The New York State Military Museum has one of the most extensive collections of flags in the United States, going back two centuries to the War of 1812. Its collection of Civil War battle flags is the largest in the country, which should not be a surprise given the Empire State’s outsized role in bringing an end to the Late Unpleasantness. One of the crown jewels of the state’s collection is the Marshall Flag, the Confederate national banner which flew above the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria Virginia until taken down by Colonel Elmer Ellsworth in May 1861.
Virginia passed its Ordinance of Secession on May 23 and tensions were high in the capital and just across the Potomac in Virginia. The following day Ellsworth noted the flag flying atop the building and in a fit of bravado dashed to the roof and pulled down the stars and bars. When he got to the bottom of the stairs Ellsworth was shot by proprietor James Jackson. Jackson in turn was shot by one of Ellsworth’s men. Both died instantly.
Ellsworth was a dashing figure and a favorite of President Lincoln. He had been the colonel of the 11th New York “Fire Zouaves,” whose men had spent much of 1861 parading with great fanfare to large, appreciative crowds across the North. Their showmanship had more in common with acrobatics and synchronization than military tactics, and their colorful uniforms only added to their popularity and mystique. Ellsworth’s death made him a martyr across the North. The gruesome and violent nature of his death, however, was also one of the first signals to Americans of what the war would entail. How could a man so handsome and young, so vibrant, so full of life and charisma be taken away in an instant? Such is the nature of war.
The NYS Military Museum has spent the last several years conserving what is left of the Marshall House flag. Here is an overview.