As May opened, Confederate forces held Alexandria, a largely pro-secession town across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The town was strategically valuable as a staging area for a Federal invasion of Virginia, but since the state had not yet formally seceded (a popular vote on the subject was to take place on the 23rd), the Lincoln administration had not yet made an effort to take it. The force holding Alexandria consisted of 481 largely untrained and ill-equipped Confederates under Lieutenant Colonel Algernon S. Taylor.
Federal troops continued pouring into Washington, and rumors soon circulated that they were about to march on Taylor’s tiny, unprepared force. Brigadier General Philip St. George Cocke, Taylor’s superior, was aware of these rumors, and so he sent strict orders to Taylor: “You will not move the troops out of Alexandria unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers.” If Taylor had to fall back, he was to break up the Orange & Alexandria Railroad as he went to slow the Federal advance.
Against orders, Taylor retreated without being “pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers” on the 5th. When Cocke demanded an explanation why he did so, Taylor asserted that he lacked guns, ammunition, and troop discipline to hold Alexandria against the thousands of Federals massing across the Potomac. The secession vote would most likely result in Virginia leaving the Union, so Federals were poised to cross the river, then move along the Orange & Alexandria line toward Richmond, while another Federal force moved into the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania or Maryland. Taylor had no intention of waiting for the enemy to come.
Alexandria lay undisturbed until Virginia voters approved secession on the 23rd. That same day, 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 a force of some 8,000 Federal troops across the Potomac to seize both Alexandria and Arlington Heights.
Under a bright moon at 2 a.m., three Federal columns consisting of eight infantry regiments and artillery support crossed the Potomac. One column crossed by steamer, one by the Long Bridge, and the other by the Aqueduct Bridge. They were commanded by Colonel Joseph F.K. Mansfield. The troops advanced two miles into Virginia and drove a small Confederate force out of Alexandria, taking several prisoners. Commander Stephen C. Rowan, commanding the U.S.S. Pawnee, received Alexandria’s surrender. The Federal invasion of the Confederacy had begun.
Federal troops took over several buildings and private homes, including Major General Robert E. Lee’s Arlington residence. They also cut the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad connecting Alexandria to Leesburg, 30 miles west. By dawn, the Federals had built defensive fortifications. This foothold in northern Virginia helped to better secure Washington, gave the Federals another lodgment in the state besides Fort Monroe, and served as a base for a future offensive toward the state capital of Richmond.
The first troops to occupy Alexandria were the 11th New York Fire Zouaves. They were led by Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a 24-year-old former apprentice in President Lincoln’s law office and, as a close friend of the Lincolns, had traveled with them from Springfield to Washington in February. The young, flamboyant colonel and his regiment, which consisted of volunteer New York City firemen, had enjoyed much publicity and popularity in the North.
In early morning, Ellsworth and his troops 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 down the stairs, hotel proprietor James Jackson confronted the men on a landing. 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. Jackson fired his second barrel but missed. Private Francis E. Brownell then shot Jackson in the face and bayoneted him to death.
Colonel Ellsworth became the first Federal officer killed in action, and he became an instant martyr in the North. Likewise, southerners celebrated Jackson’s sacrifice, as evidenced by the Confederate coroner’s ruling on his death: “He was killed in defense of his home and private rights.” People quickly cut up the hotel staircase for souvenirs.
The token Confederate force that had been near Alexandria withdrew to Manassas Junction and joined the command of Brigadier General Milledge L. Bonham. News of the Federal invasion spread quickly, and General Lee, commanding the Confederate forces in Virginia, began sending reinforcements to Manassas to make a stand against an expected Federal advance.
The next day, as news of Ellsworth’s death spread throughout the North, bells tolled in churches and flags were flown 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:
“In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew… 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.”
The president had an honor guard 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. When asked to comment, Lincoln replied: “I cannot talk. Ellsworth is dead and it has unnerved me.” Soldiers presented the Confederate flag that Ellsworth had captured to Mrs. Lincoln. At 2 p.m., the Lincolns joined a military procession that brought Ellsworth’s body to the Washington train station, where it was taken to New York City.
Thousands of people attended Ellsworth’s funeral in New York, filing past the coffin 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 a good portion of northern Virginia was now firmly in Federal hands.
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