. When I returned to the hotel, there was a terrible scene in acting. A woman had run from a lower room to the stairway where the body of the defender of the secession flag lay, and recognize it, cried aloud with an agony so heart rending that no person could witness it without emotion. She flung her arms into the air, struck her brow madly, and seemed in every way utterly abandoned to the desolation and frenzy. She offered no reproaches – appeared indeed almost regardless of our presence, and yielded only to her frantic despair. It was her husband that had been shot. He was the proprietor of the hotel. His name was James T Jackson. Windsor was confident it was the same men who met us at the door when we entered, and told us he was a border. His wife, as I said, was wild almost to insanity. Yet she listened when spoken to, and although no consolation could be offered her by us for what she had lost, she seemed sensible to the assurance that the safety of her children, for whom she expressed fears, could not possibly be endangered.
It is not from any wish to fasten I’ll obloquy upon the slayer of Colonel Ellsworth, but simply because it struck me as a fruitful fact, that I say the face of the deadman wore the most revolting expression of rage and hatred that I ever saw. Perhaps the nature of his wound added to the effect, and the wound was something so appalling that I shall not attempt to describe it, As it impressed me. It is probable that such a result from a bullet wound could not ensue once in 1000 times. Either of Brownell’s on slots would’ve been instantly fatal. The saber wound was not less effective than that of the ball. The gun to watch Jackson Head fired lay beneath him, classed in his arms, as and as we did not know that both the barrels had been discharged, thought it was necessary to remove it, lest it should be seized and made use of from below. In doing this, his countenance was revealed.
As the morning advanced, the townspeople began to gather in the vicinity, and the guard was fixed, preventing ingress and egress. This was done to keep all parties from knowing what had occurred, for the Zouaves were so devoted to their colonel that it was feared if they all were made acquainted with the real fact, they would sack the house. On the other hand, it was not fat wise to let the Alexandrians know thus early the fate of their townsman. The Zouaves were the only regiment that had arrived, and their head and soul was gone. Besides, the duties which the kernel had hardly assigned them before leaving them has scattered some companies in various quarters of the town. Several persons site admission to the Marshall house, among them a sister of the deadman, who had heard the rumor, but was not allowed to know the true state of the case. It was painful To hear her remark, as she went away, that “of course they wouldn’t shoot a dead man in his own house about a bit of old bunting.” Many of the lodgers were anxious to go forth, but they were detained until after I had left. All sorts of arguments and persuasions were employed, but as one of the guards were inexorable.
At about 7 o’clock, a mounted officer wrote up, and informed us that the Michigan first had arrived, and had captured a troop of rebels, who had at first demanded time for reflection, but who afterword concluded to yield at discretion. Not long after this, the surgeon made arrangements for the convenience of Colonel Ellsworths body to Washington. It was properly veiled from site, and, with great tongue tenderness, taken by a detachment of Suavez and the 71st Newark regiment (a small number of whom, I neglected to state, embarked in the morning at the Navy Yard, and came down with us), to the steamboat, by which it was brought to the Navy Yard. It now remains in the care of Captain Dahlgren.
Washington is greatly excited over the strange news, and there seems to be much doubt among the citizens about what has been really accomplished. I am as yet ignorant of the movements of the other troops sent to occupy the place, but there can be no question that an ample force, for all the purposes we need to carry out, is now there. I only attempt to furnish a record of that part of the expedition which I witnessed, and to supply the particulars, which would surely be sought after, of the bereavement which caused our grievous sorrow. I am sure that no young officer in our northern land could be more sincerely and universally more and then Colonel Ellsworth will be. Perhaps none so much so, for his name was a familiar token for all that was brave, and loyal, and true. There is not a town that did not know him, and could not speak of him to his honor. His friends, while lamenting his early fall, make sure Themselves that he perished in performing a daring and courageous action – in resenting a shameful and long underdressed insult to his government and the chief magistrate of his country. It may be said that his deed was rash, but I should not like to hear this reproach to hardly urged against him. He was young, an ardent, and full of them ambition, and perhaps new not the sense of caution which a colder nature would possess. But it would be well for many of us if we were as free from faults, and as rich in manly virtues, as it was this Gallant, noble and devoted soldier.
I find that I have been free in speaking my very own slight connection with the events this morning. It certainly was not from any anxiety on my part to do so; but because I could not, in making a rapid and yet particular narration of a matter in which so few persons acted, avoiding alluding to the incident precisely as it occurred, without pausing to consider, at this time, the question of personality.
The following is the card of the proprietor of the Marshall house, whose death is recorded in the above letter:
James W. Jackson, proprietor
Corner of Pitt and King streets,
Virginia is determined, and will conquer under the command of Jeff. Davis.