9 July 2015
This coming January, PBS will air the new mini-series Mercy Street staring Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a Doctor and Nurse working together in Union occupied Alexandria, VA during the Civil War. Ms. Winstead plays the part of New England abolitionist Mary Phinney. Her rival, played by Hannah James, is an entitled Alexandria woman named Emma Green who nurses soldiers alongside Phinney. Mercy Street will be an exciting piece of historical fiction noting the tensions of persons on opposite sides of the war working in close quarters. The real history of the men and women of Alexandria at the time is worth telling. In this an upcoming blogs, I propose to tell the story behind these historical characters in preparation for the series start in January.
Before discussion on the persons surrounding the story can begin, it’s helpful to set the scene on what is going on in Alexandria 1860 and 1861.
Throughout the South in 1860, there is talk of secession if and when the “abolitionist” Abraham Lincoln is elected as President. At this time in Alexandria, there is a strong sense of belonging to the Union given the significant merchant ties that the citizens have with all sections of the nation. In early 1861, the sentiment in Alexandria is going to change to a vast majority supporting secession and the new Confederate government. Two incidents are the catalyst: The firing on Fort Sumter on 12 and 13 April 1861 and the Virginia Ordinance for Secession passed on 17 April 1861. Almost overnight Alexandria turns from a loyal Southern city to a Confederate hotbed.
The Virginia Ordinance for Secession was ratified by voter referendum on 23 May. The next day is arguably the most momentous in Alexandria’s history. In response to the referendum Union troops have prepared across the river in Washington City to invade Alexandria. To be discussed in the next blog are two significant events that happen in Alexandria on 24 May that will greatly influence America’s history and set the stage for Alexandria’s most intriguing era.
21 August 2015
On the early morning of 24 May 1861, the Union Army prepared in Washington for a two pronged assault on the seaport town of Alexandria. Most of the army crossed the Long Bridge to the Virginia side of the Potomac and proceeded south about 8 miles into the north end of the town. Simultaneously, a significant Union amphibious force landed on Alexandria’s waterfront. Amongst the amphibious forces was a unit from New York, the Eleventh Volunteer Infantry Regiment also known as the First Fire Zouaves.
The Zouaves were led by a dashing young Union Major Elmer E. Ellsworth. Ellsworth was already known in military circles nationwide. His Zouaves barnstormed throughout Northern towns before the war displaying their talents in martial and sartorial showmanship. They were the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team of its day. The Zouaves and their leader were well known quantities in the North and possessed a celebrity status. Ellsworth was also a bosom friend of the Lincoln family having clerked for Lincoln in Springfield before the war.
The Union Army’s mission that morning included securing a number of strategic points in town including the Telegraph Office, the Post Office, The Railroad Roundhouse, and a number of banks. The Zouaves proceeded up the main street of Alexandria (King Street.) At the corner of King and Pitt Streets, stood an unremarkable tavern and boarding house known as the Marshall House. The proprietor James Jackson was an ardent secessionist who flew a 14 x 24 foot Confederate National Flag from a long flagpole on the rooftop of the hotel. He often bragged to his hotel patrons that “…the flag will come down over my dead body!”
Upon arriving at the Marshall House, Ellsworth proceeded into the establishment with a small detail of men to take possession of the flag. After taking the flag down and while proceeding down the staircase to the second floor, Ellsworth was shot and killed instantly by Jackson. In turn, Corporal Francis Brownell returned fire and bayoneted Jackson killing him instantly. Hence, the first two casualties of the Civil War by guns fired in anger.
On the same morning of the events at the Marshall House, just three blocks away, many of Alexandria’s men are mustering at a pre-determined place in order to gather themselves to march south to join the armies of the Confederacy. To be discussed in the next blog are how both sides used the power of language to describe these happenings in Alexandria in order to inflame their respective populaces and garner support for the coming war.
8 January 2016
Major Ellsworth was not an unknown quantity in the Northern states. Previous to the war, Ellsworth and his Fire Zouaves barnstormed in many of the cities of the north, exhibiting their acrobatic martial drill. Many Northerners would have seen his face before, either in person at a performance, or in the newspaper or playbill. He was in affect the Kanye West of his day.
A couple of days after his death, The New York Herald ran an above the fold story titled The Assassination of Major Ellsworth with a half page woodcut photograph of the handsome Major. Previously to the Marshall House incident, many Northerners were at best indifferent to the secession of the Southern states. There had been no blood spilled up to now and perhaps this was for the best. However, Major Ellsworth provides the North its first martyr. Not some unknown farm boy but someone they “know”, one of “our boys.” Words such as assassination are used. Jackson in the article is referred to the “murderer of Ellsworth” and the soldier who shot Jackson, Corporal Francis Brownell, is listed as the “avenger of Ellsworth.”
On the Southern side, James Jackson is referred to as a martyr for the cause who was “killed by federal soldiers while defending his personal property and personal rights…he laid down his life, an example to all, in defense of his home and sacred soil of his native state VIRGINIA.”
Both sides now have their respective martyr moment and are using powerful language in the press to describe why the struggle is so important. Assassination, murder, killed by federal soldiers, defense of his home and sacred state. These are the types of words that are meant to ignite young men’s passions and encourage them to rally to the Flag. Now both sides will muster tens and hundreds of thousands of men into their armies and home front support infrastructure.
Alexandria will become a home front support town from that day, ironically for the North who will occupy the city for the duration of the war. Next, Mercy Street, the real story.