Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and the Marshall House Hotel Plaque

This relatively small, gold & brown marker is attached to the side of the newly purchased Hotel Monaco*, the latest incarnation of the Marshall House, in Old Town Alexandria, VA. It commemorates the death of James W. Jackson, reading:

The Marshall House stood upon this site, and within the building on the early morning of May 24, 1861 James W. Jackson was killed by federal soldiers while defending his property and personal rights as stated in the verdict of the coroners jury. He was the first Martyr to the Cause of Southern Independence. The Justice of History does not permit his Name to be Forgotten. 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 soil of his native state Virginia.

What it does NOT say is that the Marshall House was also the site where Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War, lost his life. Ellsworth was the “federal soldier” who committed the egregious offence of being twenty-four and in charge of a regiment of New York fire fighters (the 11th NY Fire Zouaves) who were among the first to cross the Potomac on the night of May 23-24, 1861, in order to put the city of Alexandria under military law.

Colonel Ellsworth, ca 1861

Any regular reader of ECW remembers the tale, oft told here by myself. The Marshall House Hotel was known among the locals as a middle-class lodging as well as a center of pro-secession activity.  The innkeeper, James W. Jackson, was one of the area’s most ardent promoters of secession. As soon as Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency, the southern states began leaving the union. Jackson, in support of the Confederacy, commissioned a couple of local seamstresses to stitch up a flag eighteen feet wide, decorated with clustered stars and the three broad strips of the first Confederate flag.  It is alleged that Lincoln could see the banner from the Executive Office.

Early on the morning of May 24, Ellsworth, a small group of soldiers, and an embedded newspaper reporter, Ned House were detailed to enter Alexandria and disable the telegraph wires within the city itself. While making their way through Alexandria, Ellsworth and his group passed the Marshall House Hotel at the corner of Pitt and King Street. Above the hotel still flew the huge Confederate flag that James Jackson had commissioned. In an instant, Col. Ellsworth decided that he would remove the flag and personally hand it over to his friend, President Lincoln.

Accompanied by several of his men, Ellsworth entered Jackson’s hotel and negotiated his way to the top floor. Finding a trap door, Ellsworth climbed a ladder onto the roof. Using his Zouave bowie knife, Ellsworth cut the halyard and pulled the flag down the long flagpole, bundling it into his arms as it descended. While making his way back down, Ellsworth suddenly found himself face to face with an angry Jackson, who was holding a double-barreled shotgun.

“‘Here is my trophy,’ exclaimed Ellsworth, displaying the flag on his arm. ‘And you are mine,’ replied Jackson, as he quickly raised his gun, and discharged its contents into the breast of the exultant Federal.”[1]

Immediately thereafter, one of Ellsworth’s soldiers, Pvt. Francis Brownell, fired on Jackson and mortally wounded him with a bullet to the head. As Jackson collapsed to the floor, Brownell rammed his bayonet into Jackson’s chest. Within seconds, two men lay dead, bleeding out on the second-floor landing of the Marshall House. The North was convulsed in grief by Ellsworth’s death. His remains lay in state at the Executive Mansion and his national cortege wound its way from Washington City to a quiet knoll at Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicsville, NY, where Ellsworth is buried.

Ellsworth’s grave at Hudson View Cemetery

Pursuant to a Virginia Verdict of a Coroners Jury, Jackson was “killed while defending his property and personal rights”, and deemed a Martyr to the Cause of Southern Independence.[2] In his honor, the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed the small marker at the site of the incident in 1929. There is absolutely no mention of the death of Colonel Ellsworth. None.

Because the marker is on private property, little can be done to alter it or exchange it for one that might give a more complete account of the happenings at the Marshall House on May 24, 1861. It is “inherited” by any company that chooses to purchase the property, and the issue of historical memory becomes one more can that is simply kicked down the road, as has happened so many times before. This solution is not enough anymore. Today history is demanding a rethinking of its Civil War monuments, and the City of Alexandria is not exempt from this national kerfluffle. Look here for information concerning the meetings of the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names.[3]

Is this an oversight or an opportunity? Perhaps the Marriot International organization will step up to the challenge. Currently, there is no monument, no plaque, no marker, nor anything to indicate that Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to be killed in a long, bloody struggle for a more perfect union, was murdered at point-blank range in a building at the corner of Pitt and King streets in Alexandria, VA. Yet there is a marker to commemorate the man who killed him. Surely this physical confluence of history is the perfect place and time to reinterpret an event of national importance in a fair and accurate manner. No story encapsulates the entire Civil War as well as the one involving both Ellsworth and Jackson. The Marshall House deserves a chance to tell this story–the whole story this time.

The Marshall House Hotel

* According to newspaper and online accounts, the Hotel Monaco, formerly a property of Klimpton Hotels & Restaurants, was purchased on December 20, 2016, by Marriott International. Little more is known except that the hotel may be called The Alexandrian.


[2] Charles A and Andrew L. Mills, Alexandria, 1861-1865 (Images of America: Virginia), 20.