Significant piece of Civil War history found in island basement
On May 23, 1861, the state of Virginia seceded from the Union. The following day, President Abraham Lincoln looked across the Potomac River from the White House, where he could see a large Confederate flag hanging, flying above the Marshall House Inn in nearby Alexandria, Va. Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Lincoln’s from the president’s days as a lawyer in Illinois, volunteered to go to Alexandria and take the flag down.
Ellsworth and troops from the 11th New York Infantry Regiment entered Alexandria unopposed, and Ellsworth went to the top of the inn to remove the flag. On his way down with the flag, he was shot and killed by the innkeeper, James W. Jackson. One of Ellsworth’s men, Corporal Francis Brownell, shot Jackson dead on the spot. Ellsworth was the first casualty of the Civil War, Jackson the first casualty of the South.
The surviving soldiers removed a piece of the flag and divided it into smaller pieces which were distributed to members of the 11th back in the nation’s capitol. One of those soldiers was Ira Underhill Travis. And so began a tale that eventually led to Jamestown.
Travis was the great-grandfather of Gale Bay, who has been living in Jamestown since 1994. In 2008, Bay’s mother passed away and Bay took possession of some boxes that have been in her basement ever since. Among the collection was a metal box that had been in the family for many years, and when Bay’s daughter Jill expressed an interest in genealogy, Bay decided to take a closer look at the contents of the box.
In the metal box was an envelope with the handwriting of Bay’s grandfather on it. The writing said, “Letters of Pop Travis, relics in Civil War.” According to Bay, the envelope contained a patch of red material no bigger than a silver dollar, with paper stitched around it in order to keep it flat.
“I had no idea,” Bay said. “It didn’t mean anything. But I thought it was cool.”
Bay then took the piece of fabric to Vermont to show to her sister and her daughter. A neighbor there is a Civil War buff, and he immediately identified the piece of cloth as part of a flag. Bay also had possession of letters that Travis had written home while he was fighting in the Civil War. In one of those letters were the lines, “I sent you a piece of the secession rag that the colonel took down from the Marshall House. Keep it for me as it is a relic of the war.”
Bay’s daughter Jill is a loyal fan of the PBS program “History Detectives,” in which researchers are assigned to learn the truth about possible historic artifacts that people have found among their possessions. In October, Jill wrote to “History Detectives” to see if they would be interested in the story of the flag. In December, Bay received a call from the program’s staff saying that indeed they were. A month later, PBS confirmed that the flag story would be part of an upcoming episode of the long-running series.
“History Detectives” assigned Columbia University professor Gwen Wright to the case. Bay and her family went to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in March, near where Ellsworth is buried – and where the flag he took down is still displayed – to participate in the filming of the segment.
“We started filming at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t finish until 6:30 at night,” Bay laughed. “And I guarantee you it will be about three minutes of Jill and I.”
The finished program will also include a reenactment of Ellsworth’s killing, which was filmed in Alexandria; testimony of the people who conducted tests on the flag piece; and an expert from the Smithsonian.
Bay participated in some of the reenactments. “We were in some stranger’s house. They had me pretend that I was in the basement finding the relic,” she said.
The episode featuring the story of Col. Ellsworth’s flag aired on PBS for the first time this week. The result of Wright’s research revealed – to the extent that it is possible – that the fragment is “very likely” to belong to the famous flag. Bay said a chemical test on the fragment was done, and it was also determined that it matched the weave of the rest of the flag. What really sold the history detectives though was the fact that the letter from Travis also spoke of a piece of oilcloth that he sent home. Following Ellsworth’s killing, soldiers tore up pieces of the flag, including the oilcloth flooring with Ellsworth’s blood on it, to keep as souvenirs. Few people know that part of the story, which added further credibility to Bay’s claim.
When Ellsworth was killed, Lincoln was devastated. He had Ellsworth’s body brought back to the White House where it lay in state before being taken to Mechanicsville, N.Y., for burial. According to Wright, Lincoln was not quite ready to go to war before Ellsworth was killed. The Union Army was not yet prepared, and war was thought to be six to 12 months away. The killing of Col. Ellsworth apparently changed all of that, and his death is considered by many historians to be the true beginning of the Civil War.
Thus far no one from a museum or library has contacted Bay about the flag artifact or the letters. For now the relics will remain with the family.
“History Detectives” featuring Gale Bay should soon be available online at PBS.org.