On May 23, 1861, voters in Virginia ratified by referendum a motion of secession that had been passed by the state legislature, and Richmond officially announced her withdrawal from the Union. It was now apparent that the war had all but begun. The next day, the United States would lose the first Federal officer to die in the Civil War. But this was no ordinary Union Army officer—Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln.
Born in New York in 1837, Ellsworth had served as a militia officer with units in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago before taking up the study of law. On 1860 he went to work for Senator Abraham Lincoln as a clerk in his law office. The two developed a close personal bond, with Lincoln treating the young Ellsworth almost as a younger brother. Ellsworth worked on Lincoln’s presidential campaign and, after the election, accompanied him to Washington DC.
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteer troops to put down the “rebellion”. He also tried to move his 24-year old friend Ellsworth into a staff job at the War Department, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton didn’t have an open place for him. So Ellsworth went back to his native New York and recruited a unit of militia, the 11th New York Zouave Regiment, with himself as its commanding Colonel. Because most of its membership came from local fire departments, it became known as the Fire Zouaves.
The Regiment was quickly moved to DC to help defend the capitol, and its dashing young Colonel became a frequent guest at the White House. From Lincoln’s office, they could look across the Potomac River to the city of Alexandria in Virginia. And through their spyglass telescope, they could see a large Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag fluttering from the roof of the Marshall House hotel. It was a reminder that Virginia was already moving towards secession, which would in effect put an “enemy country” within sight of the nation’s capitol.
The day after Virginia formally seceded, Lincoln decided that he had to protect the capitol, and sent troops across the Potomac to occupy the city of Alexandria. The unit that was assigned the task was the 11th New York, commanded by Elmer Ellsworth.
Crossing by boat, Ellsworth found the city undefended. Dispatching a group of his Zouaves to occupy the railroad station, he brought another company with him to take control of the telegraph office.
On the way, they passed the Marshall House, where the huge Confederate flag still flew from the roof. Ellsworth at first passed by the hotel, intent on getting to the telegraph station. But then he seemed to have suddenly changed his mind and, turning about, he took four troopers with him and entered the hotel. Finding a half-dressed man there who had apparently just been sleeping, Ellsworth demanded to know “what the flag was doing up there”. The man told them he was just a boarder, and Ellsworth and the soldiers left him and went up the stairs towards the roof.
But the man they had encountered was not a boarder—he was James Jackson, the owner of the hotel and an ardent secessionist. So when someone ran into the hotel and told him that the Federal troops were on the roof cutting down his flag, Jackson grabbed a double-barreled shotgun and started up the stairs.
There he ran into Ellsworth, who was on his way down, flag in hand. Jackson leveled his shotgun and fired once, hitting Ellsworth in the chest and killing him instantly. A moment later, one of the Zouaves, named Corporal Francis Brownell, killed Jackson in retaliation. (After the war Brownell would be awarded a Medal of Honor for his action.)
A reporter for the New York Tribune had been accompanying the Zouaves, and now the word raced around the country. Although over 50 people had already been killed or wounded in Baltimore, the death of Col Ellsworth would cause an explosive reaction that could not have been predicted. Northern newspapers screamed that he had been “shot down like a dog”; Southern papers bragged that he was just the first of what would be many dead Yankees. Lincoln’s request for 40,000 more troops was met by over 200,000 volunteers: their motivation was illustrated by the newly-formed 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which called itself the “Ellsworth Avengers”. Ellsworth’s image and depictions of his death appeared on mailing envelopes, lithographs, and drinking cups; “Col. Ellsworth’s Funeral March” and “The Ellsworth Gallopade” became best-selling musical scores.
The secessionist South had also gained its first martyr. James Jackson, the man who had flown the Confederate flag and shot the Union officer, became a hero to the rebels. Within a year a biography appeared titled Life of James W. Jackson, The Alexandria Hero. Since the South lost the ensuing war, Jackson’s name has fallen into obscurity. But the two deaths, and the war frenzy they whipped up at the time, insured that what had until now been largely a political conflict would turn into four long years of bloodshed.
Most affected was Abraham Lincoln. He had gotten the news of Ellsworth’s death just as he was about to meet with two people from the Senate. Entering the White House library, they found Lincoln alone at the window. He was silent for a few moments, then turned and said, “Excuse me, I cannot talk,” before breaking out in tears and burying his face in a handkerchief. “I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness,” he finally said, “but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”
Ellsworth’s body was, at President Lincoln’s request, brought back to the White House, where it lay in state in the East Room before being carried back to New York, where it was displayed in City Hall and then taken to his hometown for burial. Thousands of mourners lined the streets as the carriage rolled by.
Today, the Marshall House hotel is long gone. A museum at Fort Ward in Alexandria, however, has a display which interprets Ellsworth’s death and the effect it had on the war. Among the exhibits on display there is the Union Zouave uniform cap that Elmer Ellsworth was wearing when he was killed. A piece of the Confederate flag that he cut down is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Ellsworth’s uniform coat is on exhibit at the New York Military Museum in Saratoga Springs NY, and his gravesite is at nearby Mechanicville NY.
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