James Jackson: The Original Virginia Flagger Part 1 in a series

James A. Jackson
James A. Jackson

Shout, shout his deed of glory.

Tell it in song and story;

Tell it where soldiers brave

Rush fearless to their grave:

Tell it–a magic spell

In that great deed shall dwell.


Many think that raising the Confederate flag in Virginia just to remind folks that it is there is something new. Not so. Now granted, this particular flag is the Stars and Bars, and not the Confederate Battle Flag, but considering that the time period we will be looking at in several┬áposts is over two months before First Bull Run, well . . . there you have it. In March 1861, the Confederate Congress adopted the Stars and Bars as the first flag of the Confederacy.[1] The number of stars in the navy blue canton depended on the number of states that had seceded, and thus it was fairly constantly under construction until the final number of Confederate states had been decided (13–including the neutral states of Kentucky and Missouri).

The Stars and Bars
The Stars and Bars

The flag that is part of the story is the one that flew over the Marshall House Hotel, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was made by sail maker John Padgett, his wife Libby, and his sister-in-law Sarah Graham, who all lived together in the Marshall House as boarders. According to the website for the New York State Military Museum, the flag was ordered by a local dockworker who said he would pay $30.00 for it. The wool flag is believed to have included seven white stars in a circular design in the upper left, and a large star in the center representing Virginia.[2]

The Marshall House, flying its flag
The Marshall House, flying its flag

James W. Jackson, the proprietor of the Marshall House, heard about the flag and immediately offered to allow it to be hoisted from a 40-foot flagpole atop his hotel.[3] This surprised no one in Alexandria. Jackson was well known for his colorful personality and his fervent support of the secession effort. Jackson was known as something of a hothead. There are more than a few colorful stories of his exploits found in the only book concerning Jackson ever written. The author was a family friend who remained unknown for many years. He composed the book “for the benefit of his (Jackson’s) family.”

Flags and flagpoles have long been part of the Jackson legend. According to Andrew Dickson White, it was James Jackson who was responsible for the elimination of a flagpole in Occoquan, Prince William County, Virginia. In nineteenth century political campaigns, supporters met and heard speeches at the site of specific poles–actually wooden poles, inserted into the ground and erected to fly the flag of a specific candidate or political party.

A "Lincoln Banner"
A “Lincoln Banner”

Some Lincoln supporters in Occoquan had erected such a pole in their town, and crowned it with a banner in support of the Republican Lincoln-Hamlin ticket. Alas, this upset the sensibilities of local Democrats in Prince William and surrounding counties. A meeting was called in nearby Brentsville to discuss the “flaunting nuisance” and the, “air it poisoned.”[4] After a morning of Southern rhetoric, the crowd marched to Occoquan. There Jackson took an axe from another man and, claiming “I’ll take the responsibility of this!,” he hacked down the offending flagpole and its banner.[5] Perhaps it was in response to this earlier event that Jackson chose to raise his own a monstrous flag above the Marshall House Hotel.

So atop this small structure, on a 40-foot flagpole, flew a huge wool flag. How big was it? Physically, it was 14-by-24 feet, but philosophically and politically, it was big enough to be considered a proclamation of belief in the protection of certain cherished rights. And it was apparently big enough to be seen across the Potomac River by President Lincoln, especially if he used the brass telescope kept in his office.[6] Some sources say the flag upset Mrs. Lincoln; some say it upset the President. Northern newspapers called for its removal by “some daring Lincolnite,” but no one responded.[7] The flag continued its campaign of quiet intimidation.

On the night of May 23, 1861, most of Alexandria waited to hear the results of the vote for or against her secession from the Union. Finally the results were in. The Commonwealth of Virginia was now the eighth Confederate state! Partying began in earnest in most of the bars in the little city across the Potomac from Washington, and James Jackson was a most enthusiastic reveler. His flag was one of the first to add the large middle star in the canton, telling anyone who cared to look (and many who did not care to do so) that the Confederacy was now enriched by the addition of a state known as the “Mother of Presidents.”

Marshall House Flag with its center star
Marshall House Flag with its center star

This was a glorious event for the South. Virginian James W. Jackson celebrated it by flying his personal Confederate flag in celebration.

But then . . .

[1] http://www.historynet.com/embattled-banner-the-convoluted-history-of-the-confederate-flag.htm

[2] http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/btlflags/other/CSA_MHF1995.3033.htm

[3] Andrew Dickson White. Life of James W. Jackson, the Alexandria Hero, and the Slayer of Ellsworth. Richmond: West and Johnson, 1862, 27.

[4] White, 24.

[5] White, 25.

[6] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-death-of-colonel-ellsworth-878695/?no-ist

[7] White, 27.

3 Responses to James Jackson: The Original Virginia Flagger Part 1 in a series

  1. Thanks for the article. Can’t wait for the follow up about Colonel Ellsworth. I’m curious if Mr. Jackson would have known he caused the first rallying cry for the Union and that he might have taken the flag down before the Union troops marching up King Street. Probably not but a interesting character for the time period before First Manassas/Bull Run just the same. I hope you’ll talk about the Confederate statue in the middle of Washington St and Mr. Jackson’s relationship to it.

  2. Tim–thanks so much for your comments. I am with you–I can’t wait until Ellsworth is more fully represented in these pages! I think the South was probably deaf to any rallying cries from the North–they had enough of their own.In my research, I found Jackson to be a very interesting man, and I think he gets short shrift in the Ellsworth legacy. I am playing with the idea that, were EE killed in the 21st century, perhaps his rallying cry would have been “Union Lives Matter!” There are excellent parallels among galvanizing deaths, no matter when they happened.

    I will talk about “Old Appomattox” in a later post, although I sort of laughed when my cab driver in Alexandria called him old. He will be forever young, created in stone as he is. Perhaps that is much of the charm of Civil War iconography. They remind us of the boys who joined, not the men who returned (or not).

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