Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and the Marshall House Hotel Plaque

This relatively small, gold & brown marker is attached to the side of the newly purchased Hotel Monaco*, the latest incarnation of the Marshall House, in Old Town Alexandria, VA. It commemorates the death of James W. Jackson, reading:

The Marshall House stood upon this site, and within the building on the early morning of May 24, 1861 James W. Jackson was killed by federal soldiers while defending his property and personal rights as stated in the verdict of the coroners jury. He was the first Martyr to the Cause of Southern Independence. The Justice of History does not permit his Name to be Forgotten. 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 soil of his native state Virginia.

What it does NOT say is that the Marshall House was also the site where Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War, lost his life. Ellsworth was the “federal soldier” who committed the egregious offence of being twenty-four and in charge of a regiment of New York fire fighters (the 11th NY Fire Zouaves) who were among the first to cross the Potomac on the night of May 23-24, 1861, in order to put the city of Alexandria under military law.

Colonel Ellsworth, ca 1861

Any regular reader of ECW remembers the tale, oft told here by myself. The Marshall House Hotel was known among the locals as a middle-class lodging as well as a center of pro-secession activity.  The innkeeper, James W. Jackson, was one of the area’s most ardent promoters of secession. As soon as Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency, the southern states began leaving the union. Jackson, in support of the Confederacy, commissioned a couple of local seamstresses to stitch up a flag eighteen feet wide, decorated with clustered stars and the three broad strips of the first Confederate flag.  It is alleged that Lincoln could see the banner from the Executive Office.

Early on the morning of May 24, Ellsworth, a small group of soldiers, and an embedded newspaper reporter, Ned House were detailed to enter Alexandria and disable the telegraph wires within the city itself. While making their way through Alexandria, Ellsworth and his group passed the Marshall House Hotel at the corner of Pitt and King Street. Above the hotel still flew the huge Confederate flag that James Jackson had commissioned. In an instant, Col. Ellsworth decided that he would remove the flag and personally hand it over to his friend, President Lincoln.

Accompanied by several of his men, Ellsworth entered Jackson’s hotel and negotiated his way to the top floor. Finding a trap door, Ellsworth climbed a ladder onto the roof. Using his Zouave bowie knife, Ellsworth cut the halyard and pulled the flag down the long flagpole, bundling it into his arms as it descended. While making his way back down, Ellsworth suddenly found himself face to face with an angry Jackson, who was holding a double-barreled shotgun.

“‘Here is my trophy,’ exclaimed Ellsworth, displaying the flag on his arm. ‘And you are mine,’ replied Jackson, as he quickly raised his gun, and discharged its contents into the breast of the exultant Federal.”[1]

Immediately thereafter, one of Ellsworth’s soldiers, Pvt. Francis Brownell, fired on Jackson and mortally wounded him with a bullet to the head. As Jackson collapsed to the floor, Brownell rammed his bayonet into Jackson’s chest. Within seconds, two men lay dead, bleeding out on the second-floor landing of the Marshall House. The North was convulsed in grief by Ellsworth’s death. His remains lay in state at the Executive Mansion and his national cortege wound its way from Washington City to a quiet knoll at Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicsville, NY, where Ellsworth is buried.

Ellsworth’s grave at Hudson View Cemetery

Pursuant to a Virginia Verdict of a Coroners Jury, Jackson was “killed while defending his property and personal rights”, and deemed a Martyr to the Cause of Southern Independence.[2] In his honor, the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed the small marker at the site of the incident in 1929. There is absolutely no mention of the death of Colonel Ellsworth. None.

Because the marker is on private property, little can be done to alter it or exchange it for one that might give a more complete account of the happenings at the Marshall House on May 24, 1861. It is “inherited” by any company that chooses to purchase the property, and the issue of historical memory becomes one more can that is simply kicked down the road, as has happened so many times before. This solution is not enough anymore. Today history is demanding a rethinking of its Civil War monuments, and the City of Alexandria is not exempt from this national kerfluffle. Look here for information concerning the meetings of the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names.[3]

Is this an oversight or an opportunity? Perhaps the Marriot International organization will step up to the challenge. Currently, there is no monument, no plaque, no marker, nor anything to indicate that Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to be killed in a long, bloody struggle for a more perfect union, was murdered at point-blank range in a building at the corner of Pitt and King streets in Alexandria, VA. Yet there is a marker to commemorate the man who killed him. Surely this physical confluence of history is the perfect place and time to reinterpret an event of national importance in a fair and accurate manner. No story encapsulates the entire Civil War as well as the one involving both Ellsworth and Jackson. The Marshall House deserves a chance to tell this story–the whole story this time.

The Marshall House Hotel

* According to newspaper and online accounts, the Hotel Monaco, formerly a property of Klimpton Hotels & Restaurants, was purchased on December 20, 2016, by Marriott International. Little more is known except that the hotel may be called The Alexandrian.


[2] Charles A and Andrew L. Mills, Alexandria, 1861-1865 (Images of America: Virginia), 20.


16 Responses to Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and the Marshall House Hotel Plaque

    1. It is now in the possession of the local UDC chapter. One of the entities that paid for it back in the 1970’s when it was installed. At least, it wasn’t trashed.

      1. Fingers crossed. I think it should be amended to include Col. Ellsworth, but should stay neutral on the politics. I am sure there will be plenty of folks who would volunteer to interpret this particular part of history. Huzzah!

  1. Murdered?? Who was the aggressor here? I would like an honest discussion on the constitutionality of the Federal government’s waging war against any state. Our founding father’s, in their writings, made it very clear that the people of each state, in convention, could elect to leave the union. Lincoln even stated that he would not let the constitution stand in his way of preserving the union. Since that time, we have the government that the founding fathers were fearful of.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Alexandria was officially under military law when Union troops landed, but that does not excuse Ellsworth from not securing the building before he entered it. My personal opinion–which is exactly that, personal–is that Ellsworth was young and confident. He didn’t think the thing through as a military man should have. This caused both men to lose their lives.

      1. And what of Jacksons rights? His liberties under the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
        What good is a government if it doesn’t abide by its own constitution? The government our founding fathers gave us was effectively overthrown, changed forever.

  2. Normally Jackson could have had recourse in court but under martial law, an assault on Federal troops was considerably unwise.

    1. This is exactly correct. Alexandria’s city government was apprised of the movements of the federal government prior to the arrival of troops. Lincoln made no move on Alexandria until Virginia seceded.

  3. Why does the event need to be “reinterpretted”? Ellsworth was nothing more than a common burglar, entering property that did not belong to him, in hours of darkness to commit a theft. The classic common law definition of the crime. The Marriott has removed the plaque, which didn’t belong to the hotel in the first place. Marriott should be boycotted. So, should Alexandria for anyone who wants a true telling of the events there from 1861-1865.

  4. Mr. Rainey I just wanted to say thank you for saying what you did and saying to let you know when my book gets published if it pray God does hopefully be done writing it at the end of December to say the things you did for me and to say you’d by the book and tell others to I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate it brother. God bless be safe and have a great day my man

  5. James Jackson is my gr.,gr. Uncle, the brother of my gr., gr. Grandmother. I lament that he and Colonel Ellsworth were killed. I also lament the proximate cause of the war: slavery. What tragedy all of it was for all of the people involved on both sides! I am gratified by the fact that my gr grandfather released slaves to their freedom two years before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln. Slavery should never have existed, of course, in the first place. and, in historical retrospect, Lincoln’s cause was the cause of justice for Black Lives, let alone the preservation of the Union. I have the benefit of being able to look back into my family history in Virginia and see the other great things accomplished by many of them. At the same time, a recent visit to an African-American ghetto, causes me to pray for an end to the lack of right opportunities to our African-American brothers and sisters and fellow citizens.

    1. Personally, I sort of liked Jackson. I have a chapter on him in my book on Ellsworth, and he seems like a pretty good guy. A man of his age, agreed, but he stood for something. His own brand of individuality was there all his life, and he died for his beliefs. I have gotten many challenges concerning whether Ellsworth was guilty of breaking & entering, but I think martial law takes care of that. Your comments interest me a lot, and thanks for responding. Perhaps we could get in touch?

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