Tuesday, May 24, 2011

150 Years Ago: Alexandria and Contraband

Elmer E. EllsworthImage of Elmer Ellsworth by UW-River Falls Archives via Flickr

On Friday, May 24, 1861, Federal troops made their first invasion of the South as eight regiments crossed the Potomac before dawn and occupied Alexandria, Virginia.  One consequence of the invasion was that the North suffered its first combat fatality of the war.

Elmer Ellsworth, the colonel of the 11th New York Regiment, saw a Confederate flag flying from the roof of the Marshall House hotel.  He climbed up on the roof and cut it down.  As he was coming back down the stairs, he was shot to death by the proprietor of the hotel, James T. Jackson, who was then killed by Private Francis Brownwell, one of Ellsworth's men.  Both sides now had their first martyrs of the war.

Ellsworth had briefly studied law in the office of Abraham Lincoln, then worked on his campaign and accompanied him to Washington for the inauguration.  Ellsworth then traveled to New York City to raise a regiment of volunteers.  He recruited heavily in the city's fire departments, and clothed the regiment in zouave uniforms patterned after French colonial troops in Algeria -- white leggings, red baggy pants, a blue sash, a dark blue vest, a short red cape, a dark blue jacket, and a blue tasseled red fez.

Lincoln openly mourned Ellsworth's death.  His body lay in state in the White House before being returned to upstate New York for burial.  Alexandria would remain in Union hands until the end of the war.

Also on this date, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, three fugitive slaves came into Union General Benjamin Butler's lines.  Their owner, Colonel Charles Mallory, had been using them to erect a battery for Confederate guns and wanted them back.  Butler was obligated to return them because of the fugitive slave law, but he had other ideas.  Property of those in rebellion against the United States could be seized as contraband of war.  These men were property, owned by a man rebelling against the United States.  Could they not be held and used as contrabands?

Butler had introduced a new idea -- and a new word -- to the war.  In the days that followed, more fugitive slaves came into his lines and Butler kept them and used them while the War Department tried to sort out the problem.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron would eventually declare that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and protect the rights of all, including the right to repossess fugitive slaves, but that did not apply "in states wholly or partly under insurrectionary control."  Butler could keep the slaves, but must do no proselytizing to encourage slaves to run away.

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