Over the previous weeks, a tense standoff between federal forces and the Commonwealth of Virginia had threatened to spill over into all out war. On April 17, 1861, delegates at the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond passed an ordinance of secession, pending the results of a popular referendum to be held on May 23rd. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln extended a naval blockade to include Virginia ports, and shots had been fired between Virginia shore batteries and U.S. Navy ships.
There was still a chance, however, Virginia voters would reject secession. That was certainly the hope of pro-union delegates who had returned to western Virginia from Richmond and held their own convention. Pro-secession forces, including the reluctant Governor John Letcher, continued to act as though Virginia was already its own sovereign country. Shortly before the vote, they accepted an offer to make Richmond the new capitol of the Confederate States of America.
When Virginia voters overwhelmingly embraced secession in the referendum, it removed all doubt over what direction events would take. Eight infantry regiments, including the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment led by Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, were already lined up along the north shore of the Potomac River, waiting for orders.
Between 1791 and 1846, the town of Alexandria, Virginia (pop. 12,652 in 1860), was included in Washington, DC, but was ceded back to Virginia, largely due to concerns that slavery would be abolished in the District. The slave trade was lucrative in Alexandria. It had a deep water port on the Potomac River and was a major trading hub. Since April, James W. Jackson, proprietor of the Marshall House inn in Alexandria, had flown a large Confederate flag from the roof.
In the early morning hours of Friday, May 24, 1861, Union troops crossed the Potomac River into northern Virginia, intent on securing Arlington Heights and Alexandria. The 11th New York “Fire Zouaves” was transported by boat to Alexandria, where it seized the port and telegraph office. Col. George H. Terrett, commanding Virginia militia in the area, ordered a hasty retreat. In the confusion, a troop of cavalry under Capt. Mottrom Dulany Ball was captured in the streets of Alexandria.
Seeing the large Confederate flag fluttering atop the Marshall House, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a former clerk at Abraham Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, Illinois, rushed inside to remove it. As he descended the stairs, flag in hand, James Jackson appeared with a double-barrelled shotgun and blew a hole in Ellsworth’s chest. Cpl. Francis Brownell, who accompanied Ellsworth, then shot and killed Jackson.
The invasion of northern Virginia had begun at the cost of one Union officer, but it was a loss felt in the White House. Disorganized Virginia militia hardly put up a fight, fearing the overwhelming number of Union forces marching across the Potomac at several points. Though the North mourned the loss of a promising young officer, their success raised hopes that the war would end quickly.