EllSWORTH’S GHOST: The Phantom Zouave

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Colonel Ellsworth’s portrait via the National Portrait Gallery.  His close association with Lincoln and the Union cause, as well as the manner of his death, made him an early martyr for the Union cause.

Today’s article was originally published in our sister blog about unexplained phenomena of the South, Dixie Spirits, itself based on my book by the same name.  In that tome we investigated the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which still stands near Alexandria, Virginia, but we did not explore the many other Civil War related ghosts and haunts of Alexandria proper. Today let’s take a quick look at one well known Civil War haunted down in the city proper.

 

They say the first casualty of war is the truth. That may well be true, but in the early days of the war, neither side was much concerned with truth, but more with justifying their own actions, as well as portraying the opposite side as the aggressor. Regardless, by the time that Lincoln was inaugurated, the time for rational discussion was already over and the Secessionists moved quickly to surround Washington, DC in the weeks following his installation as President. Lincoln could call for 75,000 troops—but actually organizing, equipping and fielding them to defend the capitol was quite another thing.

 

The original zouaves were Algerians, recruited by the French to serve in their army. Their elan in battle became legendary and many "zouave" regiments were formed during the Civil War in emulation of them.

The original zouaves were Algerians, recruited by the French to serve in their army. Their elan in battle became legendary and many “zouave” regiments were formed during the Civil War in emulation of them.

Before the war, volunteer militia units were quite the rage in the US. In the antebellum era it was fun to be a soldier and many volunteer groups donned colorful costumes, learned to drill like real soldiers and above all, attract the ladies with their displays of martial virtue. Some militia groups developed a reputation for their skill at close order drill and toured the country performing for the public, especially those units who fashioned themselves as zouaves. The original zouaves had been recruited by the French in Algeria and wore colorful oriental style uniforms, but over the years their ethnic makeup was of less importance than their reputation for élan and aggressiveness.

Recruiting for a Zouave regiment, NYC in 1861. While considered elite units, the zouaves could also be quite rowdy when not in combat.

Recruiting for a Zouave regiment, NYC in 1861. While considered elite units, the zouaves could also be quite rowdy when not in combat.

One of the more famous such show units was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Cadet Zouaves, originally based out of Chicago. Although he was never able to get into West Point, Ellsworth had studied military tactics with a passion and his fencing instructor in Chicago had been an actual French zouave. Ellsworth was a close personal friend of Lincoln’s and when the call went out for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Ellsworth wasted no time forming a regiment. He went to New York City, sent out a call, seeking out firemen in particular, and within an amazingly brief time received more than double the number of volunteers than he needed. Although rough around the edges and short on discipline, the 11th NY “Fire” Zouaves were shipped south in short order.

The Marshall House as it looked in 1861. Note the tall flagpole on the roof of the building. Its owner was a brutal slave owner and fire-breathing Secessionist.

The Marshall House as it looked early in the War. Note the tall flagpole on the roof of the building. Its owner was a brutal slave owner and fire-breathing Secessionist.

When, on May 23, Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Ellsworth’s regiment was ordered across the Potomac to secure Alexandria and Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river. While securing the city, Ellsworth noticed that a Rebel flag was still flying over the Marshall House, a local inn. The flag had been something of a sore point for weeks, being visible from across the river and symbol of Lincoln’s inability to preserve the Union even within the shadow of the capital. Not willing to allow this act of defiance to go unanswered, Ellsworth personally climbed up to the top of the Marshall House and tore down the offending flag from the large flagpole on the roof. As he was descending the stairs, however, the hotel owner, one James Jackson, suddenly appeared without warning and shot and killed Ellsworth with a shotgun at close quarters, for which action he was immediately rewarded with his own death at the hands of Ellsworth’s men. It was still early in the war and the death of a single officer, such as Ellsworth, was still notable news in the North. Ellsworth being a close associate of Lincoln amplified the importance of his death. Soon Ellsworth was hailed as a martyr—the first of many—to the cause of preserving the Union.

The murder of Colonel Ellsworth. His ghost was sighted in the Marshall House on repeated occasions over the years.

The murder of Colonel Ellsworth. His ghost was sighted in the Marshall House on repeated occasions over the years.

In the ensuing months and years following his death, rumors began to circulate that, although dead, Colonel Ellsworth was not really gone from the Marshall House. Some claimed to see him removing the Rebel flag from the rooftop of the hotel, others swore they saw his shade on its stairs, where he was murdered. It was also said that the ghost of the fire-breathing Secesh James Jackson also haunted the same stairwell in the old inn. The Marshall House and its ghosts stood on the same spot until the 1950’s, when it was torn down as part of a modernization trend in the city. Normally, that would be the end of the story, but apparently it is not.

Today the Monaco Hotel, a nice “boutique hotel,” occupies the same space where the old inn stood. It has all the amenities one expects in a modern hotel, plus one more: it is haunted. There are those who claim that it is the restless shades of the Civil War who still roam the new hotel. Sometimes nothing is actually seen, but people claim to hear the sound of gunshots out in the hallways, as if the Rebel hotel owner and the zouaves who killed him are still having it out in the new building. On one occasion recently, a couple was riding the elevator when it unexpectedly opened at the fourth floor; no guests were there but they saw a glowing light appear on the wall opposite, then disappear. Later, the visitors found they were not alone in having uncanny experiences there.

Some visitors allege the modern hotel on the site of the old Marshall still holds the ghost of Ellsworth and perhaps of his murderer.

Some visitors allege the modern hotel on the site of the old Marshall still holds the ghost of Ellsworth and perhaps of his murderer.

 

 

According to some, it is the Monaco’s sixth floor that is most haunted, which could be a reflection of Ellsworth’s flag taking venture, although the reports are vague on that score. Regardless, the hotel embraces the site’s haunted heritage and in the Fall offers a “Ghosts of Alexandria Family Package” which includes discounted room rate, a stay on the “haunted sixth” plus tickets for the local ghost tour of the town. Not a bad deal and maybe Colonel Ellsworth will put in a personal appearance, but don’t hold your breath.

For more Civil War ghosts see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and for more on General Lee’s Arlington ghosts, plus other famous Southern ghosts, go to Dixie SpiritsDue out this summer will be the long awaited story of Ambrose’s Civil War career with the Army of the Cumberland,  Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Dixie Spirits via Sourcebooks

Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. True accounts of haunted battlefields, CW ghosts and other unexplained phenomena.

Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. True accounts of haunted battlefields, CW ghosts and other unexplained phenomena.

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The Long Road to Secession: Part IV The Nullification Crisis

The US lost the War of 1812 but won the Battle of New Orleans, and so claimed victory.  The battle also assured Andrew Jackson's political career.

The US lost the War of 1812 but won the Battle of New Orleans, and so claimed victory. The battle also assured Andrew Jackson’s political career.

As we have seen previously, beginning with the very foundation of the nation, there have been successive movements to split apart the Union, none of which had anything to do with slavery per se.  In this installment we shall look at one episode which had a direct bearing on the 1860 Secession Crisis, yet which did not directly impinge on the issue of slavery versus abolition.  This was the Nullification Crisis.

After the War of 1812, the country entered a period of renewed national unity, which some historians have labeled as an age of Nationalism.  Although the United States had done poorly in the war, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at New Orleans gave the country the perception that we had actually won it.  To foster American industry, Congress had instituted tariffs to prevent foreign, mainly English, imports.  The Tariff of 1828 was particularly stiff in restricting imports, earning it the sobriquet, “The Tariff of Abominations.”  Many in the South opposed the tariff, but so did many New England merchants.  In South Carolina in particular, opposition to this tariff was very strong.  When Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, many in South Carolina and elsewhere hoped that Jackson would repeal the hated import duties.

John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, was the leading proponent of the Theory of Nullification, which proclaimed the rights of the states as superior to those of the Federal government.  The Nullification Crisis 0f 1832 was a predecessor to the Secession Crisis of 1860

John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, was the leading proponent of the Theory of Nullification, which proclaimed the rights of the states as superior to those of the Federal government. The Nullification Crisis 0f 1832 was a predecessor to the Secession Crisis of 1860

When, after taking office, Jackson did not take immediate action to repeal the tariff, the radicals in South Carolina became even more militant in their opposition.  Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned his office to run for the Senate, where he felt he could more effectively oppose the tariff.  President Jackson did in fact pass a reduced tariff in 1832, which had the support of New England and much of the South, but it was not enough for either John C. Calhoun or the radicals in South Carolina.

Here’s where the situation grew from a simple political dispute into a potential threat to the Union.  John C. Calhoun proposed the Theory of Nullification: that the individual states had the right to overrule any Federal law which that state considered unconstitutional.  In essence, if accepted, nullification meant that no law passed by Congress would be able to be enforced, returning the country to the same chaos which had caused the downfall of the Confederation government.  The separate and individual states were to be the ultimate arbiters of what was and was not constitutional, not the Supreme Court.  Nullification flew in the face of both the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as Article III, which gave the Federal judiciary the right to rule on constitutionality.

A less than flattering portrayal of Calhoun and where his political ambitions would lead.

A less than flattering portrayal of Calhoun and where his political ambitions would lead.

Andrew Jackson, it should be borne in mind, was a slave holder and was not opposed to reducing tariffs to the benefit of the planters and shipping merchants; but he was also a nationalist and felt a sense of betrayal by the actions of his former vice president, who was the main proponent of what was tantamount to an act of rebellion.  Previously, as the controversy was still brewing, at a Democratic Party celebration in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson had famously proclaimed, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.”

South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November, 1832, unilaterally repealing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and the state began to make military preparations to resist the Federal government.  In response, in December of 1832, President Jackson issued the “Proclamation to South Carolina” as his response to the Ordinance of Nullification, which categorically refuted Carolina’s claims.

Another anti-nullification political cartoon, showing the English John Bull waiting to devour a fragmented "Union Pie."

Another anti-nullification political cartoon, showing the English John Bull waiting to devour a fragmented “Union Pie.”

Andrew Jackson was in a high rage at both Calhoun and the radicals in South Carolina; Congress passed the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina to compel it to submit to Federal authority.  Jackson threatened to personally lead an army into the state to enforce his will and hang all the state legislators who had passed the rebellious acts.  But at the same time, Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, which substantially reduced the import duties to a level which even the radicals in South Carolina could live with.

In the end a military solution was averted and South Carolina backed down, although they continued to argue their right to nullify Federal laws.  In retrospect, the Nullification Crisis was very similar to the situation which existed during the Secession Crisis of late 1860 and early 1861; but there were important differences.  As in 1860, it was South Carolina that was the most militant and aggressive in seeking to undermine Federal authority; but unlike 1860, none of the other Southern states sided with Carolina in the crisis, even though there were many in the South who disliked the high tariffs.

A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, comparing the Nullification Crisis to the Secession Crisi and Civil War.

A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, comparing the Nullification Crisis to the Secession Crisi and Civil War.

Moreover, it was not strictly a North versus South issue, as there were many in New England who were equally unhappy about the protectionist tariffs.  On another point, although South Carolina talked of defying the Federal government to enforce its “rights” in truth they were not militarily prepared to do so.  In 1860, contrary to all their talk about being the offended party and of Lincoln’s aggression, South Carolina had in fact been secretly stockpiling arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery, for a decade or more.

The Nullification Crisis was not directly about slavery; it was about free trade versus protectionism.  But in pursing their militant theories of states rights, Calhoun and other Carolinians of his ilk were setting the groundwork for the later Secession Crisis.  Slavery was not the issue at stake in this fight, although it was lurking in the background, to be sure.  The Age of Jackson was considered a period where Nationalism was triumphant over sectionalism; indeed, even the though Jackson was from Tennessee, at this time Tennessee was still considered The West and not The South, a perception which would change after he left office.

An overly optimistic view of how Secession would be "exploded" by the Federal government.  Civil War was averted in 1832, but not in 1860.

An overly optimistic view of how Secession would be “exploded” by the Federal government. Civil War was averted in 1832, but not in 1860.

Following the Jacksonian era, the country would increasingly divide itself over the issue of slave versus free.  But the notion that one or more states had the right to go their own way was not fundamentally tied to the issue of slavery; it was very much tied to whose economic interests were threatened at any given time.  Or, to quote James Carville: “It’s the Economy Stupid.”

In 1860, despite what many Secessionists tried to claim in their ordinances of Secession, and which modern writers have taken out of context, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery, nor did he run on that issue in the presidential election.  Nor could Lincoln have abolished slavery even if he had wanted to on taking office in 1861; President Lincoln was simply too good a lawyer to think so.  Slavery was built into the Constitution and it would take Constitutional amendments to abolish it—which only came about because of the hubris of the Southern States and the “Fire-Breathing” Secessionists in South Carolina and elsewhere, who goaded the South into rebellion and war.

Ambrose Bierce's experiences with the Army of the Cumberland, due out Summer of 2016.

Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with the Army of the Cumberland, due out Summer of 2016.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

For more esoteric and interesting aspects of the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Coming out later this year is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, an in depth look at the Civil War in the western theater and the famous author’s participation in it.

 

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