Weep, weep Columbia!
Death, with traitorous hand,
Has slain a Hero, quenched a manly flame;
Cast heartfelt sorrow o’er a throbbing land,
And carved, for future years to read, a name
On the grand alter of our Country’s fame.
The publicity engendered by the removal of Confederate flags this past summer has continued into the fall and early winter. Apparently a lot of flags still fly, and each deserves its individual decision. The first contested flag removal was not this last summer, however. It was in May 1861. The contested flag flew above the Marshall House hotel, and it was a hand-made version of the Stars and Bars rather than the Confederate battle flag. James Jackson defended his flag, but Colonel Elmer Ellsworth wanted it gone.
It was a lovely, early summer night, clear and mild. The full moon, its reddish sheen thoroughly illuminating the landscape, gave a beautiful effect to the hour, just after midnight on Friday, May 24, 1861. In the camps, the activity was constant, but quiet, and locusts could still be heard in the grass and trees. The dewy air was perfumed by the profusion of wildflowers that surrounded the land next to the river, and a hundred or more bell-shaped Sibley tents, each lit from inside, appeared like enormous transparencies. The glistening flames of the few remaining campfires were reflected in the moonlit surface of the Potomac’s smooth, silver expanse beyond the wharves.
Alexandria, eight miles south and across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., had finally quieted down. All evening, the citizens of the Virginia town had celebrated their ratification of secession in grand style, with small parties joining up to create larger parties, whiskey and branch water at the ready, fireworks lighting the skies above the river, cannons booming, and streets lit with flambeaux and lanterns, giving light and hope to a fledgling country. The Virginia State Senate had voted for secession on April 17, but it was necessary to have the citizens of Virginia ratify such an extreme measure. When the votes were counted (958 for secession, 106 against) and the ordinance of secession was finally ratified, Alexandria had joined the celebration with the rest of eastern Virginia.
Abraham Lincoln’s concern about the old colonial city was great. Its proximity to the seat of Union government was a danger in all respects. Alexandria was an important port and railroad center, potentially useful to the Confederate cause. Until Virginia was no longer part of the United States, a move could not be made against her soil or citizens. However, on May 23, 1861, the secession of the Old Dominion was an established fact by a vote of three to one. Lincoln could finally order troops to occupy the city. According to General Winfield Scott’s orders, two Union forces were to converge on Alexandria and put the city under military occupation. Colonel Ellsworth had asked Commanding General Joseph Mansfield if he and his Zouaves could be given the honor of being the first regiment to occupy the town. The Eleventh New York Volunteer Infantry (First New York Fire Zouaves) was chosen to share this honor with the First Michigan, under Colonel Orlando B. Wilcox. Together, both regiments were to complete the inaugural mission of the War.
The First Michigan Infantry would march over the Potomac across Andrew Carnegie’s newly refurbished Long Bridge and come down from Arlington, while the First Michigan Cavalry would take the Chain Bridge across the river. The Zouaves were to arrive directly at the Alexandria Wharf aboard three steamers. They were to march through Alexandria, securing the railroads and telegraph office, then distribute Union soldiers within the confines of the city. The soldiers were to look for pockets of southern sympathizers who might resist the occupation. A warning was sent to the city government which included the timeline for Union troop arrival, as Lincoln was determined that not a shot be fired unless completely justified. Technically, under a military cease-fire, the men had nothing to fear, and everything appeared to be under control on both sides of the political divide, except for that damned flag.
Lincoln’s issue with such a prominent display of southern patriotism was very simple–he could see the flag from his office in the Executive Mansion! Hay, Nicolay, Ellsworth and Lincoln had discussed (and probably cussed) it many times since April 17, when it appeared. Lincoln had called it “an insult,” and kept a brass telescope by the window so he could look at it and fume. Many times Ellsworth had been to the Presidential Office, and during most of these times, since mid-April, he had heard Lincoln complain about the rebel flag, a physical nose-thumbing of his efforts to maintain the Union. Everyone in the White House knew how offended Lincoln was by its very presence, and tonight, May 24, it would be another star stronger.
The Northern side of the Potomac was busy. After evening drill, Colonel Ellsworth had called his regiment together. Addressing the men, he said, “All I can tell you is to prepare yourselves for a nice little sail, and, at the end of it, a skirmish.” He then explained that President Lincoln had informed Alexandria of the timetable of the mission, and wanted it to be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible. A message under the flag of truce would be sent ahead, giving the Confederate soldiers at least an hour to clear the town. Ellsworth warned his Zouaves that they, as a regiment, were under scrutiny. Alexandria citizens had expressed concern about being occupied by the Eleventh New York, with their reputation for wild behavior:
When we reach the place of destination, act as men; do nothing to shame the regiment; show the enemy that you are men, as well as soldiers, and that you will treat them with kindness until they force you to use violence. I want you to kill them with kindness. Go to your tents, lie down and take your rest till two o’clock, when the boat will arrive, and we go forward to victory or death.
The soldiers were ecstatic. They had all read the newspaper accounts about their regiment; it’s colorful uniform, and its exaggerated lack of discipline. They had also read that much was expected of them. Now they would truly begin their service to the Union–a service for which the Zouaves had pledged three years, not ninety days. Cheers, laughter, and singing could be heard in the early evening around Camp Lincoln. As the sun set, the seriousness of the next day’s work made itself felt in a gradual silencing of the camp. Ellsworth spent the early part of the evening seeing to his men, visiting each tent, asking questions, encouraging, making sure they packed their two-days’ rations. He walked out to the bluff above the Potomac, looking for any signal or movement, then back to his men again. As the sun set, he sat in front of his own tent, chatting easily with his staff. Edward (Ned) House, a reporter for the New York Tribune, who had followed him all evening described him as, “ . . . full of humor and wit, in most excellent spirits.” Someone asked, “Colonel, are we to be quartered in Alexandria tomorrow?”
“No,” Ellsworth answered quickly, smiling his charming smile. “Quartered? No.” Then he pointed at the officer’s fierce knife-style bayonet and finished, “You wouldn’t think of being quartered, I hope, while you had a thing like that at your command.” The men laughed at the pun, and probably felt the relief a joke can give when there is tension in the air.
Colonel Ellsworth had asked Captain John Wildey, his aide-de camp, to come to his tent after 1:00 AM to help him dress for his first mission as a commanding officer. Ellsworth had laid his uniform out on the camp bed: freshly laundered undergarments, gray trousers with a red stripe on the outside, a soft, red shirt with a high collar, his blue-gray frock coat with its polished brass buttons. His black boots shone in the moonlight, carefully polished as well. Ellsworth stood quietly, as if thinking over his choices, and then said to Captain Wildey, “I was thinking in what clothes I shall die.”
Wildey laughed and tried to cheer him up with a few joking words, but Ellsworth just shook his head, saying nothing for a moment. Then, smiling, he went to his trunk and opened it. He withdrew an entirely new uniform, tagged and packaged from the tailor. “If I am to be shot tomorrow, and I have a presentment that my blood is immediately required by the country–it is in this suit that I shall die.” Wildey helped him put on the new uniform, and within moments Ellsworth was his normal confident self. Wildey helped wind the red silk officers’ sash around Ellsworth’s narrow waist. Ellsworth then made certain his firearm and sword, cleaned and polished just hours before, were in good order, and placed in holster and scabbard. His gloves, softest yellow leather, were folded and slipped under his belt. Ellsworth’s kepi had been brushed until the burnished gold trim glowed against the deep red wool. It was as if he was preparing for the festivities of a wedding party instead of for a battle.
(to be continued . . .)