Today marks the occupation of the city of Alexandria, VA by Union forces. An expedition left from the Washington Navy Yard under cover of darkness and crossed the Potomac into Virginia. Demanding the surrender of the city, Union sailors and soldiers hoisted the American flag on prominent buildings to send a strong message that the Union would not tolerate secessionist sympathies so close to their capitol.
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Zouaves and some of his companions spied a Confederate flag still flying above an inn. Determined to cut the flag down, the men entered the building, bounded up the stairs and took the flag. The innkeeper, James Jackson, met them on the stairs armed with a double-barreled shotgun. Jackson was killed – but not before he had mortally wounded Ellsworth.
A friend of the Lincoln family, Ellsworth’s body lay in state in the White House. He came to be viewed as a martyr for the Union cause – and is widely recognized as the first prominent casualty of the Civil War.