The Death of Colonel Ellsworth

Library of Congress
Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth

On May 24, 1861, 24-year-old Elmer E. Ellsworth, colonel of 11th New York Infantry, led a group of his men from their camp in Washington, D.C., into Alexandria, after observing a Confederate flag flying from the roof of a building in the Virginia town. Determined to take down the banner, Ellsworth and his men entered the structure—the Marshall House, an inn run by pro-secessionist proprietor James W. Jackson—and retrieved the flag. While descending the stairs from the top floor, Jackson appeared with a shotgun and shot Ellsworth in the chest, killing him instantly; one of Ellworth’s men, Francis Brownell, in turn shot and bayonetted Jackson, killing him. Ellsworth instantly became a martyr for the Union cause, the news of his death spreading quickly across the North. Among the many tributes paid to the young soldier was the obituary that appeared on May 25 in The New York Times, which is reproduced below in full.
We are again called upon to record the death of the commanding officer of a New-York Regiment. The flags which, half masted, expressed to all beholders the sympathy extended by our citizens to the family of Col. VOSBURGH had but just flung forth from staff top their Stars and Stripes, when again they were lowered in token of bereavement.

Without a doubt, the name of Col. ELLSWORTH is more familiar to the ears of New-Yorkers than that of any other officer who has left this City during the present emergency. He was not a resident here, but the peculiar introduction afforded him by the exhibitions of his Chicago Zouave corps, his subsequent participation in the Presidential tour from Springfield to Washington, and finally the deep interest felt in the Fire Brigade by all ranks and conditions of citizens, have combined to render him popularly famous and deserving of more than ordinary notice. To these is added a last but unanswerable argument in support of his fame—for we learn by reliable dispatches from Washington, that while on Virginia soil, in performance of an honorable duty, he was shot and infamously murdered.

Library of Congress
Elmer Ellsworth in 1861

Of his earliest years, nothing of peculiar interest presents itself for consideration. He was born at Mechanicsville, in this State, where he received an ordinary Common School education, and not exhibiting any marked degree of interest in any individual study, while he at all times read with avidity and evident pleasure any work concerning campaigns, wars, and even ordinary manuals of tactics. While in later boyhood he was noted for his supremacy in ail games requiring quickness of eye or limb, was an ardent champion for those weaker than himself, and courageous to a degree. His family was not affluent, and early in life he commenced to attend to his own wants. For awhile he followed the printer craft, and set up types in Boston, and subsequently in the West. With this he was not satisfied; he desired to enter the army, that he might the better develop his military tastes, and possibly attain distinction.

Without powerful friends, in time of peace, he found it no easy task to obtain a position in the service, and, after fruitless trials, he gave up the project with regret. He then proposed the study of law, and in order to prepare himself for its rudimentary studies, he undertook a course of reading laid down for him by a distinguished lawyer of Chicago, with whom he for a short time remained. It was at this time, that while connected with a local military company, he conceived the idea of organizing a company of Zouaves, based somewhat on the principles of the original Algerian Zouaves, and to a certain extent modeled after them. Having, after severe and laborious study, perfected himself in Zouave tactics, he raised a company and devoted time, energy and brain to their perfection in drill, discipline and effectiveness. This accomplished, he enlarged his company, and finally presented to the people of his city that body of men who are now so famous throughout the land. They traversed the country, giving exhibition drills at all principal points, and eliciting everywhere the highest commendation from most competent authorities.

A new era dawned upon our military men, and simultaneously several of our favorite regiments started a Zouave corps and did not hesitate to acknowledge their indebtedness to Col. ELLSWORTH for the idea, and the evidence of its practicability and efficiency. Not only was this the case in this City, but at Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Albany, and other interior places we know of Zouave companies formed after consultations and correspondence with ELLSWORTH. And since then, and particularly now, we hear not only of companies but of whole regiments that are uniformed, equipped, and drilled in pursuance of his plan and in consonance with his published directions.

Library of Congress
The Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia

After his tour, he redevoted himself to the study of law, and entered the office of President LINCOLN, at that time a lawyer in the comparatively unknown city of Springfield, Ill. There he continued until after the Presidential election, and up to the time of his legal examination and subsequent admittance to practice, was noted as a careful, intelligent and appreciative, student. His spare hours were devoted to the condensing and writing out of a theory concerning a Militia Organization for the entire country, which should bring the various State troops under a Federal head and supervision more immediately than is now the case. He had hoped to complete this and bring it before the War Department, with the ultimate probability of receiving some Bureau appointment in connection with it.

His intimate relations with Mr. LINCOLN, and the exceeding interest which the President-elect at all times manifested in his success, induced ELLSWORTH for the time to abandon his pet project and to apply for the position of First Clerk in the War Department. Of this we are personally confident, and also of the fact that not only he, but friends high in place, were exceedingly disappointed when it was ascertained that an early pledge of the present Secretary of War interfered with his desired appointment. During the Presidential trip from Springfield he was the life of the party, at all times happy, cheerful and courteous, ever ready to serve a friend and ever watchful of the desires or necessities of the party with whom he was traveling. When he ascertained that it would be impossible for him to obtain the Clerkship, he applied for and received a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Army, in which capacity he was soon to be detailed for special service in connection with his long-cherished plan of reorganizing the State Militia.

At this time the war news became threatening—volunteers were called for, and among the first who offered was ELMER E. ELLSWORTH, who resigned his commission in the army and came at once to this City, with the matured intention of raising a regiment from the firemen. His social qualities and his unvarying courtesy to members of the Press at times when he could be of service to them, rendered him an unusual favorite with them, so that, aside from the interest which they would naturally feel in a project so original and patriotic, they were also glad to reciprocate in a professional manner his kindness.

National Archives
The uniform coat and trousers worn by Elmer Ellworth on the day of his death.

The regiment—a noble one—was raised, uniformed, equipped, drilled, transported and reported for service at the War Department in an extraordinarily short time, and had the honor of being the first to swear in FOR THE WAR, as they are now the first to attack and occupy a secession city. But little remains to be said. ELLSWORTH has filled, in a creditable manner, a very difficult position. At the head of 1,200 independent, daring, restless men he has maintained order, quiet, discipline and peace. His men are reputed to be as well drilled as any volunteer corps at Washington; they have been instrumental, with their Colonel at their head, in saving a vast amount of property from destruction at the Capital; they have been, though hitherto disappointed at finding little to do, perfectly under control, and in every way a credit to the City which sent them forth, and now they are recognized by one and all as the leaders in the advance movement against the foes of their country.

We could with ease fill columns of our journal with interesting incidents connected with the camp life of Col. ELLSWORTH—of his self-denial, his courage, his devotion to the cause of his men—of his unflinching, yet kind discipline—of his uniform courtesy of demeanor and unvarying propriety of deportment, —but of what avail? He has been assassinated! His murder was fearfully and speedily revenged. He has lived a brief but an eventful, a public and an honorable life. His memory will be revered, his name respected, and long after the rebellion shall have become a matter of history, his death will be regarded as a martyrdom, and his name will be enrolled upon the list of our country’s patriots.

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