“And over here we have…”

On this day in history, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth walked into a two-star inn-and-boarding house in Alexandria. It was early in the morning, and a man in his nightshirt and pants was the only person awake on the first floor. The colonel asked him about the massive Stars and Bars flag flying above the inn. The man professed ignorance, so Ellsworth and his small group of soldiers and newspaper reporters ascended the three flights of stairs to the roof. Ellsworth cut the flag down, and began to descend the staircases again. A different reaction met the party on their way down and within moments, both Elmer Ellsworth and a man with a shotgun were dead. Marshall House proprietor James Jackson had just made Colonel Elmer Ellsworth the first Union officer of the Civil War to die.

One would think this would be a reasonably straightforward incident to note historically, but alas, one would be wrong. The story of the commemoration of the Marshall House Incident is not mysterious, but it is convoluted. Here is how it goes.

In 2011, my first trip to Alexandria, one of the things I simply had to see was the plaque on the wall of the Monaco Hotel at the corner of Pitt and King Streets. I found it:

Really? Is this the best someone could do? This makes no sense—until the end, on the righthand side: Erected by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers. Essentially, this plaque is a paean to the Lost Cause.

Fast forward several years—the Monaco Hotel has been sold and is now a Marriot Hotels property. It has been rechristened The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection, and bears 4.5 stars at this writing. I just spent five nights there—it is very nice. However, there is no plaque anywhere—I looked.

Instead, on a Civil War Trails marker near the King Street Station, I found this:

More clearly:

Civil War Trails Marker at the King Street Metro — Alexandria
Civil War Trails Marker at the King Street Metro — Alexandria — Detail 2









A bit more digging uncovered a letter from the Alexandrian explaining the whereabouts of the missing plaque:

And there you have it, readers. If you have followed my blog posts about this puzzle over the years, you will know that I have followed this issue like Kate Warnes on a case for Pinkerton. I anxiously await the advice of “leading scholars and experts.” In the meantime:


12 Responses to “And over here we have…”

  1. So, in the Marriot Hotel’s eyes; history doesn’t exist if there is the hint of making someone unhappy. Dollars over history, the sad story of our times.

  2. There has always been a little special pleading on both sides about this rather operatic event. Ellsworth had more than a little of the bantam rooster in his personality, which would have naturally appealed to the more melancholic, reserved and introspective Lincoln. It also hardly indicates that he was imbued with much common sense. A trained officer would have approached this situation with more delicacy, given the extremely high levels of emotion at the time. The theatricity of his death, shot from concealment and making him the first “martyr” to the Cause of the Union, should not obscure this fact. The veneer of Victorian romanticism that both sides still embraced wouldn’t last much longer.

    1. Both Ellsworth and Jackson provide lenses through which the North & the South may be viewed at this point in the war. No one argues Ellsworth’s lack of military training, but during the entire war West Point officers made equally poor decisions. As to veneers of Victorian romanticism, they embue both sides and were simply seen as the norm. Injecting presentism into the arguments makes understanding the mid-1800s almost impossible.It is, as you mentioned, “the extremely high levels of emotion” that makes it often difficult to tell Ellsworth’s and Jackson’s story. Thanks for your comments.

  3. If a plaque were erected to “the Glorious Martyr, John Wilkes Booth” fawning on his “devotion to the Cause” (while never mentioning the Man he killed) one could not be more shocked than by the plaque erected to James W. Jackson. However, I also do not believe in removing statues or discarding plaques. For the sake of balance, I would like to see the Jackson memorial returned to public view, with a similar sized memorial adjacent, dedicated to Colonel Ellsworth.
    History is what it is; those truly interested will seek out the Truth. And a balanced display at the site of the Marshall House will facilitate that search.
    Thanks to Meg for her continued devotion to promoting the too long Neglected Meteor, Elmer Ellsworth.

  4. In James Jacksons eyes, his property and his State were being violated by vandals and invaders. Other people think Ellsworth a hero. The scars are still there.

  5. As an aside, the new issue of Civil War Monitor has a great photo of Ellsworth’s uniform from an 1864 exhibition.

  6. Meg
    You are a leading scholar and expert on Ellsworth – you should be approaching the hotel and asking both that the original plaque be displayed at the hotel with a separate marker giving context to the Lost Cause source of the plaque and the fuller story of Ellsworth.
    History with context.
    Laurie Woodruff
    Essential Civil War Curriculum

    1. I hope to approach the Alexandrian to do exactly that. I stayed there four days this month, and it is a lovely place. However, it is not privately owned and marriott may be less than open to this potentially controversial idea.

  7. And Camp Ellsworth was sited just outside Keokuk, Iowa. Named two days after word from the east arrived that Colonel Elmer Ellsworth had been killed in the Line of Duty, Camp Ellsworth was the mustering location and training ground for First Iowa, Second Iowa and 3rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiments (all three of which subsequently saw service in Missouri, and beyond.)

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