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Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth
Col. Elmer Ellsworth (1861)
Born (1837-04-11)April 11, 1837
Died May 24, 1861(1861-05-24) (aged 24)
Place of birth Malta, New York
Place of death Alexandria, Virginia
Buried at Hudson View Cemetery
Mechanicville, New York
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1861
Rank Colonel
Unit 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars American Civil War

Death of Col. Ellsworth, a Currier and Ives engraving, 1861

Marshall House, Alexandria, Virginia - place where Elmer Ellsworth was shot to death. (photo 1861)

Last letter written by Elmer Ellsworth before he was killed. (1861-05-23)

Ellsworth as he appears in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (April 11, 1837 – May 24, 1861) was a law clerk and soldier, best known as the first conspicuous casualty of the American Civil War.[1]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Ellsworth was born in Malta, New York, grew up in Mechanicville, New York, and lived in New York City. In 1854, he moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he worked for a patent agency. In 1859, he became engaged to Carrie Spafford, the daughter of a local industrialist and city leader. Carrie's father demanded that he find more suitable employment, so he moved to Chicago, to study law and work as a law clerk.

In 1860, Ellsworth went to Springfield, Illinois, to work with Abraham Lincoln. He studied law in Lincoln's office and helped Lincoln with his 1860 campaign for president. Ellsworth was only 5' 6" tall, but Lincoln called Ellsworth "the greatest little man I ever met." He accompanied Lincoln to Washington, D.C. in 1861.

Military career[edit | edit source]

Ellsworth became drillmaster of the "Rockford Greys", the local militia company, in 1857. He studied military science in his spare time. After some success with the Greys, he helped train militia units in Milwaukee and Madison. When he moved to Chicago he became colonel of Chicago's National Guard Cadets.

Ellsworth had studied the Zouave soldiers, French colonial troops in Algeria, and was impressed by their reported fighting quality. He outfitted his men in gaudy Zouave-style uniforms, and modeled their drill and training on the Zouaves. Ellsworth's unit eventually became a nationally famous drill team. The Civil War broke into open warfare in April, and on April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down rebellion. Ellsworth helped recruit these soldiers: he raised the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the "Fire Zouaves") from New York City's volunteer firefighting companies, and returned to Washington as their colonel.

Death[edit | edit source]

Ellsworth died shortly after returning to Washington. On May 24, 1861 (the day after Virginia's secession was ratified by referendum), President Lincoln looked out from the White House across the Potomac River, and saw a large Confederate flag prominently displayed over the town of Alexandria, Virginia.[2] Ellsworth immediately offered to retrieve the flag for Lincoln. He led the 11th New York across the Potomac and into the streets of Alexandria uncontested. He detached some men to take the railroad station, while he led others to secure the telegraph office and get the Confederate flag, which was flying above the Marshall House Inn. Ellsworth and four men went upstairs and cut down the flag. As Ellsworth came downstairs with the flag, the owner, James W. Jackson, killed him with a shotgun blast to the chest. Corporal Francis E. Brownell, of Troy, New York, immediately killed Jackson.[3] Brownell was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions.

Lincoln was deeply saddened by his friend's death and ordered an honor guard to bring his friend's body to the White House, where he lay in state in the East Room.[4][5][6] Ellsworth was then taken to the City Hall in New York City, where thousands of Union supporters came to see the first man to fall for the Union cause. Ellsworth was then buried in his hometown of Mechanicville, in the Hudson View Cemetery.

Thousands of Union supporters rallied around Ellsworth's cause and enlisted. "Remember Ellsworth" was a patriotic slogan: the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment called itself the "Ellsworth Avengers",[4] as well as "The People's Ellsworth Regiment."

Honored as a hero[edit | edit source]

Relics associated with Ellsworth's death became prized souvenirs. The Smithsonian Institution and Bates College's Special Collections Library have pieces of the Confederate flag that Ellsworth had when he was shot—in 1894, Brownell's widow was offering to sell small pieces of the flag for $10 and $15 each. The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has most of the flag itself and Ellsworth's uniform, showing the hole from the fatal shot. The Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria dedicates a section of their museum to Ellsworth, displaying the kepi he wore when he was killed, patriotic envelopes bearing his image, a piece of the Confederate Flag (on which Ellsworth's blood is visible), and the "O" from the Marshall House sign that a soldier took as a souvenir.

In 1862, the newly established county seat of Pierce County, Wisconsin, located in the undeveloped center of the county to settle the controversy between two established cities, was named Ellsworth, Wisconsin in his honor. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia had a major exhibit devoted to Col. Ellsworth. In addition, Ellsworth, Michigan, Ellsworth, Wisconsin, and Fort Ellsworth were named in his honor.

He is a character in the 2012 film Saving Lincoln, in which his death is portrayed.

Selected works[edit | edit source]

  • Ellsworth, Elmer E. (1861). Complete instructions for the recruit in the light infantry drill: as adapted to the use of the rifled musket, and arranged for the United States Zouave cadets. Cornell University Library. p. 76 pages. ISBN 1-4297-1185-X. 

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Hawthorne, Frederick W. ‘’Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments’’, The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, Hanover PA 1988 p. 54 & 55
  2. Martha M. Boltz (May 18, 2011). "Jackson and Ellsworth: Death on both sides of the Civil War". The Washington Times. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/civil-war/2011/may/18/jackson-and-ellsworth-death-both-sides-civil-war/. 
  3. Davis, p. 64.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Goodheart, A., 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 (laying in state, p. 288, Ellsworth Avengers, p. 289).
  5. Fragment of Confederate flag cut down by Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, 1861, Smithsonian Institution web site (accessed July 2013).
  6. Schano, N., Let's Learn from the Past: Col. Elmer Ellsworth", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 2012

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

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