Column: Lessons To Be Learned

Column: Lessons To Be Learned


— “We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges those who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1935. Recently much has been written regarding the importance, or lack thereof of Confederate symbols. The Confederate seal, for example, includes an image of a rebellious George Washington on horseback.

Virginia seceded from the union effective May 24, 1861. One week before the final vote President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of State William Seward and New York publisher Thurlow Weed, made “a tour of observation down the Potomac.” The Confederate flag floated over the city of Alexandria, but Lincoln “did not think it would wave there long.”

“If the Union is dissolved for any existing causes, it will be dissolved because slavery is interdicted or not allowed to be introduced into the ceded Territories; because slavery is threatened to be abolished in the District of Columbia, and because fugitive slaves are not returned to their master,” Senator Henry Clay (Whig-KY) said in 1850. “War and the dissolution of the Union are identical and inseparable.”

On May 24, 1861 — the secession vote assured — the Federal army, including Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, steamed across the Potomac River. When the soldiers disembarked, Alexandria became the first southern city occupied. Ellsworth, a former Lincoln law clerk, was killed in a hotel skirmish.

Col. Ellsworth entered the Marshall House (now Hotel Monaco) and tore down a rooftop Confederate flag visible “by spyglass from the White House.” Proprietor James W. Jackson shot the invading Ellsworth “at point-blank range.” Immediately after, Jackson was killed.

A significant event, the Smithsonian collections include a fragment of the Confederate flag, Jackson’s shotgun, and a piece of the Marshall House’s bloody floor. The Marshall House burned in February 1873 and “scarcely a vestige of the place” remained.

The War Between the States, the Civil War ended with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, as argued by black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott (R-SC), was landmark.

“The eradication of slavery throughout a country containing 4,000,000 slaves, estimated by their masters as property worth $1,200,000,000-$1,500,000,000 is difficult,” Robert Dale Owen, chairman of the Union’s American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission wrote in 1864.

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883. A year later Alexandria’s R.E. Lee Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans formed. In 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson — the equal but separate doctrine — became law, and lynching continued without remedy. Virginia segregated its trolley seats, added the poll tax in 1902.

“Hundreds of visitors have journeyed to Alexandria,” The Washington Post reported in 1902, “and the two places that attracted the largest number of strangers were Christ Church, where George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshiped, and the corner where the Marshall House stood.”

On May 24, 1929, four of 11 surviving Confederate veterans placed a plaque on the wall of the rebuilt hotel. It reads: “The Marshall House Within This Building in the Early Morning of May 24, 1861 James Jackson Was Killed by Federal Soldiers While Defending his Property and Personal Rights, as Stated in the Verdict of the Coroner’s Jury. He was the First Martyr to the Cause of Southern Independence. The Justice of History Does Not Permit His Name to Be Forgotten. Not in the Excitement of Battle, But Coolly, and for a Great Principle He Laid Down his Life, an Example to All, in Defense of his Home and The Sacred Soil of His Native State, Virginia.”

“In proportion to population, more Negroes than whites fought in the Civil War,” DuBois concluded. Yet the Negro was not rewarded. He was subordinated a second time, by Jim Crow from 1896 until 1954-1964. White and or black: to whom does the phrase “lost cause” irrevocably refer?

Alexandria’s marketing message — the hometown of George Washington and Robert E. Lee — is a century old. General Washington emerged from war a victor, General Lee the vanquished. In an increasingly diverse country today’s Confederate lesson is not fidelity. It is economic development, poor white and slave; status, legal and social; and conflict resolution postwar. It was, after all, Union General Ulysses S. Grant who got Lee’s treason charges dropped.

“Treason is an event that occasions me equal regret and mortification,” General Washington wrote in 1780. “But traitors are the growth of every country and in a revolution of the present nature …” Confederates believed revolution an inherent right; their war America’s second revolution. Appomattox, Washington and Prince Streets’ Confederate statue, now ponders the meaning of growth.