May 24, 1861 – Federal forces invaded northern Virginia and captured Alexandria, and a promising young officer became one of the war’s first casualties.
When Virginia voters approved secession on May 23, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the people “thus allowed this giant insurrection to make its nest within her borders,” and so “this government has no choice but to deal with it, where it finds it.” Lincoln authorized General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to send some 8,000 Federal troops across the Potomac River to seize Alexandria, a largely pro-secession town, and Arlington Heights.
Under a bright moon at 2 a.m., Colonel Joseph F.K. Mansfield’s three Federal columns totaling 11 infantry regiments with artillery support crossed the Potomac via the Long Bridge and steamers. They advanced two miles into Virginia and drove a small Confederate force out of Alexandria, taking several prisoners. Commander Stephen C. Rowan, commanding U.S.S. Pawnee, received Alexandria’s surrender.
The Federals occupied several buildings and private residences, including General Robert E. Lee’s Arlington home. They also cut the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad connecting Alexandria with Leesburg, 30 miles west. Defensive works were built by dawn. This foothold bolstered the Washington’s defenses, gave the Federals another lodgment in Virginia besides Fort Monroe, and began the Federal invasion of northern Virginia.
Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s 11th New York Fire Zouaves were the first Federal troops to occupy Alexandria. Ellsworth was a 24 year-old former apprentice lawyer in President Lincoln’s law office and a close friend of the Lincolns who had traveled with them from Springfield to Washington in February. The young colonel and his force, composed of volunteer New York City firemen, had gained fame among northerners.
In early morning, Ellsworth and his men spotted a Confederate flag waving on the rooftop of the Marshall House, a local hotel. Ellsworth and two of his men went to the hotel, raced up the stairs, and cut the flag down. As they came back downstairs, hotel proprietor James Jackson confronted the men. Holding the flag, Ellsworth told Jackson, “This is my trophy.” Jackson replied, “And you are mine,” before killing Ellsworth instantly with a shotgun blast to the chest. Private Francis E. Brownell then shot Jackson in the face and bayoneted him to death.
As the first Federal officer killed in action, Colonel Ellsworth became an instant martyr throughout the North. Likewise, southerners celebrated Jackson’s sacrifice, with the Confederate coroner ruling on his death: “He was killed in defense of his home and private rights.” People quickly cut up the staircase for souvenirs.
Confederate forces in Alexandria, not resisting the Federals’ advance in the hope that it would satisfy their aggression, withdrew to Manassas Junction, joining the command of Brigadier General Milledge L. Bonham. As news spread throughout the state of the Federal invasion, General Lee began sending reinforcements to Manassas to make a stand for when the Federals continued their advance.
The next day, as news of Colonel Ellsworth’s death spread throughout the North, bells tolled in churches and flags flew at half-staff. President Lincoln lamented, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary that this sacrifice should be made?” He sent condolences to Ellsworth’s parents: “So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.”
Lincoln directed an honor guard to bring Ellsworth’s body back to Washington, where it lay in state in the East Room of the White House. The Lincolns, along with high-ranking politicians and military officials, attended the funeral. The body was then taken to New York City, where thousands of people filed past the casket to pay last respects. A train then conveyed Ellsworth’s body to his hometown of Mechanicsville for burial along the Hudson River. Deep grief for the loss of such a promising young officer pervaded the North, but Alexandria was firmly in Federal hands.
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