Victors do not always write history. Sometimes the vanquished have their say. Such is the case at the corner of Pitt and King streets, where an old plaque beacons passersby with a headline boasting "The Marshall House."
Those who stay to read the rest of the plaque experience a strong dose of Confederate patriotism honoring James William Jackson, a man whom the plaque boldly tells us "the justice of history does not permit his name to be forgotten."
Clearly his name has not been forgotten.
People are still taking about James W. Jackson. He is considered by some to be "the first martyr in the cause of Southern Independence," which was the subtitle to an 1862 biography published in Richmond the year after his death. Never mind that the others consider Jackson to be a cold-blooded killer responsible for the murder of Col. Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth — at least for now — until we learn from the unvanquished plaque author that Jackson is "an example to all" who "laid down his life … in defense of his home and the sacred soil of his native state: Virginia."
"The plaque has a very Southern point of view in terms of protecting hearth and home," said City Historian Michael Miller. "The concept of property rights was deeply ingrained in the Southern mentality."
<b>THE PLAQUE AT</b> the corner of Pitt and King streets is a curiosity for people who are unfamiliar with the events that took place on May 24, 1861. On first reading, many plaque readers are left with more questions than answers. Why was Jackson defending his home? What’s this business about the "sacred soil of his native state?" Now that the 400 block of King Street has emerged from the scaffolding of a yearlong reconstruction effort, the questions have only proliferated.
"It definitely seems a little one sided," said Nick Gregory, manager of the Hotel Monaco, who is frequently asked about the plaque. "People have very strong views about the plaque."
Since the old Holiday Inn was constructed in 1972, the plaque has been laying a Confederate spin on anyone who took the time to read its contents. Those who ventured into the lobby discovered a framed portrait of Jackson hanging above an 19th century photo of the Marshall House. When Kimpton Hotels bought the property and announced plans to open a Hotel Monaco, those two items were inherited along with pro-Confederate plaque. Now that the hotel has opened for business and is fully operational, Gregory said that many questions about how to interpret the history of his famous block have yet to be answered.
"It has to be done in a tasteful way," he said. "And I still haven’t figured out how to do that."
<b>INTERPRETING THE 400</b> block of King Street is a difficult task, one that was of immediate concern in the wake of the urban renewal efforts that demolished three historic blocks of King Street during the 1960s and 1970s. Shortly after the Holiday Inn opened in 1972, the Alexandria Archeology Commission installed an exhibit of abandoned household items found in the privy of former Alexandria Gazette editor Samuel Snowden. His house at 105 South Royal Street was razed to construct the massive hotel, which a Board of Architectural Review report noted was designed to resemble the 18th century warehouses flanking Faneuil Hall Marketplace. There in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, next to the portrait of Jackson and the photograph of the Marshall House, was a Chippendale-style cabinet containing pieces of Snowden’s press, a clay pipe, a bone tooth brush, a silver spoon and several wine glasses.
"Once you take these things out of the ground, nobody knows it’s a historic place," said City Archaeologist Pam Cressey. "That’s why we always try to display archeological items where they were found."
For more than 30 years, the Snowden archeological display and the Marshall House items have offered a point of reference to understand the historic significance of the buildings that once stood on the plot of land now occupied by the Hotel Monaco. Countless visitors examined the nonchalant gaze of the Jackson portrait and wondered about that block of wood with a large "U" that was once used to publish front-page advertisements for help finding lost slaves. When the Holiday Inn closed its doors last year, the Snowden exhibit was carefully packed up and returned to the Alexandria Archeology Museum at the Torpedo Factory.
"The items on display at the Holiday Inn were only a small fraction of the items that were recovered from Snowden’s privy," said Barbara Magid, curator at the Archeology Museum. "The collection includes 14 pieces of lead type and several wooden spacers that were used during the printing process."
<b>INTERPRETING THE LIVES</b> of Samuel Snowden and James W. Jackson is a goal for the Hotel Monaco, and Kimpton officials are trying to find the right place to display artwork and artifacts. The hotel’s manager suspects he may have found the best possible space — an anteroom just off the lobby outside one of the conference rooms in the back of the ground level. Meanwhile, subtle traces of history can be found throughout the building. Each room has six framed prints of Union officers, standing perpetual guard against the Confederate plaque outside. And the restaurant was named "Jackson 20 New American Tavern," although a bust at the bar indicates the title is eponymous to President Andrew Jackson and not James W. Jackson.
"The history of this block is one of the reasons Kimpton was interested in purchasing the property," said Dan Underwood, manager of the restaurant. "It’s why we’re here."
Under the direction of Chef Jeff Armstrong, Jackson 20’s kitchen emphasizes ingredients sourced from local farmers and meals that highlight Southern influences. The design fuses antique colonial style with sleek modern elements, updating the tavern look for the 21st century. Several 18th-century-style mirrors line a wall where a playful wallpaper print echoes a variety of period mirrors as a monochromatic print continues across the fabric stretched across a banquette lining the wall — bridging the distant past with a refreshing postmodern sensibility. Antique books line shelves along the bar area, lending a cozy familiarity to the space. Menu highlights include pork tenderloin with braised collard greens, barbeque chicken fritter with sorghum and chipotle sauce.
"Everybody loves the pig," said Underwood, motioning toward a steel porcine sculpture near the front door that greets visitors. "The design of the restaurant puts history in a fashionable way."
<b>SAMUEL SNOWDEN WAS</B> born in 1776 near Piscataway, N.J. Little is known of his life before he came to Alexandria in 1800, but soon after his arrival in the city he married Nancy Longden. Her family was one of the most prominent in town, and his marriage into it March 3, 1800 helped establish him within the framework of city life at that time. Her father was John Longden, the last living member of Light Horse Harry Lee’s Legion — son to Thomas Longden, who was a volunteer in British Gen. Edward Braddock’s army. The Longden’s status and wealth served Snowden well, and the editor moved into the Longden house at 105 South Royal Street — where a backyard privy collected household items now in the possession of the city’s Archeology Museum.
Snowden was a Federalist, and he used his newspaper to advocate for manufactories, a protective tariff and an assumption of state debts. He favored a strong national government, a broad interpretation of the Constitution and a financial policy that was based on industrialization, commerce and urbanization. Snowden was not a supporter of Thomas Jefferson, so when the General Assembly voted in 1806 to praise the "wisdom, virtue and firmness of the President of the Untied States," Snowden editorialized that the measure was "foolish and absurd." He later opposed President James Madison’s ill-fated war against the British and excoriated Napoleon as the "Scourge of Europe."
"The Gazette was established in this place by the father of the present editor in 1800," wrote Edgar Snowden on Jan. 2, 1871. "It is, therefore, one of the oldest newspapers in the United States. To have survived all the changes and chances of seventy years is not often to be recorded of any public journal in this country."
<B>JAMES W. JACKSON WAS</B> a hotheaded native of Kentucky who led a brief and violent life before arriving in Alexandria shortly before the war began. An anonymously written biography of Jackson was issued in 1862 by Richmond-based West and Johnson publishers — part of a wartime literary effort in which more than 7,000 patriotic volumes were written to create a national identity. The anonymous author of the Jackson biography clearly knew the tavern keeper personally, and the slim limited-edition volume documents the life of "the obscure and humble keeper."
"Whenever, in moments of passion or irritation, he injured a friend or attacked without provocation, he was always most prompt to acknowledge his fault, as soon as an opportunity offered," the contemporaneous biography states. "He instituted a series of ‘hops’ at his house, and whenever he encountered a good musician, he would call an impromptu ‘ball’ and afford the young people of the village an opportunity of enjoying themselves together."
When the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for president in 1860, Jackson became a rabid secessionist and Marshall House became the center of Alexandria’s Confederate movement. As Virginia legislators convened in Richmond to consider seceding from the United States of America, Jackson hoisted a 13 foot-by-18-foot Confederate flag on a 30-foot pole over the Marshall House and publicly dared the invading army to try and remove it. He greeted the news of Virginia’s secession by a rollicking party at the tavern, which was followed by a pre-dawn raid by Union Col. Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth — leader of a group of firefighters-turned-soldiers known as the "Fire Zouaves" from New York. Ellsworth landed at the foot of Cameron Street, then seized the city’s telegraph officer before spotting the giant Confederate flag flying over the Marshall House.
"Boys, that flag must come down," the colonel reportedly said.
Ellsworth entered the Marshall House with a handful of Fire Zouaves, climbed to the roof of the building, pulled down the flag, cut its halyards and began making his way back to King Street. But when he reached the half landing between the second and third floors, Ellsworth was confronted by a shotgun-wielding Jackson, who emptied the gun’s contents into the colonel’s heart. Ellsworth’s lieutenant, Private Francis Brownell, returned fire and shot Jackson in the head. Within a matter of minutes, the war took its first two casualties at the corner of Pitt and King.
"News of the deaths spread like wildfire," wrote author Jeremy Harvey in the 2003 book "Occupied City." "North and South now had the first martyrs for their causes."
<B>THE DRAMATIC STORY </B>of the May 24, 1861 double shooting was well known to many generations of Americans, who chose their folk hero according to which side of the struggle they identified with. A group known as the "Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers" obviously sided with Jackson — and installed the undated plaque to mark the spot where their hero was killed "in defense of his home and the sacred soil of his native state." When the old 1785 building where these events transpired was demolished in the late 1940s, the language of the plaque was changed from "in this house" to "upon this site." When the Holiday Inn was built in 1972 the marker was moved again to its current location.
But the plaque clearly lacks balance.
No mention is made of Ellsworth, a personal friend of Lincoln, who ordered the colonel’s funeral to take place in the East Room of the White House. The plaque also makes no mention of Brownell, the private who was later issued the Congressional Medal of Honor for killing Jackson. Now that the Hotel Monaco has revived the 400 block of King Street, some people are beginning to ask new questions about the plaque and its one-sided view of history.
"I think of all the tourists to our wonderful city who will read this marker and go home with lies in their minds," wrote John Branchi in a Jan. 30 letter to City Councilman Rob Krupicka. "Is this what we want? To honor the Confederate flag and the murder of our brave military personnel?"
Krupicka said he agrees with the letter writer and the Hotel Monaco’s management that the plaque tells a narrow and one-sided version of the story. As a response, Krupicka said, Kimpon could consider adding a new plaque that gave some context by telling the rest of the story. A new plaque on the outside of the building could join an interpretive display near the lobby in an effort to explain the complicated history of block where the Hotel Monaco now stands.
"There is an opportunity for the current owner to provide some additional historic context here," said Krupicka. "They will have to determine the approach that makes sense for them. I am sure the community will also have ideas as to what should or could be done."