- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

The majority of states during the Civil War were committed either to the Union or to the fledgling Confederacy. In the border states, however, the populations were split, with some favoring one side, some the other and some both.

Combatants, too, had individual agendas. Notable among those was James W. Jackson, an innkeeper in Alexandria. Murderer or martyr? Confederate sympathizer or radical firebrand? What about his victim, a Union colonel? Did he get "what he deserved," or was he a victim?

Jackson was well-known for his beliefs and his fractious nature. He was respected by some as a pugilist an actual boxer, 6 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 and, more important, the flag of the Confederacy.

He ran the Marshall House at the intersection of King and Pitt streets in Alexandria, where a Holiday Inn 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. Though some indicated it might not be a wise act, the innkeeper prophetically said the flag would come down only "over my dead body."

Two months earlier, the Confederate States Provisional Congress had adopted the first national flag of the Confederacy, and 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 the display.

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 Union troops was Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, who had been 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 he was small of stature, the ornate uniform appealed to Ellsworth. He also admired the Zouave penchant for drill precision, and he 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 took 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, attempted to deflect Jackson's shotgun with his own rifle, but Jackson's point-blank blast met its mark, and Ellsworth fell, dying immediately, 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.

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 Holiday Inn.

Jackson was hailed instantly as one of the South's first martyrs, and his body was buried privately in Alexandria for safekeeping, then moved later to a family plot in the Fairfax Confederate Cemetery. A single ornate stone lists family members buried there, including Jackson.

Ellsworth similarly was decreed a martyr for the Union. President Lincoln had gotten to know and like him, and the funeral services were at the White House in the prestigious East Room. 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 Holiday Inn. 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. Historian Brian Pohanka adds that "one New York regiment, the 44th Volunteer Infantry, would dub themselves the 'Ellsworth Avengers' in his honor." His body was returned to Mechanicsville, N.Y., where it was laid to rest in the 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.

Martha Boltz is a writer in Northern Virginia.

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