Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, “Union Martyr”

 

 

Purported to be the first Union officer to die in the Civil War, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, was a close personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln and a symbol of American patriotism, and America's leading drill team officer. He commanded the U.S. Zouave Cadets, a national-champion military drill team from Illinois that was fashioned after French Algerian colonial troops, which toured the country challenging other drill teams and entertaining Americans throughout the states. Ellsworth also developed his own variations of the Zouave drill, adding numerous acrobatic exercises with rifle and bayonet.

Elmer Ellsworth was born on April 11, 1837 in Malta a small town in upstate New York and was raised in nearby Mechanicville, New York. His grandfather had served in the American Revolution at the battle of Saratoga and his influence and the nearness of the Saratoga Battlefield is said to have influenced young Ellsworth by developing in him an avid interest in military affairs. Although he expressed a wish to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, the educational opportunities of his home town were limited and his father had not the means to further his education. Not qualified to take the entrance exam he subsequently left home first to Troy, New York, then for New York City, and then to Chicago where he worked as a solicitor of patents and then a law clerk in the offices of Mr. J.E. Cone. Barely able to make ends meet he made the acquaintance of Dr. Charles A. Devilliers a fencing instructor and a former member of a French Zouave regiment that had served in the Crimea. Devilliers was to have a strong influence on Ellsworth reviving his interest in military affairs and of an interest in the Zouaves. Under Devilliers tutelage, he became an expert fencer and a master of drill.

His expertise in these areas preceded him and he was subsequently engaged to drill the Rockford Greys, a militia unit, in Rockford, Illinois. Being successful there, he was then engaged to drill other units. In 1859, he was elected the commandant of the United States Zouave Cadets of Chicago. After only two short months of drill, his Cadets received several awards and numerous accolades. His company's cadets became a highly trained and skilled unit. Their unusual dress consisting of baggy pants, short jackets, fezzes and gaiters, modeled after the Zouaves units of the French Colonial troops, along with their intricate drills soon gained attention for them throughout the Midwest. There fame growing Ellsworth and his Zouaves in 1860, toured all the major cities in the North section of the United States, including Washington, D.C.

In August of 1860, Ellsworth resigned his commission to travel to Springfield, Illinois where he worked in the law offices of Abraham Lincoln. Becoming a dear friend of Lincoln's, he stayed with him and assisted him in his campaign for President. Upon Lincoln’s election, he continued to work for Lincoln and traveled with the President-elect to his inauguration in Washington in the early months of 1861. Incapacitated by the measles on his arrival in Washington, D.C., he shook off his illness upon the news of the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 11, 1861; it was Ellsworth’s twenty-fourth birthday.

Traveling to New York, he resolved to raise a regiment. Able to raise a regiment amongst the fireman of New York City he quickly returned with his new regiment the 11th New York, also known as the Fire Zouaves, to Washington where they were mustered into Federal service on May 7, 1861, with Ellsworth as their Colonel.

The day after Virginia officially seceded from the Union, federal troops were ordered to cross the Potomac River across from Washington and seize and control Alexandria. Anxious to serve his country, Ellsworth persuaded his superiors to give the assignment of seizing the city to him and his “Fire Zouaves.”

Leaving at dawn, Ellsworth and his troops crossed by steamer and landed at a wharf in Alexandria. Meeting no resistance, Ellsworth ordered a company of his Zouaves to take and hold the railroad station, while he and a small group headed to the seize and hold the city’s telegraph office.

On the way to the telegraph office, Ellsworth and his men came upon an inn, on King Street. Observing that the inn, know Marshall House, was flying a large Confederate flag, he determined that it be immediately taken down. After posting several of his men on the first floor of the inn, Ellsworth and four of his men went upstairs. Ellsworth cut down the flag and began to descend the stairs. Directly in front of Colonel was Corporal Francis E. Brownell, and behind him was Edward H. House, a reporter for the New York Tribune. As they reached the landing on the third floor, the innkeeper, James W. Jackson, appeared with a double-barrel shotgun. As Jackson raised his weapon to fire, Corporal Brownell batted the barrel of Jackson's shotgun aside with the barrel of his rifle. At the same time, Jackson fired, hitting Ellsworth in the chest killing him instantly. Jackson then again fired a second shot, barely missing Brownell. At the same time as Jackson's second shot, Brownell fired, striking Jackson in face. As Jackson fell, Brownell bayoneted his body, sending it falling down the stairs. Ellsworth lay dead on top of the bloody Confederate flag. It was May 24, 1861.

The death of the young Zouave Colonel Ellsworth plummeted the North into a state of mourning. Flags throughout the North were lowered to half-mast and bells tolled throughout towns and villages. Upon hearing of his young friend’s death, President Lincoln was heartbroken. On May 25, 1861, at the President’s direction, an honor guard brought Ellsworth's body to the White House, where he lay in state, followed by a funeral ceremony. Colonel Ellsworth's casket was then transported to City Hall in New York City, where thousands filed past his remains. His casket was subsequently removed to his hometown of Mechanicsville, New York, where he was buried in a grave at the Hudson View Cemetery.

Colonel Ellsworth’s death resulted in a surge of recruitment throughout the North and he rose to almost cult-like status in the eyes of the Union. Poems, songs, sermons and memorial envelopes lamented his loss, street and towns and even babies were given his name. In New York, the Ellsworth Association was formed whose aim was to raise a regiment of men of a given age and size from every ward and town of the state. Although the plan was not totally adhered to the 44th New York Infantry Regiment, known as Ellsworth’s Avengers was mustered into federal service on September 24, 1861.

Sources:

Ingraham, Charles A., Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, First Hero of the Civil War, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 1,#4, June 1918.

Marck, John T., Colonel Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth, http://www.aboutfamouspeople.com/article1011.html accessed online July 20, 2010.

Wikipedia, Elmer E. Ellsworth, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_E._Ellsworth accessed online July 20, 2010.