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, 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.

Ellsworth went to New York City, where he sent out a call for the bravest and the boldest, seeking out firemen in particular. 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 “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.

Now in print is the long awaited story of Ambrose’s Civil War career with the Army of the Cumberland,  Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

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Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more Civil War ghosts see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; for more on General Lee’s Arlington ghosts, plus other famous Southern ghosts, go to Dixie Spirits. For a different perspective on Abraham Lincoln and his beliefs, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.                                                     

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The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, documents the beliefs and paranormal experiences of our Nation’s Sixteenth President.

 

Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. True accounts of haunted battlefields, CW ghosts and other unexplained phenomena.
Authentic accounts of paranormal encounters on battlefields and Civil War sites.  Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. 
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Ambrose Bierce and the Other Flag Debate

Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani
Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani

 

For anyone who followed the recent debates over the display of Confederate flags, they may find it of interest that the Confederate Battle Flag has been a bone of contention before, albeit under different circumstances.

Ambrose Bierce, whom I have spent several years researching and writing about, once weighed in on that previous flag dispute.  At that time, it had little to do with the issue of racism–since whites north and south were all on the same page–racist–but rather with the return of the actual battle flags to the South.  After the war, northern politicians could be assured of getting votes if they “waved the bloody shirt”–reminded voters of the loss of northern lives in the Civil War.  That this was as self-serving political bloviating perhaps goes without saying.  Then, as now, there were any number of “chicken-hawks”–politicians who had not fought in the war but acted as though they had–who raged against returning the battle standards to the Southern states.

Among those who argued for conciliation and return of these symbols–not in praise of their cause–but in honor of the many fellow Americans on the other side who had also suffered and died in the war–was Ambrose Bierce.  It is in this context that Bierce’s poem should be understood:

The Confederate Flags

Tut-tut! give back the flags – how can you care,

You veterans and heroes?

Why should you at a kind intention swear

Like twenty Neros?

Suppose the act was not so overwise –

Suppose it was illegal;

Is’t well on such a question to arise

And punch the Eagle?

Nay, let’s economize his breath to scold

And terrify the alien

Who tackles him, as Hercules of old

The bird Stymphalian.

Among the rebels when we made a breach

Was it to get the banners?

That was but incidental – ’twas to teach

Them better manners.

They know the lessons well enough to-day;

Now, let us try to show them

That we’re not only stronger far than they,

(How we did mow them!)

But more magnanimous. My lads, ’tis plain

‘Twas an uncommon riot;

The warlike tribes of Europe fight for gain;

We fought for quiet.

If we were victors, then we all must live

With the same flag above us;

‘Twas all in vain unless we now forgive

And make them love us.

Let kings keep trophies to display above

Their doors like any savage;

The freeman’s trophy is the foeman’s love,

Despite war’s ravage.

‘Make treason odious?’ My friends, you’ll find

You can’t, in right and reason,

While ‘Washington’ and ‘treason’ are combined –

‘Hugo’ and ‘treason.’

All human governments must take the chance

And hazard of sedition.

O wretch! to pledge your manhood in advance

To blind submission.

It may be wrong, it may be right, to rise

In warlike insurrection:

The loyalty that fools so dearly prize

May mean subjection.

Be loyal to your country, yes – but how

If tyrants hold dominion?

The South believed they did; can’t you allow

For that opinion?

He who will never rise though rulers plot,

His liberties despising –

He is he manlier than the sans-culottes

Who’s always rising?

Give back the foolish flags whose bearers fell,

Too valiant to forsake them.

Is it presumptuous, this counsel? Well,

I helped to take them.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce, famous author, noted cynic and war hero.  His portrayal of war was based on personal experience and his realistic style of writing heavily influenced twentieth century writers.

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Symbol and the Reality

Friends, Politically Correct Partisans, Lend Me your Ears!  I come to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest, not to praise him (sort of).

General Nathan Bedford Forrest:

Enough of the bad Shakespeare imitation. I normally do not mix current political discussions with history, but it seems we cannot talk about the events of over 150 years ago without inevitably being dragged into debates about the present.

The current mess began with the brutal and senseless murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina and ensuing controversy regarding the Confederate flag—or more properly, the Confederate battle standard.  While I personally feel that it is improper to wave that symbol of rebellion over any state building or government grounds other than historic sites, and that its removal from the South Carolina state capitol was long overdue, the subsequent politically correct jihad against the Rebel flag and banning it from all public venues—including the Dukes of Hazard car and Walmart—not only borders on the hysterical, but entirely misses the  point. And since then, the PC frenzy has morphed into vigilantism and vandalism, not only towards historic statues of Confederate leaders, but has expanded to war memorials to American dead and the vandalizing of graves on private property.

 Racism and rampant gun violence are the real problems, not the Confederate battle standard, which was not even the national flag of the Confederacy.  Banning the Rebel flag does nothing to fight racism, still less to control the ability of mentally unstable persons and criminals to have unfettered access to high-powered automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  The American public has, in my view, been hoodwinked by a neat little bait and switch ploy on the part of politicians unwilling to deal with the real issues.

To be sure, the Rebel battle standard has been used by hate groups as a symbol in the past and still is, but then so too has the Christian cross; so are we also going to ban the use of the cross in any public display?  Some Jews may regard the Crescent and Star as a hate symbol; some Arabs may likewise view the Star of David in a similar vein; but neither is inherently a symbol of hatred or bigotry.  While I wouldn’t feel comfortable displaying the Confederate battle flag on my person or property, I recognize that there are many folks who may display it as a symbol of either regional pride, Southern heritage or just plain as a symbol that they’re a redneck good ol’ boy who likes to drink Jack Daniels and go yee-haw! at music concerts.

The same symbol can mean different things to different people, especially so the Rebel flag.  By all means let us deal with racism; and there are many, many things that can be done to regulate and control guns while still respecting the letter and spirit of the Second Amendment that would save many lives, all without adversely affecting responsible hunters, sportsmen and collectors.

Also caught up in this growing tidal wave of political correctness (really the shuck and jive avoidance of dealing with the real issues) is the issue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, or more precisely, his likeness in the Tennessee State Capital and in Memphis.  Swept up in their fervor for erasing history, local Democrat and Republican politicians and various pundits among the general public have called for its removal from the august halls of the state capitol.  In Memphis, arguably the poorest city IN THE COUNTRY, demagogues have inflamed public opinion with misinformation and half-truths and are diverting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to pursue illegal actions–money sorely needed for education and fighting poverty and drug use.

Please note: no one is calling for the repeal of the drunks-with-guns-in-bars law the state legislators passed, or the guns in playgrounds law, or the take your gun to work law, much less rolling back the patently discriminatory voter ID laws Tennessee and other states have passed to make it as difficult as possible to vote.  Nope: just remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from Capitol Hill and illegally remove a historic monument in a public park and vandalize Forrest’s grave.

In truth, General Forrest has always been something of a controversial figure, even during his lifetime.  He never quite made it into the pantheon of the Lost Cause; he was not a Virginia Swan, he did not graduate from West Point and, while Forrest was an officer, he was sometimes less than a gentleman.  It is true that before the Civil War he had been a slave trader, an odious occupation even in the South–and one which his wife had strong objections to.

Starting as a common soldier, his native genius for war led to his rapid promotion;  in battle after battle, he was “fustest with the mostest” (as he is often misquoted as saying) defeating the Yankees on numerous occasions. His record of success in battle speaks for itself; as a great captain of war, he is due recognition on that count alone.

 

NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST SURROUNDS THE YANKEE CAVALRY SINGLE HANDEDLY
Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounds the Yankee cavalry single-handedly. He allegedly killed 30 Federals personally and lost 31 horses in battle, and came out of the war “a horse ahead.”

 

One incident which seems to belie the claim that Forrest was a virulent racist was towards the beginning of the war, when he made an interesting offer to the Blacks in his service:

“When I entered the army I took 47 negroes into the army with me, and 45 of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: ‘This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip the fight, and you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free. In either case you will be free. Those boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.'” (statement before the 40th US Congress, 3rd Session)

His war career did have one black mark, however; at Fort Pillow he was accused of conducting a massacre of Black Union soldiers.  That a massacre of surrendering soldiers did occur there is generally accepted by historians; how many were shot after surrendering versus armed soldiers fleeing to the river and the safety of Union gunboats, however, remains hotly disputed.  Forrest always denied giving any explicit orders in regard shooting unarmed prisoners and maintained that the Union prisoners, black and white, were treated humanely.  After the war he testified before Congress on that score and pointed out that the terms of surrender he offered the Union garrison at Fort Pillow was more generous than Grant’s terms to Lee at Appomattox.

At the end of the war, in his farewell address to his troops Forrest told them:

“I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”

In the chaos of the postwar era, the Ku Klux Klan came into being.  Begun in Pulaski, Tennessee, initially as a fraternal group by half a dozen bored Confederate veterans, it soon morphed into a vigilante organization and, after a time, General Forrest was asked to head the “secret empire.”  Before Congress Forrest denied membership, however he was being disengenous in that regard.  Nonetheless, as acts of violence and vigilantism attributed to Klan members grew, Forrest became disturbed at the way the organization was developing.  In 1869, he publicly called for the Klan’s disbandment because of its use of violence.

Today, General Forrest has become a symbol of racism and violence divorced from the historical record; the facts regarding his life and times seem to matter little to those who use him as a symbol of our current national problems.  The historical reality, however, was far more nuanced.  If he did possess strong racial feelings before or during the war–and that is far from certain–it is clear that in the postwar era he underwent a sincere change of heart.  At one point he was credited with single-handedly preventing a white race riot.  Then, in 1875, he was asked to speak before a meeting of Black Southerners seeking racial reconciliation and agreed.  His said, in part, this:

“We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

This doesn’t much sound like the rantings of a rabid racist, does it?  There is another bust of another former Confederate soldier in the state legislature as well, maybe they should remove his statue as well: Sampson Keeble, placed there in 2010.  By the way, Keeble was born a slave and in 1873 became the first Black elected to the Tennessee state legislature.

Oh, yes, and then there is the little matter of Andrew Jackson and the Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears.  His equestrian statue is very prominent on Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville; how about removing him too while we’re at it?

Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly no saint: he was quick to anger and ferocious in the heat of battle; he may have been guilty of committing wrongs during the war.  But Forrest was also a man capable of growth and change and, all in all, a better man than those who would turn him into an icon of hate and bigotry give him credit.

There are many more things one could say pro and con regarding N.B, but this essay has already rambled on too long. Let me inflict a little more Shakespeare on you in closing:

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

For more about the war in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s most famous authors.