‘Martyrs’ on our Potomac

On May 23, 1861, Virginia’s voters ratified the state’s ordinance of secession.

Perhaps you will remember that one of my favorite subjects is: Things that happened on May 24:

Confederate militia had held Alexandria, Virginia, since shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Only the “Long Bridge” over the Potomac separated them from tens of thousands of Union soldiers mustering in the capital.

Shortly after midnight on May 24, 1861, a force of thousands of Federal troops crossed the Potomac.

New York Militia Major General Charles Sanford marched to Arlington Heights and established headquarters in Robert E. Lee’s vacated home.

The few Virginia militia who remained in Alexandria retreated to Culpeper.

New York Fire Zoave Colonel Elmer Ellsworth marched with his troops down Main Street in Alexandria to cut the telegraph wires to Richmond. Ellsworth was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.

Ellsworth espied the Sic Semper Tyrannis secessionist flag flying over an inn called Marshall House. He entered the edifice, and climbed the stairs to remove the flag. James W. Jackson, the proprietor of the house, announced that the flag would be removed over his dead body. After the exchange of gunfire which followed, both Ellsworth and Jackson lay dead.

Lincoln wept at Ellsworth’s funeral the following day, and the northern press hailed him as a martyr. Later, the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers erected this plaque:


Please forgive my haste in the original post. According to this Currier and Ives print from 1861, the flag flown over the Marshall House was in fact the Confederate “Stars and Bars.”

Apparently one of the stars of the flag can be seen at the Fort Ward museum in Alexandria. If the flag had stars, it couldn’t have been the Virginia state flag. Sorry.

One thought on “‘Martyrs’ on our Potomac

  1. Father Mark,

    So, I grew up with my father, from Portland, Maine, and my mother from Laytonsville, Maryland, continually fighting the Civil War, over and over.

    My father’s distain for “ignorant Southerners” was only exceeded by his refusal to eat any of their food. He referred to “The Birth of A Nation” as the biggist piece of southern propaganda the World had ever seen (I watched it two years ago; and he was right ). A heady man, he hated racism; but his way of stating his belief was unique (and probably so politically incorrect as to draw fire in this unreal world in which we now reside), “The day you can call a man a ‘black bastard” because he’s a bastard AND he’s black, and not because he’s black will be the day true racial equality has come to the United States.” Now that I look at it, he’s right; and we haven’t gotten there.

    My mother excelled at righteous indignation for the besmirching of the name of the Noble South. She also exemplified the gracious southern hostess. She was a firm believer in friendship and the care of others which was the hallmark of the architypal southern aristocratic woman. When she died, the family was shocked; her friends were devastated. One said, “We all thought Katie was going to take care of us; and now she’s gone.”

    Neither of which puts the American Civil War in the proper respective. It was the bloodiest war in American history (if you don’t count the current war on the Unborn); and there were ample martyrs on both sides. There were also “war crimes” on both sides. Yet, the country, under very insightful leadership, restored unity after the war. And, the country flourished in the aftermath — much as the landscape does after the eruption of a volcano (not a lava flow, but an eruption). Unlike the French, who seemed to lose thier national “elan vital” after the First World War, the American Civil War seemed to cement our national being.

    A great subject, and well worth looking into deeper.



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