On May 24, 1861, realities of loss and war hit the Lincoln White House. Twenty-four year old Colonel Elmer Ellsworth became the first Union officer to die in the Civil War. The incident happened as Federal forces took possession of Alexandria, Virginia, and the young officer impulsively rushed into the Marshall House, eager to remove the large Confederate flag that flew from the top of the building visible across the river in Washington City. As Ellsworth came back down from the rooftop with the captured flag, he was shot by the inn’s owner, William Jackson, and died instantaneously. Jackson was bayonetted a moment later by one of Ellsworth’s soldiers.
The death shocked the North and inspired new levels of patriotism. For the Lincoln family, they had lost a personal friend who had been with them through the 1860 election, arrival in Washington, inauguration, and other challenging events. President Lincoln penned a personal letter to Ellsworth parents, which is included later in this post.
Many ECW readers are probably familiar with the more intricate details of Ellsworth’s life and death, thanks to the research and writing of Meg Groeling. She rarely misses a chance to share about her Civil War hero and usually posts an anniversary piece on May 24. However, this year Meg has been facing some serious health challenges (she shared about her diagnosis and treatments in the March 2021 Newsletter) and wasn’t feeling up to writing her usual Ellsworth tribute.
The ECW editors decided Meg would “never forgive us” if we let this anniversary slip by without a mention, especially since it is the 160th anniversary of this tragedy which cut short this first Union officer’s life. Working with Leon Reed and his fine collection, we’ve prepared a selection of envelope artwork from the Civil War era—visual tributes for the life and sacrifice of Colonel Ellsworth.
To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:
My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction —