A huge Confederate flag which played a starring role in the dramatic end of the first Union soldier killed in the Civil War is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The Marshall House Flag was loaned to the museum for its “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” exhibit by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, which has a vast permanent collection of almost 2,000 flags from the War of 1812 to the present. Because of its massive size (14 by 24 feet) and delicate condition, this flag rarely travels and will only be on display until February 24th, 2013, while the exhibit will continue through September 22nd, 2013.
“One really has to see this flag in order to appreciate it,” said New York State Historian Robert Weible. “It’s enormous and its significance in American history is equally big. By exhibiting this iconic flag, we are better able to communicate the lasting meaning and relevance of the Civil War to a large and appreciative audience.”
The story of the Marshall House Flag reads like one of the romantic melodramas that were so popular on the stage and in novels of this period. On May 23rd, 1861, just over a month after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter started the Civil War, an overwhelming majority of Virginia’s voters ratified the articles of secession which had been passed by the General Assembly’s secession convention on April 17th. The next morning just before dawn, eight regiments of federal troops crossed the Potomac River to claim Arlington Heights and Alexandria, Virginia. Among them was a regiment of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the Fire Zouaves because it was principally composed of New York City firefighters, commanded by its dashing twenty-four-year-old colonel, Elmer E. Ellsworth.
Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born April 11th, 1837 in Malta, a small town in Saratoga County, New York. He had always been fascinated by the military and had made a personal study of it, but he didn’t have the formal education to be accepted at West Point. He joined local militias and distinguished himself as a drillmaster. To seek employment sufficiently gainful to impress his fiancée’s father, he moved to Chicago to study law. There he formed his first troop of Zouaves, inspired by the exploits of the French Army in the Crimean War that he had read so much about. He designed their red and blue uniforms and trained them to become a crack drill team. Their gaudy colors and sharp moves made them and their leader famous as they toured the major cities of the northeast in the summer of 1860.
Once the tour was over, he took a position in the Springfield law office of Abraham Lincoln. There he worked as a law clerk and for Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Ellsworth became a good friend of Abraham, Mary and the children. When Lincoln won the election, Ellsworth was put in charge of security for his trip to Washington, D.C.
With the onset of hostilities, Ellsworth saw his chance to finally do more than run a drill team, so he returned to New York and recruited the 1st New York Fire Zouaves which became the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. They were one of the first recruited regiments to arrive in Washington, D.C., and although they had a reputation as undisciplined rakehells (30 women were found in their camp when they got to D.C.), they also immediately proved their valour by fighting fires in the city.
When Virginia’s secession became official, the Fire Zouaves were therefore on the spot to ensure the safety of Washington’s perimeter. They encountered no resistance as they stationed troops in strategic locations around Alexandria, like the train station and telegraph office. Seeing a massive Confederate flag large enough to be seen from a spyglass at the White House eight miles away flying over the Marshall House Inn on the corner of King Street and Pitt Street, Colonel Ellsworth and a small detachment entered the hotel to take down the flag. Inside they encountered James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, who told them he was just a guest. They made their way to the rooftop where Ellsworth cut down the flag. He was rolling it up on the way back down the stairs when Jim Jackson appeared on the second floor landing wielding a double-barrel shotgun (now in the Smithsonian).
Jackson shot Ellsworth in the heart, killing him instantly. Private Francis E. Brownell immediately responded, shooting Jackson in the face with his Army-issue Model 1855 U.S. percussion rifle (also in the Smithsonian), and then running him through with the bayonet as he fell to the floor. Brownell would later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for this act. Although he received it in 1877, his “shooting the murderer of Col. Ellsworth,” as the inscription on the medal states, was the first in the Civil War to merit the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Zouaves, heartbroken by the loss of their beloved leader, were sent to dig earthworks outside of Alexandria out of fear that they would destroy the city in retaliation. Ellsworth’s body and the flag he had died to capture were transported to the Washington Navy Yard. The Lincolns were devastated by the news of his death. By order of the President, Ellsworth’s body was taken to the East Room of the White House to lie in state. Thousands came to pay their last respects. Lincoln was seen openly weeping in grief. He told a group of dignitaries who approached him, “Excuse me but I cannot talk. I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”
Carried by telegraph and newspapers, word of Ellsworth’s death spread like wildfire across the North. He became an instant martyr, the first Union officer to die at the hands of those dastardly ambushing rebels. His youth, good looks and death for the cause made him an ideal symbolic figure for the Union to rally around. His image and death scene were sold all over the North on lithographs, prints, ceramic mugs, plates, even envelopes. Souvenir hunters flooded the Marshall House, stripping it of the furniture, carpeting, window shutters, stairs, handrail, floorboards and flagpole.
After the funeral service in the East Room, Ellsworth’s body was brought by train home to New York escorted by Francis Brownell, who carried the Marshall House Flag with him. Ellsworth’s body lay in state at City Hall in New York City and at the State Capitol in Albany where again thousands lined up to pay their respects. He was finally buried in the Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicsville, the Saratoga County town where he grew up.
All along the way, pieces of the Marshall House Flag were cut out by people as relics of the gallant martyred officer. Today there are fragments in various museums, including a complete star in the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia. They also have Col. Ellsworth’s red kepi, his uniform hat.
The bulk of the flag went to the New York State Military Museum, which also has Ellsworth’s uniform coat with the silver dollar-sized hole in the chest from the fatal shot. The museum recently received a large cotton star they think is the central star from the flag representing the Confederate State of Virginia. Here’s a video about the conservation of the Marshall House Flag at the New York State Military Museum. You get a real sense of its hugeness seeing it dwarf five people cleaning it at the same time.