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“The Death of Ellsworth” Exhibition with Historian James Barber – National Portrait Gallery

“The Death of Ellsworth” Exhibition with Historian James Barber – National Portrait Gallery


We’re here the corner of Pitt and King Streets
in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. What happened here on May 24th, 1861, brought
the Civil War to the steps of the nation’s capital. Today, we’re here in the National Portrait
Gallery in the exhibition “The Death of Ellsworth.” I’m Warren Perry and we’re talking with NPG
historian James Barber. Can you tell us please why this exhibition
and why right now? “The Death of Ellsworth,” that’s the title
of the exhibition and there…it’s three stories. It’s a national story. It’s a local story. The incident happens just in Alexander, Virginia
across the river. And it’s also a Smithsonian story. It’s national story. Elmer Ellsworth was the first Union officer
to be killed in the Civil War. It’s a local story. It happens at the Marshall House which is
on the corner of Pitt and King Street in Alexandria, Virginia. And it’s a Smithsonian story in a sense that
Ellsworth’s avenger donated then several key artifacts from the incident to the Smithsonian,
namely the rifles and his Medal of Honor. This incident will warrant… it’ll be the
first incident where the Medal of Honor is given. So what we see in this exhibition was actually
taken from that moment, the inciting moment of the war beginning with the occupation of
Alexandria. Can you tell us a little bit about the exhibition? The exhibition is composed of those, like
you say, many original artifacts from the incident, the rifles, the bayonets. We have pieces of… The Marshall house becomes a Mecca after the
incident for sightseers and they literally will carve away bits and pieces of it. So we have some of those artifacts too, portions
of the flag pole, a bit of the flag which caused all the trouble, and a bit of the blood-stained
flooring and what not. Okay so now what we have to get you to do,
if you can, can you please tell us the story of Elmer Ellsworth? What happens, yes. Ellsworth is a young 24-year-old, very enthusiastic
about the military. He wants to get in this brewing war. And he goes to New York City early in April
and organizes the regiment there called the 1st New York Fire Zouaves. And these Fire Zouaves are basically New York
firemen. They’re very good at what they do, putting
out fires. They’re also, if truth be known, good at starting
fires and putting them out. So they are a rough and tumble bunch. Ellsworth ironically is… he made his reputation
the year before, summer 1860, for organizing a regiment of Chicago’s Zouave Cadets. And they are famous for their military discipline
and precision drill. These New York firemen were not the same. And Ellsworth doesn’t have the… just doesn’t
have the time to instruct and drill these recruits. Lincoln has asked for 75 thousand militia
to come to the aide of Washington and Ellsworth and these Zouaves are part of that. After Virginia secedes on May 23rd, Lincoln
will waste no time and orders troops into Northern Virginia. And the Ellsworth Zouaves are part of that
invasion. They land on the Cameron Street Whorf in Alexander,
Virginia. And Ellsworth, with a small detail man, he
will march towards… he wants to occupy the telegraph office. And on his way up King Street to find… to
take back telegraph office, he sees this huge Confederate flag flying above a hotel called
the Marshall House. He makes a detour with his small detail of
men, goes to the hotel, climbs to the third floor, hauls down the flag, and on his way
down, he meets the innkeeper, the one person he doesn’t want to meet in Northern Virginia. And this is James W. Jackson, an ardent secessionist. To give you a sense of Jackson’s passion for
secession: not only was the flag huge – it was 14 by 25 feet on a 30-foot flagpole, allegedly
it could be seen from the second floor of the White House with binoculars, which gave
Lincoln pause among others – but Jackson represented the radical element. And, you know, it’s amazing. He confronts Ellsworth. He doesn’t shoot the man in front of Ellsworth
with the rifle. That’s Francis Brownell. His first blast is to Ellsworth with the flag. And Jackson had boasted throughout town that
he would defend that flag with his life. Which Jackson did and then Brownell, as you
said, avenges the death of Ellsworth. Is that how this comes into play? Right. All in a matter of you know…a few seconds. This is an English-made double-barrel shotgun. It belonged to James W. Jackson, the innkeeper
of the Marshall House. And this shotgun, he put to use. Ellsworth received the first barrel. The second barrel went amiss when Ellsworth’s
avenger, Francis Brownell with his rifle and bayonet, sort of confronted Jackson and skewed
his aim. So that was Jackson’s shotgun. This is actually Francis Brownell’s rifle,
is that correct? Correct. It’s a model 1855 Harpers Ferry and it’s the
rifle that Brownell was holding and carrying and the bayonet that he used to dispatch James
W. Jackson. More battles were fought in the state of Virginia
than any other state during the entire Civil War. However, the battle that was fought here on
this street corner in Alexandria, Virginia, made a martyr out of James Jackson for the
Southern cause and Elmer Ellsworth for the cause of the Union.


Reader Comments

  1. Fascinating video … I have always been curious about this incident and wanted to know the details of it. Thank you for posting.

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