At 2am, approximately 1,000 U.S. troops start to cross the Potomac River and move into Virginia as part of a preemptive strike on the newly seceded state. They first take over Arlington Heights, pushing back the few rebel pickets stationed there. They quickly take over the home of Robert and Mary Custis Lee, which at this time is only occupied by their slaves. Selina Norris Gray, a second generation slave of the Lee family and the personal maid to Mary Custis, has been entrusted to stay behind and protect the George & Martha Washington family relics. Led by Major General Charles W. Sandford, the house is immediately turned into a Union military command post and troops begin work on fortifying the position.
Two Union regiments head to Alexandria, Virginia: The 1st Michigan Regiment led by Colonel Orlando Wilcox and the 11th New York Fire Zouave Regiment led by Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. The troops make their way into the city with no opposition, as Virginia forces have evacuated the area. Once they secure their position, Ellsworth orders one company to seize the railroad station; he and a small detachment will capture the telegraph office and cut communications to Richmond.
While heading to the telegraph office, Ellsworth sees a large secessionist flag flying atop an inn called the Marshall House (photo to the right, taken in the 1860’s), located on the corner of South Pitt and King Streets. It is said that U.S. President Lincoln had seen the flag before through his telescope at the White House and had commented on it to his friend Ellsworth. Ordering that the flag be brought down, Ellsworth stations men on the first floor and leads four others up the staircases. He goes up to the roof and brings the flag down. While heading back downstairs he start to fold the flag, with one of his men, Francis E. Brownell, right in front of him and two others following.
On the third floor landing they are met by innkeeper James W. Jackson, who points a double barrel shotgun at Brownell. As Jackson pulls the trigger Brownell strikes the gun with his musket; the shot hits Ellsworth on the left side of his chest between the third and fifth ribs. Ellsworth, who is on the second or third step from the landing, exclaims “My God!” and drops with a heavy weight, while Brownell aims his musket at Jackson and fires. Brownell’s shot hits Jackson on his nose and goes through the skull, killing him instantly. As Jackson falls, Brownell thrusts his bayonet into Jackson as a final measure to make sure he doesn’t survive. Ironically, Jackson had told people before that if anyone attempted to remove his flag it would “have to pass over my dead body.”
Ellsworth is dead, his body lying on top of the now bloody secessionist flag. The men bend over Ellsworth while others hold back the hostile guests at the inn who are trying to get to Jackson. The men carry him into a bedroom and lay him on the bed. They unbutton his coat and see the fatal wound. No one knew where they could find a surgeon and no one wanted to leave him alone in the violent inn. They wait for Company A to arrive; when they do, the news moves the men to tears, their emotions ranging from shock to anger, and some doing all they can to fight the urge to burn Alexandria to the ground in retalliation.
The Zouaves take Ellsworth’s body to the Navy Yard, back across the Potomac in Washington City. He is the first Union soldier to be killed in the Civil War as a result of a wound from the enemy. On his body they find the two letters he had written last night to his parents and fiancee.
Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and a New York Herald newspaper correspondent go to the White House to meet with President Lincoln, only to find him “standing out a window, looking out across the Potomac, running at the foot of the Presidential grounds.” Lincoln does not move until they are close to him, at which time he abruptly turns around and extends his hand. “Excuse me,” Lincoln says, “but I cannot talk.” Lincoln bursts into tears and conceals his face with his handkerchief. He paces the room for several minutes while the men step aside in silence for this moving and unusual spectacle. Lincoln gathers himself and states “I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard. Just as you entered the room Captain Fox left me, after giving me the painful details of Ellsworth’s unfortunate death. The event was so unexpected, and the recital so touching, that it quite unmanned me.”
Mrs. Lincoln breaks the news to Julia Taft, who is at the White House overseeing her brothers and the Lincoln children. Mary also informs her cousin Elizabeth Grimsley, who writes to her family that Ellsworth “was a great pet in the family and Mr. Lincoln feels it very much.” Though Mary is usually not one to handle death well, she goes to the Navy Yard on behalf of her husband to pay respects to the body. Later that evening the President will go with her as they make arrangements to have Ellsworth’s body moved to the White House East Room for funeral services tomorrow. As the news spreads across the country, flags are lowered to half mast and bells toll across the north in mourning. It is the beginning of Ellsworth’s transformation as a martyr for the North.
The Southern people also have found a martyr in James Jackson. It is claimed in a report that “Jackson perished amid the pack of wolves.” The citizens of Alexandria will long remember Jackson and many across the South will enlist in his honor. Virginian General Robert E. Lee learns of the news while at Camp Washington, just outside of Richmond. He expressed to a Major that it was his belief that if Ellsworth had lived, he would have become the commanding general of the Union army.
That morning in Mechanicsville, New York, Ephraim Ellsworth went to the local telegraph office. He and his wife Phoebe had lost a younger son, Charlie, last year to small pox, but today they worry about their boy Elmer. At some point the clicking of the telegraph receiver starts; shortly afterwards, the operator bursts into tears. Ephraim’s son was dead. He will be one of hundreds of thousands to die for the Union cause in the next four years.