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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Once, I had a job that had me teaching clients of the company I worked for - the great part about it was that I got to travel at lest once a month. I often used this as an opportunity to visit places I needed to do research at. I remember spending a great weekend in Plympton, Massachusetts, first in the graveyard looking at the gravestones of my ancestors and later at the Historical Society copying all sorts of information down. Another week was spent at the Boston Library, copying newspaper articles that had anything to do with the 18th Massachusetts. Other times, I would use it as opportunity to go visit family – which would mean going to New York City for a week.

The first time I visited NYC, I was near 120th and Broadway. For those of you who are Seinfeld fans, it was near the restaurant that the cast was always at – except the TV took out the first part of the name – Tom’s Restaurant. When I went there, it had become it’s own sort of tourist trap, full of trinkets that you could take home to share of you visit. I got there at 11:30, well before the lunch rush and yet still had a 10 minute wait to be seated. By the time my lunch was finished, there were people staring at me, willing me to leave my spot so they could take it.

It was quite different from another destination, which used to be quite the tourist spot– which I discovered by accident. I have always liked the architecture of churches and especially stained glass windows – an art I think is severely underrated. So when I saw a tall steeple, I thought I would walk towards it. As I got to it, I noticed other things, like a maker for the Battle of Harlem Heights and more importantly – Grant’s Tomb.

I walked towards the tomb, entered it and was shocked at how empty it was – barely half a dozen people including myself were in there. I spent a few minutes as my lunch was ending but I came back the next day and on several other visits too. Each time, it had almost no visitors. To be truthful, it added to the feeling of quiet respect that the tomb deserved.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Grant’s tomb, I would suggest reading this. It gives you a sense of how important President Grant was to the post war America – so much so that over 1 million people attended his funeral and the dedication ceremony of his tomb, led by President McKinley was almost as large. The tomb itself was paid for by the general public, using a subscription fund raiser.

Yet by the 1990’s it was falling apart and only an influx of $1.8 million of refurbishment money saved it. And when I visited it in 1999 -20001, hardly anybody visited it. For the most part, President Grant was replaced by fictional characters a mile away.

So, with such little regard to President Grant and his final resting place, should we be surprised that hardly anyone remembers Colonel Elmer Ellsworth? Recently there was an article that made the press rounds talking about him, yet there was barely a tremble in the blogosphere about it. Why should there have been, you ask? Well, decent question and one that deserves to be answered.

On May 23, 1861, the day after Virginia voters ratified the ordinance of secession, Lincoln ordered troops to seize Arlington Heights and occupy Alexandria. Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th NYV, a close personal friend of Lincoln, led a contingent of troops into Alexandria, where he spoted a rebel flag flying above the Marshall House hotel. Ellsworth charged up the stairs of the hotel and cut the banner down. On his way back down the stairs the hotel’s owner, James Jackson, killed him with a shotgun blast.

One of Ellsworth’s soldiers, Francis Brownell, in turn killed Jackson and would later receive the Medal of Honor. Considered the North’s first martyr, Ellsworth’s body lay in state at the White House and later at New York City Hall. The Smithsonian Institute currently owns a piece of the flag, Jackson's shotgun and Brownell's rifle and Medal of Honor – and has it shown in their Legacies exhibit along with such things as a piece of the Plymouth Rock, the Star Spangled Banner and the cup that President McKinley took his last drink from.

Although The Marshall House no longer exists (but luckily there is a Holiday Inn there and a plaque commemorating Ellsworth’s death) at one time it truly was a big attraction. The hotel became a shrine for Northerners, many who carved out pieces of the staircase for souvenirs. In our research we have found three incidents where soldiers mentioned Ellsworth, two of whom sent pieces home.

“We noticed particularly the house occupied by Jackson, brother of the murderer of Ellsworth” as they traveled from Washington to halls Hill, VA
- Middleboro Gazette and Old Colony Advertiser, November 9, 1861, p. 1, Column 5

“I also send a sliver from the flight of stairs on which Col. Ellsworth was shot in the Marshall House, Alexandria.
- Middleboro Gazette and Old Colony Advertiser, Saturday, February 15, 1862; p. 1, column 3

“I chipped off a little piece of wood from the Marshall house in Alexandria in which Ellsworth was killed which I enclose for Inman.”
- George M. Barnard, Jr. - Near Hampton, VA - March 25, 1862

So even though most of us have forgotten Colonel Ellsworth and his sacrifice, this posting will be for him and perhaps a few others will learn of him. And although you can not visit the Marshall House and get your own sliver of the staircase– here is one Sgt. Edmund Churchill took and sent home – it sure is a lot more valuable and interesting than a fictional restaurant that some fictional characters fictionally ate at.


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