Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Elmer Ellsworth, born April 11, 1837

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born in Malta, New York.  

He grew up in Mechanicville and later lived in New York City. As a young boy he  always desired to attend West Point, however, his early education was meager and he did not have the opportunity to study for the entrance exam.

In 1854, he moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he worked for a patent agency. 

Elmer became drillmaster of the "Rockford Greys", the local militia company, in 1857. He studied military science in his spare time. He also helped train militia units in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. 

Ellsworth celebrated his 24th birthday the day before Fort Sumter was surrendered and   the Civil War began.  He died six weeks later.

Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861
In Rockford, Ellsworth was a frequent guest in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Spafford.   Spafford was an industrialist and city leader.  One of their daughters, Caroline (Carrie), was a student at the Rockford Female Seminary.

In 1859, Ellsworth became engaged to Carrie Spafford. Her father demanded that Ellsworth  find more suitable employment, so he moved to Chicago to study law and work as a law clerk.  

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.

Ellsworth was appointed a major of the Illinois National Guard, and his unit became the governor's guard. In 1860, Ellsworth and his unit toured all the major cities in the North section of the United States, including Washington, D.C.

In the late winter of 1860, Ellsworth received a letter from General John Cook expressing Mr. Lincoln's interest in having Ellsworth relocate to Springfield. Ellsworth wrote his fiancee, Carrie,  that "Mr. Cook told me that Mr L -especially desired him to leave no means unturned to induce me to come to Springfield."  Ellsworth moved to Springfield, Illinois, to work with Abraham Lincoln; he studied law in the Lincoln-Herndon law office and helped Lincoln with his 1860 campaign for president.  Ellsworth seems to have been primarily employed in giving Republican campaign speeches and became "one of the most popular speakers known to the schoolhouses and barns of Central Illinois," according to John Hay, Lincoln's secretary. The whole Lincoln family adopted him as one of their own.

 Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln to Washington, D.C. in 1861.  "Another 'military' character, a sort of pet of Mr. Lincoln, was Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, who, though a mere youth, of small but broad figure, curly black head, and handsome features, had achieved considerable local notoriety as a captain of a crack "Zouave" militia company in Chicago," wrote journalist Henry Villard in describing the traveling party of President-elect Lincoln in late February 1861.  "There has been no more noted character in Springfield, next to Mr. Lincoln himself than Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, commander of the celebrated corps of the United States Zouave Cadets, of Chicago. He is now studying law with the law partner of Mr Lincoln.  I found the colonel to be very thoroughly posted on military matters and, in my opinion, his love for the military will override his intention to become a lawyer."

Ellsworth planned to marry and settle in Washington, D.C. after completion of his law studies.

On April 15, 1861, 4 days after Ellsworth's 24th birthday, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down rebellion.  At the same, Lincoln wrote a letter to Ellsworth:
"Ever since the beginning of our acquaintance, I have valued you highly as a person[al] friend, and at the same time [without much capacity of judging] have had a very high estimate of your military talent.  Accordingly I have been, and still am anxious for you to have the best position in the military which can be given you, consistently with justice and proper courtesy towards the older officers of the army. I can not incur the risk of doing them injustice, or a discourtesy; but I do say they would personally oblige me, if they could, and would place you in some position, or in some service, satisfactory to yourself."
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.  The President and his son, Tad, attended the swearing in on May 7 of the Zouave Regiment in front of the Capitol.


On May 23rd, Ellworth wrote to his parents:
Head Quarters, First Zouaves,                                                                                                                         Camp Lincoln, Washington, D.C., May 23, 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 just 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 tonight, thinking over the probabilities of tomorrow, 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 Last Letter to his Parents, May 23, 1861
On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia's secession was ratified, a large Confederate flag was flying over the town of Alexandria, Virginia.  

Ellsworth 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 Jackson, was waiting on the third floor landing.  Jackson killed Ellsworth with a shotgun blast to the chest. Inside his coat was Carrie's last letter.
Marshall House, Alexandria, Virginia

"Death of Col. Ellsworth"

Illustration of Brownell shooting Jackson
Corporal Francis Brownell immediately killed Jackson. Behind Brownell was Edward H. House, a reporter for the New York Tribune.  Newspapers dwelt on every lurid detail of the awful death scene—especially the “pool of blood clot, I should think three feet in diameter and an inch and one half deep at the center,” as one correspondent described it. 

By the following evening, public gatherings in New York and other major cities offered grandiloquent testimonials and took up collections for the support of Ellsworth’s parents, left destitute by the death of their only child. 

Harper's Weekly
After the news reached the president, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and a companion—not yet aware of Ellsworth’s death—called at the White House on a matter of urgent business. They found Lincoln standing alone beside a window in the library, looking out toward the Potomac. He seemed unaware of the visitors’ presence until they were standing close behind him. Lincoln turned away from the window and extended his hand. “Excuse me,” he said. “I cannot talk.” Then suddenly, to the men’s astonishment, the president burst into tears. Burying his face in a handkerchief, he walked up and down the room for some moments before at last finding his voice: “I will make no apology, gentlemen,” said the president, “for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”

Describing how Ellsworth died, Mr. Lincoln added: "Poor fellow, it was undoubtedly an act of rashness, but it only shows the heroic spirit that animates our soldiers, from high to low, in this righteous cause of ours." 

Ellsworth had a naturally heroic disposition, noted presidential secretary John G. Nicolay. "I had known and seen him almost daily for more than six months past, and although our intimacy was never in any wise confidential as to personal matters, I had learned to value him very highly. He was very young - only 24 I think - very talented and ambitious, and very poor - a combination of the qualities upon which sadness and misfortune seem ever to prey. He had by constant exertion already made himself famous, and that against obstacles, that would have been insurmountable to any other. Since my acquaintance with him, my position has enabled me to assist him in his plans and aspirations, until I felt almost a direct personal pride and interest in his success." 

The day after Ellsworth's death, the President wrote a note to Ellsworth's parents which began: "In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country, and of bright hopes for one's self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall."  (Lincoln consistently provided employment for Ellsworth's infirm father during the remainder of the Civil War.)

Lincoln was deeply saddened by his friend's death and called Ellsworth "the greatest little man I ever met."  He  ordered an honor guard to bring his friend's body to the White House, where he lay in state in the East Room. his chest heaped with white lilies. On the second morning after his death, long lines of mourners, many in uniform, filed through to pay their respects; so many thronged into the Presidential Mansion that the funeral was delayed for hours. 

In the afternoon of May 25, the cortege finally moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, between rows of American flags bound in swaths of black crape, toward the depot where Ellsworth’s men had disembarked a few weeks earlier. Rank after rank of infantry and cavalry preceded the hearse, which was drawn by four white horses, and followed by Ellsworth’s own riderless mount, and more troops, and then a carriage with the president and members of his cabinet.

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.
Ellsworth Monument in Cemetery
Army recruiting offices were mobbed as they had not been since the first week of the war. At the beginning of May, Lincoln had asked for 42,000 more volunteers to supplement the militiamen called up in April. Within the four weeks after Ellsworth’s death, some five times that number would enlist.  "Remember Ellsworth" was a patriotic slogan.  The 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment called itself the "Ellsworth Avengers", as well as "The People's Ellsworth Regiment."

"Remember Ellsworth"
Ellsworth’s death was different from all those to follow over the next four years: like Atlantic Monthly reporter Nathaniel Hawthorne, most Northern writers referred to it as a “murder” or “assassination,” an act not of war but of individual malice and shocking brutality.

Envelope with Ellsworth Death Scene
Photographs, lithographs and pocket-size biographies paying tribute to the fallen hero poured forth by the tens of thousands. 

Music shops sold scores for such tunes as “Col. Ellsworth’s Funeral March,” “Ellsworth’s Requiem” and “Col. Ellsworth Gallopade.”  Poems, songs, sermons and memorial envelopes lamented his loss. Parents named their babies after him, and streets and towns used his name.  
"Col. Ellsworth's Funeral March"

Ellsworth Memorial Envelope
James Jackson was similarly celebrated in the South. Newspaper and magazine editors rrejoiced, boasting that Ellsworth would be only the first dead Yankee of thousands. “Down with the tyrants!” proclaimed the Richmond Whig. “Let their accursed blood manure our fields.”
Confederate Envelope featuring Ellsworth

Jackson was well known for his beliefs and his fractious nature. He was respected by some as a pugilist – a boxer, six feet tall, muscular, lean and ready for a fight. An acquaintance described him thus: “Grim, stern, obstinate determination was stamped emphatically on every feature.”  The 38-year-old had not enlisted in the Confederate army, instead continuing to run his inn and tavern business in the town.  Jackson mounted a large Confederate flag on top of the building when Virginia formally seceded.  This was not the well-known battle flag; two months earlier the Confederate States Provisional Congress had adopted the First National Flag of the Confederacy, the “Stars and Bars.”
James W. Jackson

Souvenir hunters immediately carried away portions of the stairway to the roof, and the Marshall House became a tourist attraction.  Jackson was hailed as one of the South’s first martyrs, and his body was buried privately in Alexandria for safekeeping.  Later it was moved to a family plot in the Fairfax Confederate Cemetery. In 1862, a book was published, Life of James W. Jackson, The Alexandria Hero.  

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 has most of the flag itself and Ellsworth's uniform, showing the hole from the fatal shot. 
Piece of the Confederate Flag

Ellsworth Coat with Bullet Hole
Confederate Flag taken from Marshall House
A plaque on the site of the Marshall House in Alexandria was placed by descendants of Confederate soldiers.  It reads: “Not in the excitement of battle but coolly and for a great principle he laid down his life, an example to all, in defence of his home and the sacred honor of his state VIRGINIA.”

Rockford. May 25th/62

My dearest friends,

I have been hoping every day to hear from you. Something of your plans. I see by the papers that you are going to Fargrins. I hope you will write me again before you go. and tell me the particulars. I wrote you two weeks ago today- I hope you have received my letter!

Letter from Carrie Spafford 
to Ellsworth's Mother, May 25, 1862

One year ago yesterday since Elmer fell. Oh! what a day was it to us all. I cannot realize that ‘tis only a year. it seems full six. This one year of suffering to us has been one and the first of pure happiness to him, and why should we mourn him. Still the answer comes, we are selfish.

How delightful it would be if we had such perfect confidence in God that we could feel and realize that all was for the best. His memory is just as fresh in my mind as though it were but yesterday that I bade him goodbye at the Astor. Still when I think how much has transpired within that time it seems an age.

Mrs. Lunish often enquires for you both- and wished me to send her love to you.

Mother continues to improve, but is not very strong as yet. Father is well and very busy as usual. They both send love.

I had hoped you would not leave Mechanicsville until I had visited you once more. I may go East the last of the summer and if I do, shall want to go to Mechanicsville. And if you are not too far away will visit you. I have had company ever since I came home from Chicago and am now about tired. There are two young bodies with me now, but they leave this week.

Please write me soon. I am very anxious to hear from you. You dont know how much I think of you or how well I love you. if I dont write often, but when we are settled once again I will do better. I must go now.

Good bye- your aff


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