ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Col. Elmer Ellsworth never stepped foot in Fort Ward, but a lock of his hair and his uniform cap have made it here to the grounds of one of the dozens of Union strongholds built around the Washington, D.C., area after the outbreak of the Civil War.
Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the conflict. His death on May 24, 1861, while removing a flag from the top of the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria caused a sensation throughout the nation, prompting thousands of men across the northern states to enlist for the Union cause and go to war against the South. He was made a martyr in the North and his image appeared on stationery, sheet music, pottery and memorial lithographs throughout the war.
Although Ellsworth’s death preceded the construction of Fort Ward and the 67 other Civil War forts that guarded the nation’s capital, he’s the focus of a new exhibit at the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia.
“We are a Union fort,” said Walton Owen, assistant director and curator at Fort Ward, “and he’s an important part of our local history and the occupation of Alexandria.”
The 150th anniversary of Ellsworth’s death is also the subject of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and several of his artifacts — including the uniform coat he was wearing when he died — are on display at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
Forever linked with Ellsworth is James Jackson, the Marshall House proprietor and staunch secessionist who shot the Union officer in a stairway of the hotel. Cpl. Francis Brown, one of Ellsworth’s soldiers, shot and killed Jackson, who was hailed in the South as the “first martyr” of the Confederate States of America. While Ellsworth is buried under a 40-foot-tall obelisk at his gravesite in upstate New York, there’s no memorial in the South dedicated to Jackson, although his name was added to Alexandria’s Confederate Statue 11 years after it was unveiled on May 24, 1889.
Before the war, Ellsworth gained national fame while leading a military-style drill team called the Zouaves, known for their distinct uniforms of red pantaloons, red fezzes and blue brocaded jackets. He also became close friends with Abraham Lincoln while clerking in the future president’s law office in Illinois, and he campaigned for the Republican Party candidate during the 1860 election.
FORT WARD MUSEUM AND HISTORIC SITE: Fort Ward was named for Commander James Harmon Ward, the first Union naval officer to be killed in the Civil War. Construction began in September 1861 and was completed in about a month. The fort was the fifth largest of the installations collectively known as the Defenses of Washington. Traces of about 24 of the fortifications still exist, including Fort Ward, considered the best-preserved of the sites still accessible to the public.
Operated by the city of Alexandria, the museum and adjacent park offer visitors a glimpse of what a garrison soldier’s life was like during the Civil War. A reconstructed officers’ hut represents a typical fort dwelling of the era, while Fort Ward’s Northwest Bastion, mounted by several cannons, has been completely restored. Other earthwork walls have been preserved at the site, set amid the lush landscape of a 40-acre park located in a residential neighborhood. The park has picnic facilities, restrooms and an open-air amphitheater for weekly summer concerts.
A road rings the site’s perimeter while a walking path passes the old fort’s bombproofs, earth- and grass-covered structures designed to provide an underground space for operations during an attack. Signage leads visitors to viewing platforms that keep people off the fragile earthwork walls.
The small museum is located near the site’s entrance. Opened in 1964 during the Civil War’s centennial, the museum interprets the fort’s role in the Union’s occupation of Alexandria, a vital crossroads town dating back to Colonial times. In addition to displays on the everyday life of Civil War soldiers, the museum features an exhibit on the “Ellsworth incident.”
The exhibit includes a lock of his hair, a red kepi (cap) he wore, photographs of the young officer in uniform and contemporary published accounts of his death at the hands of James Jackson.
Most of a star from Jackson’s secessionist flag, still stained with Ellsworth’s blood, is on display, along with the “O” from the Marshall House sign, one of the many pieces of the structure torn off the building by souvenir-hunting Union soldiers seeking a momento from the spot where Ellsworth was slain.
“Col. Elmer Ellsworth and The Marshall House Incident” can be seen through February 2012 at the Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site, 4301 West Braddock Road, Alexandria; http://www.fortward.org or 703-746-4848. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Park open daily 9 a.m.-sunset. Free admission. Guided tours: $2 per person.
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY: The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, located on the site of a former Union hospital, is marking the Civil War’s 150th anniversary with a series of seven exhibitions in the alcove linking two rooms with Civil War displays. The first — “The Death of Ellsworth” — includes artifacts from the “Ellsworth incident,” including portraits of Ellsworth and Lincoln, as well as Alonzo Chappel’s historic painting depicting the Union officer being shot by Jackson.
Also on display are Jackson’s shotgun and the rifle Cpl. Francis Brown used to kill Jackson, along with a piece of the blood-stained flooring torn up by souvenir hunters from the hallway where Ellsworth died. Brown bequeathed the weapons and other items to the Smithsonian.
The exhibit also includes examples of red, white and blue patriotic “covers” — a 19th century term for envelopes — that bore Ellsworth’s image and scenes depicting his killing. These and other Ellsworth souvenirs produced in large quantities in the months after his death can’t be brushed off as early examples of wartime propaganda, said James Barber, the exhibit’s curator.
“It’s simply a matter of patriotism,” he said. “This was not propaganda in the least. The South had their own. Both sides used these.”
“The Death of Ellsworth” can be seen through March 18, 2012, at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, Washington D.C.; http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/ellsworth/index.html or 202-633-8300. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission.
NEW YORK STATE MILITARY MUSEUM: The Empire State’s repository for its military heritage is located in Saratoga Springs, just north of Malta, the town where Ellsworth was born in 1837. The museum’s collection includes the uniform coat Ellsworth was wearing when Jackson fired a shotgun into his chest as the 24-year-old officer descended the stairs leading to the Marshall House’s roof. The coat, still showing the hole where the slug entered, is on display, along with one of Ellsworth’s swords and a Zouave drill manual.
Jackson’s flag — originally 14 feet by 24 feet — is among the museum’s collection of more than 800 Civil War battle flags, the largest state collection in the nation. Large swaths of the banner were cut up for souvenirs after Ellsworth’s death; about 55 percent of the original flag survives. One of several large stars on Jackson’s flag was removed and saved by Ellsworth’s uncle, who later donated the item to a local Civil War veterans group. The neighboring Town of Saratoga came into possession of the star, which was donated to the museum in August 2006, reuniting it with the flag for the first time in more than 140 years.
The flag is being worked on by the state’s flag conservators and is scheduled go on display July 12 as part of a Civil War battle flags exhibit at the state Capitol in Albany.
Ellsworth’s death devastated Lincoln, who had his protégé’s funeral held in the White House before the body was sent north, where it lay in state in New York City and Albany before being buried in nearby Mechanicville, where Ellsworth grew up.
Ellsworth’s funeral was held on May 27, 1861, in a hillside cemetery overlooking the Hudson River. His parents didn’t have the means to provide a headstone, so Ellsworth lay in an unmarked grave until the 1870s, when members of the Zouave regiment he led into Alexandria helped raise the funds to erect a gravesite memorial: a granite obelisk topped by a bronze eagle.
On a rainy Sunday morning earlier in May, more than 50 Civil War re-enactors joined about 250 spectators for a re-enactment of Ellsworth’s funeral at Hudson View Cemetery. Signs lead visitors to his grave, located in the Ellsworth family plot ringed by a wrought-iron fence.
The Ellsworth coat and Jackson flag are part of the collection of the New York State Military Museum at 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs; http://dmna.state.ny.us/historic/mil-hist.htm or 518-581-5100. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Free admission.