Ellsworth Dead! Union Captures Alexandria!; Contrabands

Friday, May 24, 1861

Alexandria, Virginia, the town across the Potomac River from Washington DC, was inhabited by around 500 Rebel soldiers. For the safety of the capital, this town needed to be taken. Late the previous night, Rebel outposts had seen Federal cavalry cross the river six miles north of town and sent warning back down the line.

The Federal forces crossed the river by steamer (one regiment – The Fire Zouaves), the Long Bridge out of Washington (five regiments) and the Aqueduct Bridge (four regiments) just north of that. At 2am, the troops boarded the steamer and crossed the bridges, all descending upon Alexandria.

The march to Alexandria took nearly two hours, during which, a Union messenger from the steamer informed the Confederate commander of Alexandria that the town would be taken and that he had until 9am to evacuate or surrender. Seeing that the Union troops were already entering the town from the north and that steamers were gathering by the wharf, he decided to evacuate immediately.

By 5:30am, Alexandria was in Union hands, but with a price.1

Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth had studied law in Lincoln’s law office prior to the war. He had also gained much notoriety for his Chicago Zouaves a few years earlier. Ellsworth, only 24 years old, became a family friend to the Lincolns, even accompanying the president-elect on his way to Washington. With Lincoln’s call for troops, Ellsworth went to New York City and raised The Fire Zouaves. On the morning of the 24th, he, along with his men, helped to capture Alexandria.

As Ellsworth marched through the streets of town, he spied a flag of secession flying above the Marshall House, a hotel on the main street. He, along with several other men, burst through the door and demanded to know what sort of flag that was. When no answer was given, Ellsworth bounded up the stairs to the top floor, crawled onto the roof and cut down the offending banner.

A private soldier led the way back down, with Ellsworth close behind. At the first landing, a man jumped out from the darkness, leveled a double-barreled shotgun at Ellsworth and fired. The young colonel fell forward, instantly dead. The man then took aim at the private, fired, but missed. The private, who was already aiming at the man, fired immediately and hit him in the middle of the face. He then stabbed the man with his bayonet, killing him. The man, as it turns out, was James Jackson, the owner of the hotel.

After securing the hotel, the men moved Ellsworth’s body to one of the rooms.

The town was secured. A company of Rebels were captured and Ellsworth’s body was taken to Washington.2


Jackson or Johnston?

That same morning in Harpers Ferry, roughly 70 miles northwest of Alexandria, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was planning on following the orders to take command of Colonel Thomas J. Jackson’s forces. The problem here was that Johnston forgot to bring along said orders so that Jackson could read them for himself.

Johnston requested that Jackson call his men together and announce to them the change of command. Jackson, however, said that he could not. There had been no word from General Lee or Governor Letcher about the order and without that, thought Jackson, there was officially no order. A change of command couldn’t happen by a simple verbal order.

One of Johnston’s staff knew Jackson from their days at West Point, but even he couldn’t convince the by-the-book Colonel to see things their way. Even the threat of possible arrest wouldn’t move Jackson.

A telegram was sent to Lee in Richmond and by the next morning, Jackson was more than willing to follow a direct order from his commander. Johnston was now in charge of the forces gathered in Harpers Ferry, soon to be known as the Army of the Shenandoah. Jackson would remain and await further orders.3


Butler and the Coming Contraband Problem

On the day that Union General Benjamin Butler arrived at Fortress Monroe, he met with three escaped slaves, heard their stories and decided that he would shelter them. They were the property of Confederate Colonel Mallory, commander of the troops in nearby Hampton. The following day (this date), Butler met with an officer on Mallory’s staff. Mallory apparently wanted his property returned to him.

Butler refused. Since Virginia regarded slaves as property and used this property to aide their war effort, he could, by law (thought Butler) confiscate the slaves as “contraband.” The Virginian saw things in a different light. The United State’s Fugitive Slave Law required Butler to return the slaves. But, Butler countered, Virginia voted herself out of the Union, so that law no longer applied.

The two parted and Butler retained the slaves as contraband of war. Only time would tell what would come of this.4


Union Troops Abandon Grafton

In Grafton, western Virginia, down the B&O Line from Harpers Ferry, Union Captain Latham had moved his troops outside of town after the death of one of his soldiers at the hands of the Rebels encamped nearby. After a day in the new camp, he decided that while Union sentiment in the area was strong, his force was not.

Confederates were gathering and aimed to hold Grafton. Perhaps wanting to evade more bloodshed until he could properly defend himself, he marched his men around the Rebel camp at Fetterman to Valley Falls (four miles north) and flagged down a train that took them to Wheeling so he could join the larger Union force under General George B. McClellan.5

General Scott had wired McClellan on this date informing him that two Confederate companies were in Grafton. He was hoping that McClellan could send support. McClellan wired back that he would do it and could “make it a clean sweep if you say so.”6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p40-44. []
  2. This account is mostly from a New York Tribune reporter who was with Ellsworth when he was killed. It was taken from A Rising Thunder by Richard Wheeler. He cites no sources (other than those specifically mentioned within the text), but it’s a good accounting and I thought I might use it without too much trouble. []
  3. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  4. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler. Like I’ve said before, his account of pretty much everything is suspect, but enough of it matches a letter he wrote the day after to let this one slide a bit. But only a bit. []
  5. Lee Vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p648. []
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Ellsworth Dead! Union Captures Alexandria!; Contrabands by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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