At the end of February, I flew to Alexandria, Virginia, to see where Elmer Ellsworth, the subject of my book, First Fallen, died. I also wanted to see the Ellsworth Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, in D. C.
I should explain that I hate to leave home fly, hate to fly, and hate having to meet new people in general, so it was with great trepidation that I undertook this momentous undertaking.Luckily, my best-friend-since-high-school, who is fearless and experienced in areas that strike terror into my heart, went with me. We refer to the trip as the Magical History Tour, and apparently it will be one in a series.We brought a week of spring with us, as Alexandria was warm and lovely, with flowering bulbs and soft breezes, but no day could have been more momentous than the day we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see . . . the weapons!!
Part of the Ellsworth exhibit was a brace of guns, and a bayonet, the very weapons that killed my colonel and, in turn, avenged his death. These three pieces of history had grown in my imagination to gigantic proportions, and for me to write a biography of Elmer Ellsworth without seeing them was not to be considered.
After an uneventful ride on the metro, I entered the lovely marble NPG building, and then turned left. The exhibit was housed in a hallway on the left of the larger hall, and entering it was like walking on holy ground. I could see them, encased in thick Plexiglas, at the end of the smaller hallway.
I slowly moved into the exhibit. Each piece was a treasure I had seen in photographs, but seeing them all in person was an emotional experience for which I was unprepared. There was the print of EE in his uniform, his signature, the memorial pottery jug, the Currier and Ives print of his death, the newspaper pages, a piece of the flag (that accursed flag!), the moving, beautifully rendered painting of Alonzo Chappel of the moment the event occurred and, finally, the weapons.
By the time I made my way to them, flanking the Chappell painting at the end of the little hall, I was in tears. By “in tears,” I do NOT mean a tad weepy. I mean full-on crying jag! I had tissues, thinking I might have a little hay fever episode, but nothing prepared me for this.
Just looking at Jackson’s shotgun, knowing that I was seeing the actual weapon that had brought death to a man who had so much potential for the Union—there simply are no words.
If you have loved something as much as I have loved this period of history and these people, you owe it to yourself to GO! Go to Omaha Beach, go to Little Round Top, go to Yorktown, go to Little Bighorn—go to where that part of your soul resides, and reclaim it. No more excuses! GO!
Hopefully, there will be a kind and caring docent with a real cotton handkerchief and broad shoulders who will tell you, between your tears, that he has seen many, many others react the same way. The kind, knowing words of the docent forged the final link connecting myself, Elmer Ellsworth, and the uncountable men, women, and children who take history personally.
I wish I had gotten his name.