Symposium Spotlight: Elmer Ellsworth

This week’s Symposium Spotlight previews Meg Groeling’s presentation on Elmer Ellsworth. Find out how he is regarded as a fallen leader at the Seventh Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium this August 7-9, 2020.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, in uniform

Prior to his becoming the first conspicuous casualty of the Civil War, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth led a short but interesting life. During his 24 years, he was a lawyer, a colonel, and a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, whom he met in Springfield, Illinois after moving there to work in Lincoln’s office and who he followed to Washington.

With an interest in military science that began well before the start of the Civil War – he would have gone to the U.S. Military Academy if he could have afforded it – Ellsworth responded enthusiastically to Lincoln’s 1861 call for troops by raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops.

Ironically, perhaps, for all of his drills and militia training, Ellsworth’s death came not in a battle, but instead inside the long-demolished Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. The building’s owner had a raised a large Confederate flag from its roof, which was visible from the White House. Offering to retrieve the flag for the president, Ellsworth led his 11th New York across the Potomac River and into Alexandria. Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest.

Lincoln had the body of Ellsworth, whom he called “the greatest little man I ever met,” laid in state at the White House before it was taken to his home state of New York for burial. His memory lived on throughout the war as “Remember Ellsworth” became a rallying cry for supporters of the Union, regiments were named in his honor and artifacts related to his death became popular souvenirs.

Elmer Ellsworth Quick Facts

First notable Union casualty of the Civil War

Malta, NY

April 11, 1837

Alexandria, VA

May 24, 1861

Mechanicsville, NY

Hudson View Cemetery

You can find out more information about the 2020 Emerging Civil War Symposium by clicking here.

4 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Elmer Ellsworth

  1. Meg, there is a bit more to the Ellsworth story that you might find interesting…..

    To the south of Chesapeake, VA on route Bus VA-168, just a few miles north of the NC line there is a sign for “Jackson Greys Confederate Monument”. Wondering who Jackson Grey might be, I called on my friend “Google”. In June of 1861, just a few weeks after Virginia’s succession, a group of men gathered at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Hickory, VA to form what became Company A of the 61st Virginia Regiment, camping overnight on the church grounds. Learning of the death of James Jackson, then considered a martyr as the first Confederate death, the newly-formed unit took the name of Jackson Greys. The Greys fought at Hampton Roads, Chancellorsville, Salem, Gettysburg and the Siege of Petersburg, before surrendering at Appomattox. In 1905 an eight-foot granite monument engraved with the names of the 102 men who served was erected on the grounds of the church cemetery where the men camped on that first night. The memorial is still there waiting for visitors.

  2. “With an interest in military science that began well before the start of the Civil War – he would have gone to the U.S. Military Academy if he could have afforded it –” I don’t believe that the USMA charged any tuition to attend. Ellsworth’s problem may have been that he could not get and Congressional sponsors to recommend him for admission.

    1. Malta is part of New York’s Capital District so Ellsworth has been sort of a “pet” of the Capital District Civil War Round Table for many years. Some of our members worked on restoration of his monument in Mechanicville, as well as celebrating his anniversaries.

      I believe that Charles’ comment reflects the facts: Ellsworth grew up in upstate New York but he spent much of his young man’s life in Illinois. Despite his close relationship with Lincoln he didn’t really have any politically prominent personage to put him on the top of their “must advance” list for West Point in either state.

      Compare with Grant who came from an almost equally modest financial background but had a father who knew how to “work the system” to his son’s advantage and got him admitted to the elite military institution..

  3. Before the Civil War, the persons who received a college education were the wealthy, unless they had a generous patron, or could get admitted to either Annapolis or West Point. In his memoirs Grant says that he had no intention of becoming a professional soldier, he just wanted to obtain a degree so that after serving his mandatory term of enlistment, he could teach Mathematics! By the way, it was President Lincoln and the “Radical Republicans” (who were mostly Socialists) who pushed through legislation creating the Land Grant schools where any male citizen could get a free university education. Emphasis in the Land Grant schools was mostly in the “practical arts” such as agriculture–hence the term “Cow Colleges”–versus the private schools whose curriculum in classical education was less useful to the average American in the late nineteenth century.

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