Invading Virginia’s “Sacred Soil”


A view of Georgetown U. and aqueduct from Virginia soil (1861 LOC - LC-DIG-cwpb-00928)

Civil War Daily Gazette has reported on the Union capture of Alexandria and the death and martyrdom of Elmer Ellsworth. The Union advance brings back memories of Virginia Governor John Letcher’s message on January 7, 1861 that Virginia would not be a corridor for the North to invade the seceded southern states. Four and a half months later Virginia has seceded and the North is moving on Virginia itself.

On May 26, 1861 The New-York Times published a report by its correspondent who accompanied the Union advance on Alexandria. Here’s some excerpts:

OUR WAR CORRESPONDENCE.; The March into Virginia–The Fifth, Twenty-eighth and Sixty-ninth– New-York State Militia–First Night’s Campaigning.


Friday, May 24, 1861

Last night that event so threateningly denounced by Gov. LETCHER took place. The “sacred soil” of Virginia received the imprint of thirteen thousand feet on march to the vindication of the Union.

Visiting the [sixty-ninth] Regiment in their quarters in the Catholic College, on Georgetown Heights. last evening, the scene was strange and impressive in the highest degree. The men had no idea they were about to start for Virginia, but knew that a move in some direction was contemplated, though few of them thought the line of march would be given until the beginning of next week.

Nevertheless, the main halls and corridors of the college presented a bustling and busy scene, the Commissary. Quartermaster and Adjutant superintending the distribution of vast quantities of clothing — red flannel shirts, woolen socks, heavy marching shoes, blankets and general equipments.

Moving through the companies of men led up by their officers to receive these supplies, the dark robed figures of the Holy Fathers of the College presented a striking contrast. Calm, pale, clad in long black robes reaching to the ground, and wearing the peculiar black cap of their order, the ministers of religion formed a stern background to the brilliancy of uniforms, the glitter of arms and the glare of light which made up the scene on entering.

Passing out into the moonlight, we could see, from the brow of the hill on which the college is built, the leafy Heights of Arlington across the river; the long aqueduct, which also serves as a bridge and is guarded at either and by Uncle Sam’s artillerymen; the City of Alexandria in the distance, across the water; and the beautiful tree-crowded islands lying between this point and that city. Before us, the calm of Nature seemed unbroken; not a breath of wind stirring, and the shadow of the smallest branch being reflected in the water.

Turning round, however, the two vast piles of red brick buildings which form the main portion of the College, were all slight with excitement — save in that wing of one of them still occupied by the of y or sixty students who remain, out of the three hundred lately gathered at this seat of learning. More than forty of the elder students, hailing from the South, are now, it is said, lieutenants in the Confederate Army. The peace of the Academy has given place to the clang of arms; and the Holy Fathers have only to fear that the regiment which succeeds the Sixty-ninth may not be to amenable to the mild discipline of religion and persuasion. …

By two o’clock last night everything was in readiness for the road, the men still believing that they were not to start until to-day, and executing every moment to be dismissed and sent to their quarters. At half past two, however, the orders were given to take up the line of march; and by three o’clock this morning the head of the Sixty-Ninth could be seen winding over the narrow pathway on one site of the aqueduct, while the rear guard were still defining through the main gate of their quarters, and stretching in tenuous curves through all the intervening streets. …

Over the aqueduct marched the troops — their shadows, forty feet below, on the calm surface of the Potomac, advancing steadily alone the water in fantastic procession. Suddenly, at the end of the bridge, the line wheeled upon the road for Alexandria — not a bugle sounding, not a drum beating; the deep silence of the trees on each side and overhead being utterly unbroken: every eye straining through the little patches of moonlight shimmering down through the leaves, to catch sight of any lurking foe; and every ear alert for the sharpening that was to announce another officer picked off by some assassin marksman.

Ellsworth's death

Ellsworth's and Jackson's deaths (Currier and Ives LOC - LC-USZC2-2231)

Then out into the broad moonlight, and over long patches of meadow land and grassy uplands — again plunging into the woods and again reappearing in open country. Here and there were beautiful mansions embosomed in trees, their white walls and green verandahs wearing none the less an air of comfort for the heavy dews that were falling; the weariness of the men under the novel weight of their full accoutrements and ammunition; the undulating character of the country, and the very doubtful prospect looming up in the immediate future of a nap or two hours on the wet grass, and then to work at entrenchments with the first daylight. Let the owners of those mansions sleep peacefully in their beds while they may! It is not forever that such acts as the murder of Col. ELLSWORTH, of which we have only this moment heard, can fail to draw down a frightful retribution alike on the just and the unjust.

Arriving at a distance of about four miles from Georgetown, the Fifth and Twenty eighth were posted for camp duty, first breaking down the bridges in advance of them, to prevent a sudden attack by the Secessionists. …

Father Thomas Mooney and Sunday mass

Father Mooney offers Sunday mass for the 69th (1861 LOC - LC-USZC4-7964)

As for the Sixty-ninth, they turned out more than twelve hundred muskets, leaving yet another hundred — the newly-arrived Zouaves — in their late headquarters at the College. This Regiment has grown into great fever in Washington — not a single one of its members ever having become amenable to the police authorities in any way; and its discipline and efficiency having frequently been made the subject of complimentary notice by Gens SCOTT and MANSFIELD. For very much of the good order and moral restraint existing in the ranks, it is doubtless indebted to the ceaseless and zealous exertions of Father THOMAS MOONEY, an admirable specimen-priest of the true high type, who, if he were not chaplain, would certainly be a candidate for Colonel — fate and a sanguine temper giving him equal adaptation to the sword of the spirit and the “regulation sword” — a veritable son of the church-militant. But this again is a degression.

The Fifth and Twenty-eighth being posted in a position which, to describe, must be seen by daylight the Sixty-ninth then wheeled back, four of its companies being stationed on a hill about half way between the aqueduct and the advance, to keep open communication, three companies being detailed under orders of an engineer officer of the United States, to throw up fortifications and entrenchments for a camp, to be occupied by the regiment; and the balance having their post of duty assigned on a narrow trip of land, sloping down from the Aqueduct canal to the shore of that arm of the Potomac which runs up past Georgetown, where they are to keep open and protect a military ferry that has been established between the District of Columbia and Virginia — this ferry having its Virginian terminus exactly at the foot of the road to Alexandria. It is not difficult to conjecture what this means, and the less so as rafts laden with horses and boats carrying field pieces, are already passing over. … H


Elmer Ellsworth

"engaged in the performance of a sacred duty" (Ellsworth LOC - LC-USZ62-62594)

From one of the newspapers published in Seneca County, New York (sometime in 1861):

The following is a copy of the last letter written by the gallant Col. Ellsworth, except one to his affianced bride, written at the same time, just before moving on Alexandria:

Headquarters 1st Zouaves Camp Lincoln,
Washington, D.C. May23, 1861

My Dear Father and Mother:— The regiment is ordered to move across the river tonight. We have no means of knowing what reception we are to meet with. I am inclined to the opinion that our entrance to the city of Alexandria will be hotly contested, as I am informed a large force have arrived there to-day. Should this happen, my dear parents, it may be my lot to be injured in some manner. Whatever may happen, cherish the consolation that I was engaged in the performance of a sacred duty; and to-night, thinking over the probabilities of the morrow and the occurrences of the past, I am perfectly content to accept whatever my fortune may be, confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow, will have some purpose, even in the fate of one like me.

My darling and ever-loved parents, good bye; God bless, protect, and care for you.



Ellsworth’s letter reminds me of a recent article in Disunion about a Hamilton College student who fought and died for the Union. His early letters were marked by the same sense of self-sacrifice for a higher purpose.

We’ve seen quite a bit about New York’s 69th regiment since March.

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