VIENNA,Va, May 19, 2011 — Hard as it is to believe, in the early days of the war, even in Virginia, it was often difficult to decide which potential side one was on. The entire population was split, some favoring one side or the other, and some identifying with both.
Combatants also had individual agendas. Notable among these was James W. Jackson, an innkeeper in Alexandria, VA. Was he a murderer or a martyr? A Confederate sympathizer or a radical firebrand?
And what about his victim, a Union colonel? Did get “get what he deserved,” or was he merely a victim of Southern patriotism?
Jackson was well known for his beliefs and his fractious nature. He was respected by some as a pugilist – a boxer, six feet tall, muscular, lean and ready for a fight. An acquaintance described him thus: “Grim, stern, obstinate determination was stamped emphatically on every feature.”
One day in May 1861, Jackson’s disposition made him one of the earliest civilian casualties as well as one of the conflict’s first killers, defending his property from an invader, and, more important, the flag of the Confederacy.
Jackson ran the Marshall House at the intersection of King and Pitt streets in Alexandria, where the Hotel Monaco stands today. The 38-year-old had not enlisted in the Confederate army, instead continuing to run his inn and tavern business in the town, where feelings ran high. Indicative of his political leanings, Jackson mounted a large Confederate flag on top of the building around May 23, 1861, as Virginia formally seceded.
This was not the well-known battle flag; two months earlier the Confederate States Provisional Congress had adopted the First National Flag of the Confederacy, the “Stars and Bars.”
Jackson, it seems, wanted to proclaim his devotion to the cause. In what today is Old Town Alexandria, he could not have found a more prominent spot for his display.
Though some commented it might not be a wise act, the innkeeper prophetically said the flag would come down only “over my dead body.”
Union troops stationed at the U.S. Capitol across the Potomac River in Washington included some New York Fire Zouave units, drawn primarily from firefighters in New York, organized into a U. S. Army regiment. They became part of a 13,000-man force that crossed the river to capture Alexandria in the dawn of May 24.
One of the first sights to greet them was Jackson’s prominent flag flying atop Marshall House.
Leading the troops was Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, who was born in New York but had moved to Chicago in the 1850s. He had read of the spit-and-polish flashiness of the French Zouave units in the Crimean War and had noted their bright-red, flowing uniform pants and various other accouterments. Several Union regiments, including some in Louisiana, promptly adopted the style.
Perhaps because Ellsworth was small of stature, the ornate uniform appealed to him. He also admired the Zouave penchant for drill precision, and trained his New York Fire Zouaves unit accordingly.
Coming into Alexandria, Ellsworth decided to haul down Jackson’s flag as a trophy of war, and he rushed into the Inn. With members of his regiment, he quickly climbed the stairs to the roof, where he quickly tore down the flag. Rushing down the stairs and shouting, “Behold my trophy!” he was met by a livid Jackson who, leveling his shotgun, replied, “And behold mine!”
One of Ellsworth’s men, Cpl. Francis Brownell, tried to deflect Jackson’s shotgun with his own rifle, but Jackson’s point-blank blast met its mark, and Ellsworth fell, dying immediately as the first Union officer killed in the war.
Brownell instantly avenged his leader’s death, firing at Jackson and fatally hitting the innkeeper in the head, then bayoneting him as well for good measure.
Souvenir hunters immediately carried away portions of the stairway to the roof, and the Marshall House became a tourist attraction. A historic plaque is on one side of today’s Hotel Monaco, which many recall as the Holiday Inn. .
Jackson was hailed instantly as one of the South’s first martyrs and his body was buried privately in Alexandria for safekeeping, and then later moved to a family plot in the Fairfax Confederate Cemetery.
A single ornate stone lists family members buried there, including James W. Jackson.
Ellsworth similarly was decreed a martyr for the Union. President Lincoln had gotten to know and like him, and the funeral services were held in the prestigious East Room at the White House.
Lincoln had been quoted as saying that Ellsworth was the “greatest little man I ever met.”
An unnamed New York correspondent visiting the White House at the time found the president in tears, making little attempt to disguise his emotions.
Lincoln said, “I will make no apology …for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well and held him in great regard.”
In a brief homily characteristic of the Kentucky-born president, Lincoln said: “It was doubtless an act of rashness, but it only shows the heroic spirit that animates our soldiers, from high to low, in this righteous cause of ours. Yet who can restrain their grief to see them fall in such a way as this, not by the fortunes of war, but by the hand of an assassin.”
Quite a different sentiment appears on the plaque that adorns the present Hotel Monaco. Placed by descendants of Confederate soldiers, it reads: “Not in the excitement of battle but coolly and for a great principle he laid down his life, an example to all, in defence of his home and the sacred honor of his state VIRGINIA.”
Ellsworth was celebrated by a poem and a commemorative ballad. Military units also bore his name. A well-known local historian, the late Brian Pohanka, added that “one New York regiment, the 44th Volunteer Infantry would dub themselves the ‘Ellsworth Avengers’ in his honor.”
His body was returned to Mechanicsville, NY where it was laid to rest in Hudson View Cemetery.
Part of the flag over which the two men died in the encounter that May morning can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution along with the Medal of Honor awarded to Brownell, and at least one of the weapons involved in the deadly incident.
Neither of the men so integrally involved would have believed that 150 years later, people would still be arguing and fighting over a simple symbolic flag.
Perhaps as the German philosopher Hegel said, “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.”
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