Colonel Elmer Ellsworth
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

At this point in the sesquicentennial celebration of the American Civil War–mid-1864– historians and buffs are thinking about casualty numbers in the hundreds of thousands, often tens of thousands per battle. Was Union General Ulysses S. Grant a butcher to let so many of his men die? Can his numbers be put into context, or compared statistically with those of Confederate General Robert E. Lee? Words like “meat grinder” and “holocaust” get thrown around, and it is almost a contest to decide which commander spilled the most blood.

But today, May 24, I think about 1861. The number of casualties was still very small–some lost in Baltimore, a few to illness in camp. For the Federal Army around Washington, D. C., the numbers were no more or less than expected, considering the total number of men gathered there. The war was supposed to be a single battle, winner take all, although if one thought about that in any context, it would seem ridiculous.

On April 17, 1861, the Commonwealth of Virginia voted in its state legislature for secession. The bill was then put to her citizens for ratification. An overwhelming “yes!” came down on the 23rd of May, and much of Virginia erupted with celebration.

President Lincoln was very much aware of the situation, and had planned an extensive operation to have Federal troops move across the Potomac River the night of the 23rd-24th, into the small-but-geographically-close city of Alexandria, VA. He planned to put the city under military control, creating a much safer environment for the U. S. capitol.

One of the young, eager colonels who led his men to a transport to cross the river that night was Elmer Ellsworth. He was colonel of the famous (some might say “infamous”) 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, the Fire Zouaves. Ellsworth himself had gone to New York City to recruit these men immediately after Lincoln called for troops. In fact, he had risen from his sickbed in Willard’s Hotel to do so, for Ellsworth had caught the measles from Tad and Willie Lincoln.

Tad in his Zouave finery
Tad in his Zouave finery

Elmer Ellsworth worked for Abraham Lincoln, in Springfield, prior to the presidential election of 1860. Before that, he drilled a group of young Chicago men in the complicated French Zouave drill. He travelled with the newly-named Chicago Zouave Cadets all over the Northeast, hoping to alert towns and cities to the desperate need for a functional militia system. When he returned, he joined Lincoln, John Hay, and George Nicolay at Lincoln’s law office.

All three young men worked to get their boss nominated for, then elected as, President of the United States. All three accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express to Washington in February, 1862. All three helped to ensure that Abraham Lincoln made it to the capitol city ahead of any would-be assassins. And finally, all three prepared to become part of the Lincoln White House–Nicolay and Hay as secretaries, and Ellsworth as a militia expert.

A regular visitor to President Lincoln in his office, Elmer Ellsworth joined in “peering curiously across the river at a large rebel banner that mocked them for a month from the skyline of Alexandria.” This flag especially irritated Lincoln. It was a constant reminder of the seemingly slow pace the administration was taking in dealing with the Confederacy. Ellsworth was particularly sensitive to this symbol and the effect it had on his friend Lincoln.

Elmer Ellsworth often slept at the White House, taking Robert Lincoln’s bed when Robert was away at school. He joined the family for dinner, picnics, and impromptu romps with the young Lincoln boys. When Tad and Willy got the measles, so did Ellsworth. He quickly removed himself to Willard’s and suffered rather dramatically, or so Hay and Nicolay reported.

But as soon as Lincoln made the call for 75,000 troops, just after the firing on Fort Sumter in mid-April, 1861, Ellsworth was ready. He resigned his hard-won army commission, recruited his Fire Zouaves, and returned to Washington. Almost immediately the New York firemen became one of the most famous of the early volunteer units, taking their pledge for three years of service almost immediately.

Ellsworth's red kepi
Ellsworth’s red kepi

On the night of May 23-24, Ellsworth led his men across the Potomac. The Federal Army entered Alexandria quietly, and almost uncontested. Early on the morning of the 24th, Ellsworth detached a small group of men to accompany him to secure the telegraph office. As they approached the intersection of King and South Pitt Streets, the the slightly careworn Marshall House Hotel came into view. Atop this establishment flew the huge flag that had bothered Lincoln so much as he had looked at it through his glass in D. C.

The Marshall House Hotel, ca 1861
The Marshall House Hotel, ca 1861

Ellsworth looked up, then down. He walked a few more steps, thinking it over. Then he did exactly what any 24-year-old man would do–he turned around and went up the steps of the Marshall House. “Let’s get that flag, boys!”

Ellsworth and seven other men entered the hotel and proceeded to climb several short flights of stairs to the flat roof of the Marshall House. Ellsworth cut down the flag, and headed back, bundling the large trophy as he went. On the second story landing, proprietor James Jackson was waiting for him. Jackson was an ardent secessionist, and the flag was personally his. He shot Ellsworth. The strong shotgun blast killed the young colonel instantly but, almost as quickly, one of Ellsworth’s men, Corporal Francis Brownell, shot Jackson.images

Within seconds, both Ellsworth and Jackson were dead. Everyone else was stunned into silence.

Later, after Ellsworth’s body had been ferried back across the Potomac, the Lincolns came to him. Both were grief stricken, and Mrs. Lincoln made arrangements for an embalming, and for Ellsworth to lie in state in the East Room of the White House. The entire northern part of the nation mourned the loss. His funeral train was everywhere met with those who wanted to show their compassionate patriotism. New York City elite welcomed Ellsworth’s parents to their hearts as thousands came to pay their respects to the handsome and joyful symbol of Union manhood, now the first officer to fall for the Union cause.

A winter portrait of Ellsworth's grave
A winter portrait of Ellsworth’s grave

Elmer Ellsworth was laid to rest in Hudson View Cemetery, in Mechanicville, New York. His death became a national rallying point. “Remember Ellsworth,” became the cry of the Fire Zouaves, left leaderless, and the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry were known as “Ellsworths Avengers.”

Ellsworth’s was the first national death. As such, he symbolized all the deaths to come. No one kidded himself or herself about mortality then, but to die a “good” death in the service of duty, and with honor . . . that made it all worthwhile. We now mourn and honor perhaps as many as 750,000 Civil War deaths. But Ellsworth’s blood was the first drop, which quickly became a trickle, and then a torrent. The mourning his death engendered was just about the last time an individual soldier had the attention of the nation. For all of this, and for all that his sacrifice represents, we must remember Ellsworth.

An Ellsworth mourning piece
An Ellsworth mourning piece

Sources consulted:

1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart

First Fallen: the Life of Elmer Ellsworth, an unpublished manuscript by Meg Thompson

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, by Ruth Painter Randall


    1. I have been working on the provenance of the flag for a few years now. It is currently at the New York Military Museum, in Saratogo Springs, or at least what is left of it is. I went there last August, and worked for a day or so with the wonderful historians, including the gentleman who headed the flag’s preservation. It is a remarkable story, with many twists and turns. We found a photo of it at a Sanitary Fair in Chicago, and it was listed as being one of the exhibits. PBS did a story on a part of the flag that was found in a letter.

      Some truth is attached to Mrs. Lincoln having the flag at some point, but further explanations of events seem not to pass muster. Mrs. Brownell, the wife of Corporal Francis Brownell, allegedly sold squares of the flag for money. I can personally attest to the large amount of “square bullet holes” in the flag itself.

      Ellsworth’s body was wrapped in the flag just after he was shot. The flag was removed, and accompanied Ellsworth’s remains on the trip to New York. There are stories of Brownell carrying the flag behind Ellsworth’s coffin, with part of it held on the tip of his bayonet.

      I could go on and on–it is one of my passions, but I highly recommend the link below. If you are like me, it will bring tears to your eyes.

      Meg Thompson

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