Strew roses o’er his corpse,
Chant, O ye Land, the soldier’s burial hymn
O’er Ellsworth’s bier; and as ye sadly turn,
With falt’ring voice, and eyes with teardrops dim,
Swear ye that Retribution’s torch may burn
In every breast!
Elmer Ellsworth entered the Marshall House with seven men: House, Winser, Dodge, Brownell and three other Zouave corporals. Just beyond the door a sleepy, half-dressed man came to meet the group. Ellsworth demanded to know who put up the flag, but the disheveled man just shook his head, claiming he was only a boarder and had no idea. Colonel Ellsworth then posted one of the corporals to guard the front door. As the group started the climb to the roof of the boarding house, he posted another corporal at the first floor, and the third at the foot of the stairs. The rest of the group–House, Lieutenant Winser, the chaplain, and Corporal Francis Brownell–accompanied Ellsworth up the rest of the stairs to the top floor, which contained two beds. It is not known if they were occupied.
The group approached the ladder to the trap door, which opened on to the rooftop. Revolver in hand, Colonel Ellsworth climbed the short ladder and pushed it open. Lieutenant Winser was right behind him. The flagstaff was to their right, toward the front of the building, and the men approached it quickly. Ellsworth handed Winser the revolver and borrowed Winser’s large Bowie knife to cut the ropes that held the flag aloft. As soon as the halyards parted, the flag was hauled down and fell into Ellsworth’s arms. Ellsworth started back down the trap door, pulling the enormous flag behind him. Winser grabbed it and tried to stuff it down the hatch in front of him as he left the roof after Ellsworth.
The little group started back down the stairs, dragging the flag with them. They descended in this order: Corporal Brownell, rifle in hand; Colonel Ellsworth, eyes on the unwieldy flag he was trying to fold into some semblance of order; Ned House, following Ellsworth, steadying the Colonel with one hand on his shoulder; and Lieutenant Winser, clumsily trying to roll the flag up over his arm. Whether the chaplain went all the way to the attic has never been determined.
After descending twelve steps, Brownell turned the corner at the landing between the third and second stories. A man wearing pants and a nightshirt stepped from the shadows. Ignoring Brownell, he leveled a double-barrel shotgun directly at Colonel Ellsworth, who stood just above Brownell, on the steps. Corporal Brownell tried to turn the shotgun with his bayonet, but the shooter held steady aim and discharged one barrel straight into Ellsworth’s chest. Ellsworth pitched forward instantly, pulling the flag fabric taut as he fell. Ned House wrote, “I think my arm was resting on poor Ellsworth’s shoulder at the moment; at any rate, he seemed to fall almost from my grasp. He was on the second or third step from the landing, and he dropped forward with that heavy, horrible, headlong weight which always comes of sudden death . . .”
As the man twisted to unload the other barrel into Brownell, the corporal successfully knocked the gun aside. The shot was harmlessly discharged into the paneling above the landing. House’s description of events continues:
Simultaneously with this second shot and sounding like an echo of the first, Brownell’s rifle was heard, and the assassin staggered backward. He was hit exactly in the middle of the face and the wound, as I afterward saw it, was the most frightful I ever witnessed. Brownell did not know how fatal his shot had been, and so before the man dropped, he thrust his saber bayonet through and through the body, the force of the blow sending the dead man violently down the upper section of the second flight of stairs, at the foot of which he lay with his face on the floor.
In the precious seconds of silence before the insane reality of what had happened overwhelmed everyone, two men lay dead. Their mingled blood, North and South, soaked into the floorboards and stained the crumpled flag with gore. The gold medallion Ellsworth wore over his heart was driven so deeply into his breast by the shotgun shell that the words Non Nobis, Sed Pro Patria, were forever inscribed there in bruises and in blood.