Unpublished: Memoirs and Scrapbooks in Kenosha’s Civil War Museum

When Ruth Painter Randall wrote her biography of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, published in 1960, many of the primary sources she used were scattered over museums and historical society collections in Illinois and Wisconsin. Luckily for me, by 2016, all this random “stuff” had been collected and deposited in the impressive Kenosha Civil War Museum. https://museums.kenosha.org/civilwar/. I was determined to see Kenosha. I had read articles by Doug Damman and had spoken to Gina Radant, who were in charge at the time. I made an appointment for a week in June, got tickets and reservations, and took off on my first real trip as a historian to a museum for research.

If you have never experienced archival work–well, it is amazing. Cotton gloves, no drinks or food, and just being surrounded by all this knowledge–wow! It is undoubtedly one of the secret pleasures of the profession.

“Memoranda” by Phebe Ellsworth (transcribed by Charity Mabbitt)

I came specifically to see the memoir written by Phebe Ellsworth, Elmer’s mother. Actually, it was narrated by Ms. Ellsworth but written by her friend Charity Mabbit. Unfortunately, Phebe had advanced Parkinson’s disease by this time and could not write. Entitled “Memoranda,” it is a series of foolscap pages tied at the top by a faded pink ribbon. It begins:

I have been advised to prepare a memoranda (sic) of events occurring in the life of my son Elmer that would serve to illustrate his peculiar cast of character in order that they may be available hereafter should his biography be written.

I took her at her word.

Reading “Memoranda” opened Elmer’s early life and confirmed one of my suspicions; that he had not grown up a child of poverty. On the contrary, his parents were middle class, provided well for their sons, and loved Elmer and his younger brother Charlie to distraction. As a result, there was very little punishment and much support for a curious, precocious boy growing up in Malta, New York. Elmer’s unbounded confidence in himself had an obvious beginning. As I turned the fragile pages, I could feel Ms. Ellsworth’s love and care for her family. I had heard from other researchers about the unexpected intimacy one feels when reading personal diaries, letters, and memoirs. Now that experience belonged to me. I quickly realized that Elmer’s relationship with his home had to be a part of First Fallen, just as Phebe suggested in her opening sentence.

The Spafford House, Rockford, IL

However, Phebe Ellsworth was not the only woman connected with Elmer. His fiance, Caroline Spafford, was also a part of my journey. Carrie was only sixteen when she and Elmer met in Rockford, Illinois, during a halcyon summer of militia drill, party dresses, and flags. Carrie’s family was wealthy and proper, and she did what young ladies did–she hung out with him and flirted. Her campaign was successful because by the end of the summer–also the end of Elmer’s tenure as militia commander of the Rockford Grays–he was confident the elegant Miss Spafford was “the one.” However, their engagement was not without parental objection, which, luckily for Elmer, led to eventually being a law student with Springfield notable Abraham Lincoln. Carrie spent her time from fall to spring in New York. She lived with an uncle and his wife and attended school while Elmer was running around the midwest commanding militias or studying law in Chicago. The couple exchanged letters, but few still exist, as Elmer and Carrie destroyed most of them. The few that remain are from Elmer and have been pored over by many historians.

It was not letters I was interested in. I just hoped there was something else, and I was not disappointed. Gina Radant reached over the table for a flat box, saying, “No one has looked in here for years. I don’t even know what’s in it.” She opened the lid, pulled back the tissue, and removed a couple of manuscripts. Then she pulled out a medium-sized (maybe 12 x 16 inches?) scrapbook bound in cardboard covers. “This may have belonged to Carrie. Take a look.” and Gina left me to my explorations.

Something told me I was in possession of a sort of Holy Grail, and I was right. It was indeed Carrie’s scrapbook, but not of her life. Instead, it was slender and contained clipped newspaper articles concerning Elmer Ellsworth’s death. She could not attend any of the funeral/memorial services due to a broken ankle that kept her in Rockford; friends sent her newspaper articles from various papers, which she cut and fitted together like a puzzle and pasted on the pages of the book. I remember thinking, “no one would have kept ME from his side!” when I turned to one page in particular. The article from the New York Times of May 27, 1861, entitled:

OBSEQUIES OF COL. ELLSWORTH.; Arrival of the Remains–Services at the Astor House–The Body in State at the City Hall –Ten Thousand Citizens View It–Imposing Civic and Military Display. RESPECT TO COL. ELLSWORTH IN KENTUCKY. REPORTS FROM LEAVENWORTH. THE STATE MILITARY DEPARTMENT https://www.nytimes.com/1861/05/27/archives/obsequies-of-col-ellsworth-arrival-of-the-remainsservices-at-the.html

Carefully placed on the article was a small, flattened snippet of “evergreens and immortelles,” sent, no doubt, along with the article by an unknown friend or relative.

I stopped cold. It was so heart-wrenching to think of Carrie’s shaking little eighteen-year-old hands putting all this together and then to see the pressed flowers from his coffin or a funeral arrangement. . . I gestured for Gina to come over. Both of us had teary eyes as we looked at the page. This was as close as I would come to being there in New York, at the Astor House, and paying my respects to Colonel Ellsworth. It was a moment worth savoring.

Unpublished, and priceless.

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