So young, so brave, so early called
We mourn above his laurelled bier;
His name on every heart enrolled,
To friends, and home, and country dear.
The last two things Colonel Ellsworth added were the badge presented to him by New York’s Columbian Engine 14, of which he had been made an honorary member, and the circular medallion he had received from the Baltimore City Guard during his 1860 tour. The pin, placed on his uniform over his heart, said, in Latin, “Not for ourselves alone, but for the country.” The inscription told exactly how Ellsworth viewed the military–as service, not for political advancement, not as merely a job, not as some exciting adventure, but as true, heartfelt, and responsible.
Ready at last, Ellsworth thanked Captain Wildey, smiled his lovely, infectious smile, and walked across the parade ground toward the bluff, where the three steamboats were waiting to take his men into harm’s way. Just before 2:00 AM, Ellsworth’s Zouaves marched double quick down to the water’s edge. The James Gray, the Baltimore, and the Mount Vernon were in the middle of the Potomac, and the Zouaves would have to be carried out to them in rowboats. Once aboard, the great paddles began to move the ships down the river. Ellsworth’s men were part of the amphibious landing, while the Michigan infantry, under Wilcox, marched across the bridges at Washington and Georgetown. Cavalry horses quietly made their way across the Chain Bridge, bringing their riders.
No one knew what exactly waited at Alexandria. Each man was prepared for the worst. The nurses and surgeons of the hospital at Georgetown had made their grim preparations as well, laying out surgical supplies and readying beds in anticipation of casualties. Journalist Ned House described the early morning arrival of the steamboats, “. . . just as the dawn began to shine over the hills and through the trees.”
About 5:00 AM, as the Zouaves disembarked, the few remaining Confederate sentinels fired their guns in the air. Ellsworth’s men briefly returned fire, thinking perhaps these were the opening shots of the battle, but it was not so. The Union sloop-of-war Pawnee had already sent communications under a flag of truce to the Confederate military at Alexandria, telling them “the time had come,” and as the Union Army entered the city, the last of the Confederate Army left it. The Zouaves then formed up on the street facing the river.
As a train whistle blew in the morning stillness, carrying away the last of the Confederate Army from Alexandria, Ellsworth detailed Company E to destroy the railroad track leading to Richmond. He then chose a small group of men to accompany him to the center of town to cut the telegraph wires, leaving the rest of the men under the command of Colonel Noah Farnham. The men he chose were an odd combination for the chore ahead: his aide-de-camp Captain John Wildey, regimental military secretary Lieutenant H. J. Winser, Chaplain E. W. Dodge, and Tribune journalist Ned House. Lieutenant Winser then suggested adding, as guards, Corporal Francis Brownell, three other corporals, and a single squad of men under Sergeant Richard Marshall from the First Company.
The group turned and began to jog up Cameron Street, where they rounded the corner and jogged the additional block left along Pitt onto King Street, Alexandria’s largest thoroughfare. Ellsworth stopped. The facade of the three-story Marshall House was just to their right, and flying on top of the old boarding house was James Jackson’s huge Confederate flag, complete with a new star sewn right in the center of the circle of seven other stars. According to House, Ellsworth said, “Boys, we must have that flag down before we return,” then ordered Sergeant Marshall to return to Colonel Farnham and have him order Company A to come to the Marshall House and take care of the flag. The sergeant saluted, then ran back down Cameron Street.
Ellsworth and his small group turned away from the corner of King and Pitt Streets and again began to jog toward the telegraph office. At that point, perhaps all the memories of Lincoln’s pained complaining about the flag, and what an insult it was, came back to Ellsworth in a flash. Yes, a Union flag was now flying from the town flagpole, but the rebel banner that had so taunted Lincoln for weeks was in the sky as well. On impulse, or perhaps due to his friendship for Lincoln, or his youthful pride–no one knew exactly–Ellsworth stopped again, turning to look back at the red brick hotel. No! He was not going to have the flag removed by his orders, but by his own hand, and he would personally present it to the President.
(to be continued)