New Research on Lincoln, Elmer Ellsworth, and the First Federal Militias

Within a week of taking the presidential oath, Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron regarding his young friend, Elmer Ellsworth:

 You will favor me by issuing an order detailing Lieut. Ephraim E Ellsworth, of the First Dragoons, for special duty as Adjutant and Inspector General of Militia for the United States, and in so far as existing laws will admit, charge him with the transaction, under your direction, of all business pertaining to the Militia, to be conducted as a separate bureau, of which Lieut. Ellsworth will be chief, with instructions to take measures for promoting a uniform system of organization, drill, equipment, etc. etc. of the U.S. Militia, and to prepare a system of drill for Light troops, adapted for self-instruction, for distribution to the Militia of the several States. You will please assign him suitable office rooms, furniture etc. and provide him with a clerk and messenger, and furnish him such facilities in the way of printing, stationary, access to public records, etc. as he may desire for the successful prosecution of his duties; and also provide in such manner as may be most convenient and proper, for a monthly payment to Lieut Ellsworth, for this extra duty sufficient to make his pay equal that of a Major of cavalry.[1]

Lincoln had promised Ellsworth that he would do all he could to guarantee that there would be a job in the Federal Army for him, hopefully, one working with the integration of militias into federal service. But–Lincoln, Ellsworth, and company were new to Washington and not completely aware of how things worked. The idea sounded great in Springfield–in the real world of Washington, not so much. There was no promise to “drain the swamp,” but even in 1861 there was already precedent set, and a newcomer like then 23-year-old Elmer Ellsworth, late of a company of stage performing Zouaves, had little more than a slender booted foot upon which to stand.

The Chicago Zouave Cadets

This is about all that is ever said about Ellsworth’s chance at a “majority” by most writers. Ellsworth’s  personal correspondence indicated that there was talk of creating a Department of Militias, and of putting him in charge of it, but nothing came of these efforts. Again, writers do not go into detail. Most indicate that it was Ellsworth’s lack of a West Point connection that removed him from consideration. Some add the comments made by Ellsworth himself in which he said he would clearly decline the position if it meant that it would put Lincoln or anyone else in a bad light:

I related the conversation which had just occurred and told him (Simon Cameron) that I would do nothing to cause ill feeling toward Mr. L. or himself & I would not therefore take the Majority.[2]

I recently had the opportunity to review a book by Blaine Lamb titled The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone: Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer. Poor General Stone is best (worst?) known as being the political scapegoat for the Union debacle at Ball’s Bluff, when orders were confused, information was inaccurate, and experience (and boats) were lacking. Lincoln’s best friend, Senator-Major General Edward Baker, was killed at the battle, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (created in response to the battle at Ball’s Bluff) needed someone other than Baker to blame for the loss. Both General Stone and General McClellan felt Baker had been at fault, but since blaming officers seemed to be the usual result of political investigations, and the President himself was mightily upset over the loss of his friend, the decision was made to place the responsibility upon Stone’s shoulders.[3] So it goes.

Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone

I knew little more than what I have just indicated prior to reading Lamb’s book, but I soon became much more knowledgeable about Charles Stone. And, after a lot of further reading, I now think it was future-Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone that nudged Elmer Ellsworth out of the Washington militia picture. I cannot find any mention that Stone ever met Ellsworth. There was no reason for him to do so. I do know that Charles Stone was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott’s personal choice to coordinate Washington City’s various militia groups in order to keep the mostly secessionist city safe for the arrival of the president-elect and his family.[4]

Lincoln and Buchanan rode in an open landau to the East Portico of the Capitol Building under the eyes of sharpshooters and volunteer cavalry. Flying artillery was placed at the eastern end of the Capital, and a company of sappers and miners from West Point marched in front of the presidential carriage, just in case the rumor that Lincoln was to be blown up during the parade proved to be true. Without a thorough understanding of the city’s military and the support of the political establishment, few of these protections could have been afforded Mr. Lincoln. General Scott and Colonel Stone had just such an understanding and support[5]

Lincoln and Buchanan in the 1860 Inaugural Parade

Scott had several options in the choice of Inspector General of the District of Columbia Militias, but he chose Charles Stone. After dinner with his former lieutenant from the Mexican War, Scott requested Stone to serve in this post, at the rank of colonel, as of January 1, 1861. This made Stone the first volunteer officer mustered into the Union Army.[6] Other officers were farther away from the capital, and Stone had impressed Scott with his loyalty as well as the quality of his work. Additionally, he was comparatively young and vigorous–qualities that Gen. Scott had come to value. Stone was also a Washington resident and had his finger on the pulse of loyalty to the new administration, or lack thereof. He was a West Pointer, an army regular with combat experience in Mexico, and had a reputation as an “able, creative administrator.”[7] Scott’s choice of Stone was fortuitous.

Brigadier General Winfield Scott

Col. Stone quickly utilized informants within the local militias to ferret out those who were choosing to use their militia connections to send guns and other equipment south and to sway the loyalties of other members southward as well. Ultimately, traitors to the Lincoln administration from the National Volunteers and the National Rifles were identified, ordnance was returned, and loyal officers replaced those whose allegiance lay elsewhere. Stone went on to arm and drill the city militia units and helped Gen. Scott prepare a safe inauguration for the new president.[8]

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

Truthfully, young Elmer Ellsworth could never have fulfilled the job he was tentatively offered. He knew nothing about Washington, about the army, or about how to work with people of the stature of General Winfield Scott. It would have been a nightmare for both Ellsworth and Lincoln, and for the nation. The Union was lucky that Charles Stone was available. As soon as I read author Lamb’s information concerning this notable time in Stone’s career, I followed up by learning more about General Scott, and about the city of Washington during this tumultuous, formative time. It became obvious to me that Charles Pomeroy Stone was the person other writers were referring to when they mentioned “someone else” to whom the loosely defined post of “militia commander” had been promised. Stone and Scott kept the capital safe, secure, and on track for Lincoln’s inauguration. They managed the unbelievable influx of Union volunteers that followed the new president’s call for troops after the fall of Fort Sumter. And, somehow, Scott and Stone managed to merge state volunteers, returning federal regulars, and random militia forces into what would eventually become the Union Army. Elmer Ellsworth did just fine by adding his 1,000-plus New York Volunteer firemen to the mix.

History should give credit where it is due–to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott and his able assistant, newly minted Colonel Charles P. Stone. I feel I have gone at least part way toward correcting this omission. To Brig. Gen. Scott and his able assistant, Col. Charles Stone, I say “Huzzah!”

Lincoln’s 1860 Inauguration
  1. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, 485-486 (Letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, March 11, 1861).
  2. Elmer Ellsworth to Mrs. Spafford (March, 1861). Kenosha Civil War Museum / Lake Forest Collection.
  3. Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 2, 252-510.
  4. John S. D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, 352.
  5. Ibid, 353-355.
  6. David J. Eicher and John H. Eicher, Civil War High Commands, 513.
  7. Blaine Lamb, The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone: Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer, 85.
  8. Ibid, 88-90.


7 Responses to New Research on Lincoln, Elmer Ellsworth, and the First Federal Militias

  1. This one was like finding a puzzle piece. It helps with the “What if?” arguments as well. Much as I love my colonel, he played his part, and no one else’s.

  2. Ms. Groeling, this is an excellent essay. Charles Stone deserves more notice from historians for his assuring the loyalties of D.C. militia companies and for his maintaining order during the inauguration. An article in Battles and Leaders, vol 1 was the only mention of the man I had previously found, outside of accounts of the Balls Bluff disaster and his arrest and incarceration. I must try and find Lamb’s biography.

    1. David–Lamb’s book is excellent–I reviewed it earlier. Once I was aware of Charles Stone, I began to see his name in several places: Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, Reveille in Washington, and the Eisenhower biography of General Scott are three. I am consumed by that first year of the war, and the year before as well. The politics, the maneuvering among the cities and states–all fascinating!

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