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Alexandria: A Distinct Player In The Civil War

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The Marshall House hotel at the corner of Pitt and King streets was the site where Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the New York Fire Zouaves and Alexandria innkeeper and ardent secessionist James Jackson were killed on May 24, 1861.
Library of Congress
The Marshall House hotel at the corner of Pitt and King streets was the site where Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the New York Fire Zouaves and Alexandria innkeeper and ardent secessionist James Jackson were killed on May 24, 1861.

"It was a southern city, actually had Unionist leanings before the war, and Virginia did not want to secede from the Union. Twice before April 1861, it had voted not to secede. But after the attack on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina in April of 1861, Virginia quickly realized war was inevitable and that it would be the highway to war," Mallamo says.

Just a few days after the fall of Fort Sumter, he says, Virginia voted nine-to-one to secede from the Union.

"…[At] the conclusion of the vote, at the courthouse on Columbus and Queen Street, African-Americans stood outside on the sidewalk and cried. And many of the cities white residents celebrated,” Mallamo says. “Now, I say many, not all. There were still some Unionists who put American flags in their window to support the Union. But by the vast majority, the townspeople were very pleased with the vote. Probably celebrated and danced and drank into the night."

The day the secession took effect, May 24, federal troops marched in and took over Alexandria. They invaded where Hotel Monaco is today, which at the time was the Marshall House. The proprietor there, James W. Jackson, had put a huge secessionist flag on top of the hotel.

“[He] declared that flag was coming down over his dead body," Mallamo says.

And on May 24 he got his wish.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of Saratoga Springs, New York, was a commander of the New York Zouaves and a personal aide to President Lincoln here in Washington. When he saw the secessionist flag, he "decided he was going to take it back to the city of Washington as a souvenir," Mallamo says.

Ellsworth climbed onto the roof himself to get the flag at about 5:30 a.m. when the townspeople were sleeping. But on his way down from the roof, Ellsworth was confronted by Jackson. With a shotgun, Jackson “literally blew a hole in Colonel Ellsworth's chest. And Jackson himself was then shot and bayoneted by Corporal Frances Brownell, Ellsworth's assistant,” Mallamo says.

Mallamo says both Ellsworth and Jackson became martyrs.

"In the North, the motto, 'Remember Ellsworth,' recruited men by the thousands. And in the South the motto, 'Remember Jackson,' recruited men by the thousands," he says.

Alexandria was occupied for four years, which was the longest occupation in the Civil War: from the first to the last day of the war.

"And even thereafter for several months because although it was intact physically, its economy was virtually destroyed. It was in tatters," Mallamo says. "There was little in the way of law enforcement. So Union troops had to stay here to maintain law and order."

Before 1860, Mallamo says, Alexandria was a prosperous port city with a growing population and economy.

"But, you know, the term ‘murder and mayhem’ comes to mind on a daily basis in Civil War Alexandria. By the end of the war, only a third of the town's original residents still resided here. Most had fled to other areas. Their homes were taken over for military buildings or barracks or hospitals. So it was a very, very dark time in the city's history," he says.

Mallamo says it took decades for the city to recover from the war.

"But it was a dramatic time of transformational change," he says. "I like to think it took the Civil War to get us where we are today, where we have an African-American president. Our mayor is African-American and Alexandria's diversity is celebrated."


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