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The death of the President's friend: Elmer Ellsworth's short Civil War career

Updated on January 23, 2012

On May 23, 1861, Virginia officially seceded from the Union. The next day, President Lincoln sent troops to occupy the city of Alexandria. One unit, commanded by a newly commissioned lieutenant named Elmer Ellsworth, was assigned the task of taking over the telegraph station. On the way, he noticed a Confederate flag waving from the Marshall House Inn and decided to take it down. He entered the hotel and went to the roof with several soldiers. As he came back down stairs, occupied with folding the flag, the hotel's proprietor, James W. Jackson, was waiting for him with a shotgun. His first shot hit Ellsworth, fatally wounding him. His second shot missed a corporal, who shot and killed him. Ellsworth became the first Union officer to die in the Civil War.

Ellsworth's body lay in state at the White House. He had been Lincoln's close personal friend, and the President openly wept at the funeral. After that, thousands viewed his body in New York City before his burial in his childhood home of Mechanicsville, New York. News of Ellsworth's death swept the country and provoked an outpouring of grief and rage, not to mention commemorative pottery, mailing envelopes, poems, sermons, and lots of musical tributes. People named streets, towns, and babies for Ellsworth. Currier and Ives issued a depiction of his last moments. "Remember Ellsworth" became a Northern battle cry. How could the death of a young man seeing his first taste of real military action cause such a widespread and heartfelt reaction? Who was this man?

Death of Ellsworth, by Currier and Ives
Death of Ellsworth, by Currier and Ives

Although barely 24, Ellsworth had lived a fascinating and public life. Like his friend Lincoln, he came out of a childhood just barely above poverty with blazing ambition. He was born in Malta, New York, on April 11, 1837 to Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth. The family relocated to Mechanicsville after Ephraim lost his business during an economic downturn. There he did odd jobs and his wife did mending. When Elmer became old enough, he, too, had to work, selling newspapers and clerking at a local store. The family also took boarders, so they managed to eke out basic necessities and live in a comfortable enough house.

Ephraim's grandfather George had served the in Continental army during the American Revolution and lived long enough to tell war stories, including his role in the American triumph at nearby Saratoga, to young Elmer. Those stories instilled a strong sense of patriotism and a fascination with being a soldier in the child that motivated him for the rest of his life. He read everything about military drills and maneuvers he could get his hands on. He loved to make forts and form brigades of classmates, of which he was always the leader. Short of stature but very athletic, he proved to be an excellent drillmaster.At 15, he founded a group in nearby Stillwater that he called the Black Plumed Riflemen. They amazed townspeople with their dexterity and physical prowess.

He did not have grades good enough to fulfill his dream of attending West Point. At 17, he moved west, apparently believing he had a better chance of achieving fame and fortune there. He settled in Rockford, Illinois, became drillmaster of the Rockford City Greys and fell in love with Caroline Spofford, the daughter of one of Rockford's leading citizens. It is difficult to trace Ellsworth's movements accurately at this time of his life. Most web sites, for example, say that he moved from Mechanicville to Chicago. Several mention Carrie Spofford. Only an article in the Rockford Register Staridentifies her hometown as Rockford and places Ellsworth there.When Ellsworth asked for Caroline's hand in marriage, her father approved only on condition that the young man find a more stable career than soldiering. So he decided to study law with the Springfield firm of Lincoln & Herndon.

Cover for Zouave Cadets Quickstep by A. J. Vaas. Ellsworth is second from the right, with folded arms.
Cover for Zouave Cadets Quickstep by A. J. Vaas. Ellsworth is second from the right, with folded arms.

Ellsworth soon became close not only to Lincoln, but to the entire family. He must have studied diligently and done all tasks assigned to him to Lincoln's entire satisfaction, but his heart was still in military drills. In 1857 (whether in Rockford, Springfield, or Chicago is not clear to me, although all web sources say Chicago), he met Charles de Villiers, a veteran of the French Zouaves that fought in North Africa. They were well known for their intricate drills and fancy uniforms. That conversation gave Ellsworth the idea of forming his own Zouave unit.

Quasi-military units like the Rockford City Greys formed an important aspect of social life for men in cities and towns all across the country. Being more social clubs than real militia, they depended on the continued enthusiasm of members to remain active. The Chicago Cadets came close to dissolving until they invited Ellsworth to be their leader in 1859. He designed new uniforms and new drills based on the ideas and training manuals he had received from de Villiers and renamed the group the United States Zouave Cadets.

Col. Ellsworth, as he was now known, was not content to have restored enthusiasm to a local group. He issued a challenge to other units in a dozen other states that his Zouaves could beat them all in drill contests. He selected 50 of his best men and, beginning July 2, 1860, took them on a six-week tour through 20 cities.His carefully choreographed exhibitions left all competitors in the dust and thrilled the thousand of people who came to watch. He had a band with him, led by A. J. Vaas. The march Vaas composed for the tour became a nationwide best seller for the Chicago music publisher Root & Cady. The tour inspired the immediate creation of a dozen more Zouave units. Ellsworth became a national celebrity, and newspapers called him "the most talked-of man in the country."

Portrait of Ellsworth taken by Matthew Brady
Portrait of Ellsworth taken by Matthew Brady

With the 1860 presidential election in full swing, Lincoln summoned Ellsworth to return to Springfield shortly after the end of the tour. He put Ellsworth to work making campaign speeches across central Illinois. At that time, by Lincoln's description, their friendship grew intimate, and Ellsworth was part of the presidential train ride from Springfield to Washington. He proved indispensible for his ability to manage the crowds of loyalists who thronged the train at every stop.

Ellsworth greatly desired to serve as the President's personal military advisor. Within a week after taking office, Lincoln asked the Secretary of War to appoint Ellsworth, now commissioned as a lieutenant in the army, forspecial duty as Adjutant and Inspector General of Militia for the United States. It turned out impossible to carry out the President's wishes. Instead, Ellsworth went to New York City to recruit a regiment to guard the capital. He focused his attention on local firemen. What was officially named the 11th New York Volunteers became popularly known as the 1st New York Fire Zouaves. He asked for the honor of leading his regiment as part of the forces sent to occupy Alexandria and died soon after arriving there.

First ever commemorative piece by an American potter, dedicated to Ellsworth
First ever commemorative piece by an American potter, dedicated to Ellsworth
Commemorative envelope
Commemorative envelope
Another commemorative envelope
Another commemorative envelope

Lincoln was devastated. When he greeted two visitors to his office shortly after receiving the news, he couldn't speak to them, but unapologetically broke down in tears instead. He wept again, publicly, at the funeral and marched in the funeral parade.

In those days, most people died near their homes and were buried soon afterward. Ellsworth died far from home and lay in state before being sent home for burial. So his body was embalmed, a novel practice at the time. People who saw the body commented on how natural it looked. That may explain why, in the carnage of war, it became standard practice to embalm the bodies of those who had died and ship them home for burial.


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