An odd relic of one of America’s most horrific periods will see the light of day Tuesday for the first time in many years.
The 5-inch-square piece of blue and white cloth will seem rather ordinary to visitors who see it beginning Tuesday at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands. It was cut from an historic flag whose tapestry tells the unhappy story of some of the first deaths of the Civil War.
The museum opens a two-month-long exhibition, “Over Here, Over There: In Times of War, showing items in its collections from veterans — mostly local men and women — from their times served in the military.
The cloth on display at the museum is related to a few tense moments in May 1861 that claimed the lives of two men in a fight over a Confederate flag. Their deaths left each man a martyr to their respective causes early in the Civil War.
The fabric was believed cut from what is known as the Marshall House flag, a huge Confederate banner that was raised above the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, by its owner James Jackson. It was a time when the Union was disintegrating as Southern states began seceding after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.
The 14-foot-by-24-foot flag — with three horizontal stripes and a circle of seven stars — was the first flag designed for the Confederacy, though it was later replaced by the “Dixie” flag, the more familiar symbol of the Southern cause.
It was a center of attention when Union soldiers were sent across the Potomac from Washington D.C. to occupy Alexandria on May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia voted to leave the union, according to the New York Military Museum.
The soldiers were led by Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, who among other things had been a law clerk for Lincoln in Illinois before entering the Army. Angered because the flag could be seen across the river at the White House, Ellsworth decided to climb onto the hotel roof and haul it down.
Angered by his action, Jackson grabbed a shotgun and killed Ellsworth. Moments later, Jackson was shot and killed by Ellsworth’s soldiers.
The body of Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the war, would later lie in state at the White House. It was then taken with the blood-stained flag to his home in Mechanicsville, New York, for burial. News of his death served as a rallying point for recruiting Union soldiers in the early days of the war.
That much is known about the flag and its bloody history, but there’s mostly a mystery about how the museum’s 155-year-old piece found its way 3,000 miles west to the Inland Empire.
According to the museum records, there are no specific details as to who donated it or when. It was unearthed among the hundreds of items donated to the museum over the years when preparations began for the veterans exhibit.
There was some information attached to the cloth in the form of a tag with the heading, “Piece of the First Rebel Flag Captured.”
Christopher S. Morton, assistant curator of the New York Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, said the tag suggests it was Ephraim Daniel Ellsworth, the slain soldier’s father, who cut off at least some of the pieces of the flag for friends and family. The elder Ellsworth later was commissioned a captain by Lincoln and served throughout the war.
“For E.D. to have a piece of the famous Marshall House flag does not seem far-fetched,” Morton said via email. “The flag had been heavily ‘souvenired’ at the time.”
“I do know that fragments are held by the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian), Fort Ward Museum (in Alexandria) and the Lincoln Presidential Library,” he said.
The huge flag itself has been in the possession of military museum since the end of the Civil War. It was briefly on public exhibit in New York in 2011-12, for the 150th anniversary of the incident in Alexandria, but it is not presently on display, Morton said.
The 1861 killings in the hotel in Alexandria over the flag has been largely forgotten. At the time, though, word of Ellsworth’s death was treated in Northern cities as a national tragedy.
“His murder was fearfully and speedily revenged,” wrote the New York Times, the day after the incident in Alexandria. “His memory will be revered, his name respected and long after the rebellion shall have become a matter of history, his death will be regarded as a martyrdom, and his name will be enrolled upon the list of our country’s patriots.”
The San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays at 2024 Orange Tree Lane, just off the 10 Freeway at California Street. Information: 909-798-8608.