Occupation of Alexandria

May 24, 1861


At 2:00 A.M. on May 24, 1861, the day after the citizens of Virginia voted three to one to secede from the Union, 11 regiments of Union soldiers invaded Virginia and occupied the countryside across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The few Rebel pickets in Arlington, the town directly across the river from Washington, quickly retreated from the two Union columns that descended upon them. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's spacious estate on Arlington Heights was quickly occupied as a Union military command post. The 700 Virginia militiamen stationed six miles downstream at Alexandria, an important port and railroad center, were warned of this invasion in time for all but 35 of them to retreat through one end of town as Union troops rushed in the other.

Two Union forces converged on Alexandria. Col. Orlando B. Wilcox and his 1st Michigan Regiment marched down from Arlington and Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth and his exotically dressed 11th New York Zouave Regiment arrived at the Alexandria wharf aboard three river steamers. The Zouaves rushed ashore at daybreak and quickly secured the railroad station and telegraph office. As Ellsworth moved through the town, he spied a large Confederate flag flying from atop an inn called the Marshall House.

Ellsworth rushed into the inn with four companions, climbed the stairs to the top, and cut down the flag. As they were going back down with the flag, innkeeper James W. Jackson met them at the third floor landing with a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. Jackson was killed -- shot in the face, bayoneted, and pushed down the steps -- but not before he pulled the trigger and killed Ellsworth.

The Union invasion was a resounding success. The 24 year old Ellsworth had been a personal friend of PresidentAbraham Lincoln, and his body lay in state at the White House. Ellsworth became a Union martyr, and babies, streets, and even towns were named after him.

Fascinating Fact: "Jackson perished a'mid the pack of wolves," said a Southern report. Jackson became a martyr to the South and many poems, songs, and illustrations about the Marshall House incident were published. Enlistments soared on both sides following the deaths.