Any event, any person, in any era will be viewed with subjective eyes. During wartime, perspective is filtered through the lens of affiliation, colored with secular or national pride. Revisiting an historical event objectively requires removing the glasses and taking a hard, close look at what really happened.
Let us return to Alexandria, Virginia. The date is May 24, 1861. Only yesterday, the state’s residents ratified their legislature’s April 17th Ordinance of Secession. Already the Confederate flag is flying from poles and peaks, and people are prepared to die to defend it.
Alexandria is important to the Union cause, because of both proximity to the nation’s capital and its connections. A colorful New York militia unit is among those sent to help secure the railroad station and telegraph office early in the morning of May 24th, while much of the town still sleeps. The telegraph office is near the Marshall House Inn (on the corner of King and Pitt Streets), whose roof-top pole boasts a Confederate flag large enough to be seen with binoculars by President Lincoln in Washington, D. C.
Once the telegraph office is secured, five members of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry (the “Fire Zouaves”) cross King Street, enter the Marshall House, and remove its flag. Descending the stairs, the Union officer carrying his trophy flag is shot and killed by the inn’s owner. The innkeeper is in turn killed, shot through the face. His wife, awakened by gunfire, will rush out to find her husband’s body pinned to the floor with a bayonet.
The two dead men quickly enter the rhetoric of patriotic, political spin. Each is praised and criticized, each honored or vilified, depending on which side is speaking.
The following was printed in 1862 about the event: “Shout, shout his deed of glory, / Tell it in song and story: / Tell it where soldiers brave / Rush fearless to their grave; /Tell it—a magic spell / In that great deed shall dwell.”
The two heroes of Alexandria were 24-year-old Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the war, and James W. (Jim) Jackson, the first martyr for the Southern cause. Ellsworth was young, dashing, and a showman, leading a pre-war militia drill team to national acclaim. He had studied law and worked in Springfield, Illinois, with Lincoln, had gone with Lincoln to Washington after his November election, and was mourned by the President when he died in the line of duty. Assassinated, the Northern press would have it, and yet he split off from his unit, did not secure the hotel, did not demand the owner remove the flag, and died as a result of his choices. Yet, had he succeeded, there would have likely been a Medal of Honor awarded to Ellsworth for his actions. Instead, the medal went to his Corporal Francis Brownell, Jackson’s original target until he saw Ellsworth with his flag. Jackson shot Ellsworth, and Brownell killed Jackson, whose second shot missed Brownell and hit a door frame.
Jim Jackson was somewhat older, married to wife Maria, and the father of three young daughters, Amelia, Alice, and Caroline, with the oldest around twelve years old. He was a man of strong and sometimes violent passions, a skilled pugilist who wasn’t afraid to fight. Once, when younger and engaged to Miss Susan Maria Adams, he learned that his fiancé’s uncle had tried to sway her father against their marriage. He challenged the uncle to a fight, beating him so badly that a warrant was issued for Jackson’s arrest. The uncle, by the way, was a Catholic priest.
Jackson was far from perfect, but when Ellsworth and the Fire Zouaves entered his inn, he was a homeowner asleep in his bed, and he approached the men he considered home invaders and thieves with both barrels of his English-made shotgun loaded. The result was a deadly confrontation that would echo throughout the divided nation. Ellsworth would be immortalized in song, and both men would have military units named in their honor, Ellsworth’s Avengers and the Jackson Grays. Both would be remembered in written epitaphs and accounts, and while the verse quoted earlier could apply to either man, depending on the eye of the beholder, it is from a poem included in the Life of James W. Jackson, The Alexandria Hero, a book published in 1862 for the benefit of the family he left behind.
© 2011 Anita Quick, All Rights Reserved.
This article was originally published in the July-August 2011 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.