This Union Soldier’s Death Shocked the North and Made Lincoln Cry


Even as a younger boy, Elmer Ellsworth had a excessive appreciation for American army historical past. Ellsworth spent hours finding out the US’ martial figures. He had drawn pictures of two of probably the most heroic generals, George Washington and Andrew Jackson, and wished to remodel them right into a portray. Sadly for the enthusiastic nine-year-old, Ellsworth used his mom’s window shade materials because the canvas for his newest masterpiece.

After a tough life as a younger man, Ellsworth’s job failures led him to the place he belonged within the first place, a militia unit generally known as the “Chicago Cadets of the Nationwide Guard.” An opportunity assembly with Frenchman Dr. Charles A. DeVilliers helped information Ellsworth to the unit. An skilled swordsman, DeVilliers tutored Ellsworth in fencing and enthralled him with tales of his service throughout the Crimean Battle as an officer in a French Zouave regiment. Studying sufficient French to know the advanced Zouave drill handbook, Ellsworth additionally changed the shabby uniforms with the colourful apparel of the French Algerian model. The younger man finally rose to steer the group. From this second ahead, Ellsworth “knew that God had made him a soldier.”

A confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, Ellsworth curried sufficient favor to turn out to be commander of the eleventh New York Volunteers because the struggle started. Only a week after the First New York Fireplace Zouaves— because the eleventh was popularly recognized—arrived in Washington, D.C., the previous firemen have been referred to as to place out a large blaze on the Willard Resort. Throughout the state line in Alexandria, Va., a big Accomplice flag was raised above the Marshall Home after
Virginia seceded from the Union. This was no small irritant to Lincoln, as he might see the usual by way of a spyglass from the White Home. Sending a flag of truce to arrange the now-Accomplice city for his or her impending go to to seize that place, Ellsworth knowledgeable his males that they have been below intense scrutiny and that little or no bloodshed was anticipated.

Ellsworth’s loss of life was
reimagined broadly in
artwork, music, and poetry.
This Currier & Ives illustration dramatically depicts Jackson taking pictures a shocked Ellsworth, whereas Brownell readies his purpose to shoot Jackson in retaliation. (Library of Congress)

Ellsworth wrote his dad and mom the night time earlier than leaving Washington extolling the “sacred obligation” upon which he was embarking. The colonel was not planning to order his males to take down the big Accomplice flag; he wished to take away it himself and personally current it to Lincoln. Pistol in hand, Ellsworth climbed a ladder to entry the lodge’s roof by means of a lure door. His job achieved, Ellsworth made his means again down the ladder, dragging the massive normal. As they descended the steps, they stumbled on the lodge’s proprietor, James Jackson, his shotgun leveled on the younger colonel. Ellsworth fell immediately after the discharge of the weapon, his blood falling on the flag. Certainly one of Ellsworth’s males, Non-public Francis Brownell, returned fireplace along with his personal rifle, killing Jackson. It was too late, nevertheless. Ellsworth was already gone.

The loss of life of Elmer Ellsworth instantly plummeted the North right into a state of shared mourning. Flags flew at half-staff, and church bells tolled their sorrow. There have been, nevertheless, two distinctly totally different factors of view about what had occurred on the Marshall Home that day—that of the Union, and that of the Confederacy. The one element upon which each side might agree was that two lifeless males have been mendacity in swimming pools of blood on the lodge’s flooring. The outline by journalist Ned Home, an eyewitness, of the actions after each weapons have been fired is similar in nearly each element because the one given by Lieutenant Henry J. Winser and Non-public Francis Brownell in later accounts.

A lot of those that lived on the lodge peeked out their doorways, however nobody stepped ahead to try to assist Jackson. The distressed males who had accompanied Ellsworth turned towards their colonel. Ellsworth had fallen on his face, and the blood flowing from his chest was copious. The Rev. George W. Dodge turned him over gently, and Home referred to as his identify. There was some confusion in later accounts as as to whether Ellsworth answered, however Home finally determined that the colonel had not uttered a factor for the reason that shotgun blast had struck him. Home acknowledged that, in his preliminary report, he had claimed Ellsworth had spoken the phrases, “My God!” however he modified this to counsel that it could have been Brownell or Dodge as an alternative, as each males have been bodily near him.

Home and Winser carried Ellsworth’s limp physique to a close-by vacant bed room, bringing with them the flag Ellsworth had died to chop down. They positioned the lifeless colonel on the mattress. Utilizing the flag, each males tried to scrub the blood from Ellsworth’s face, then they laid it at his ft, “purified by this contact from the baseness of its former which means…” They crossed Ellsworth’s palms over his chest within the traditional loss of life pose and gazed sadly upon his younger face. Home wrote that “his expression in loss of life was fantastically pure. The Colonel was a singularly good-looking man, and, excepting the pallor, there was nothing totally different in his countenance now from what his mates had so recently been accustomed to acknowledge gladly.”

Ellsworth was carrying this uniform frock coat
when killed—notice the shotgun blast gap within the
left breast. His expensive pal, Lieutenant Edwin B. Knox (above left), arrived on the Marshall Home (above) shortly after the taking pictures. (Clockwise from left: New York Army Museum; Library of Congress; New York State Army Museum)

At that second, the detachment of Zouaves that Ellsworth had ordered up when he first handed the Marshall Home may very well be heard arriving. Not one of the troopers had heard the shotgun blast, or Brownell’s return shot, so that they weren’t conscious of the horrible scene contained in the previous boarding home. Ellsworth’s pal from the Chicago Zouave days, Lieutenant Edwin B. Knox, was put accountable for the unit whereas their captain went inside to see what had occurred. The captain returned rapidly. In a low voice, he spoke to Knox, telling him the terrible information. Understanding that Ellsworth and Knox had been mates, the captain steered that he go inside:

I ascended the steps. Stepping over the physique of Jackson, who nonetheless lay the place he had fallen, I entered the room the place all that was mortal of my beloved pal and commander lay silent in loss of life. I cannot try to explain my feelings whereas gazing upon that unhappy scene. I might scarcely credit score my very own senses. There lay one whom I had seen just a few minutes earlier than vigorous and the vigor of early manhood, minimize down with no second’s warning by the hand of the murderer. His face wore a really pure expression, and, excepting its pallor, his countenance appeared the identical as in life.

Knox returned to his unit, ashen-faced and shaken. He requested one other Zouave to search out the regimental surgeon, Dr. Charles Grey, presumed to nonetheless be on the wharf with Lt. Col. Noah Farnham. Understanding that Ellsworth had wished to destroy the Western Union cable between Alexandria and the Accomplice forces, Home went with two Zouaves a bit farther up King Avenue to the wire service’s workplace. Discovering a number of individuals contained in the small workplace, Home and the Zouave troopers made sufficient noise to persuade the Accomplice telegraph operators to vacate the premises rapidly.

When Home returned to the Marshall Home, Mrs. Jackson was kneeling subsequent to her husband’s physique, crying with heart-rending agony. Flinging her arms within the air, seemingly deserted to her grief, she didn’t seem to note the Union males within the hallway. Lieutenant Winser lastly helped her perceive that neither she nor her daughters have been in any hazard and that they might be left alone.

Wrapped in one of many Zouave Cadets’ well-known crimson bedrolls, Ellsworth’s physique was tenderly carried out of the Marshall Home on a stretcher improvised from rifles to the wharf, and finally transported to the White Home. Grey and Winser endeavored to maintain Ellsworth’s loss of life from the ears of the Fireplace Zouaves, however the information inevitably unfold, leaving many of those “tough males” devastated, vowing to avenge his homicide. As church bells tolled and flags have been lowered to half-mast, Western Union telegraphs started alerting the complete North to the unhappy occasion.

Ellsworth was honored with one of many largest funerals within the nation’s capital to that point. As drawn right here by famed artist Alfred Waud—utilizing pencil and Chinese language white on brown paper—the colonel’s physique lies in state within the East Room of the White Home. (Library of Congress)

Three households have been devastated by this information. On the morning of Could 24, in upstate New York, Ephraim Ellsworth had walked by means of the streets of Mechanicville to the put up/telegraph workplace. He guessed his son is perhaps concerned within the motion into Alexandria anticipated of the military; so he sat, ready. The telegraph clicked all through the early morning, then one of many operators immediately gasped and burst into tears. On this unlucky means, Ellsworth realized of the lack of his son. He walked dwelling slowly and broke the unhappy information to his spouse. A lot of the happiness of their lives was extinguished at that second. They might not mourn alone, nevertheless. Your complete North would help them of their sorrow.

In Rockford, In poor health., Ellsworth’s fiancée, Carrie Spafford, had arrived dwelling from faculty for the summer season. The day earlier than, she had severely turned her ankle in a using accident, so maybe she was nonetheless in mattress when the terrible information arrived. She was so tormented by grief that she was unable to depart the home for a number of weeks, after which clad solely in widow’s black. All of Rockford mourned the lack of Ellsworth, together with the Spaffords.

The third household devastated by Elmer’s loss of life occupied the Govt Mansion. On the morning of Could 24, naval Captain Gustavus Fox was detailed to carry the tragic information to Lincoln personally. He spoke with the president within the second-floor library, telling what he knew of the unhappy particulars. Lincoln, who liked Ellsworth as a part of his presidential household, as a son, and as a particular pal to his spouse and youngsters, burst into tears. Nobody had ever seen Lincoln cry publicly, however he cried for Elmer Ellsworth.

Carrying a makeshift mourning band and a wide range of pendants and cockades on his Zouave jacket, Non-public Brownell crops a foot on the infamous Accomplice flag. It took greater than a decade for him to obtain his Medal of Honor. (Library of Congress)

Simply as Fox left the White Home, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and an unnamed reporter from The New York Herald, entered the library. They have been there on “a urgent matter of public enterprise,” and John Nicolay, certainly one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, didn’t but know of Ellsworth’s loss of life and gave them entry to the president. As the 2 males entered the workplace, Lincoln was standing along with his again to the door, looking a window towards the Potomac River. As the lads drew shut he turned, his eyes crammed with tears and his complete countenance certainly one of profound grief. He prolonged his hand, uttering, “Excuse me, however I can’t discuss.” The lads thought a chilly had roughened his voice, however then Lincoln pulled a big handkerchief out of his pocket and once more burst into tears.

The Herald reporter recorded his impressions:

He [Lincoln] walked up and down the room for some moments, and we stepped apart in silence, not just a little moved at such an uncommon spectacle in such a person and in such a spot. After composing himself considerably, Mr. Lincoln sat down and invited us to him. ‘I’ll make no apology, gents,’ stated he, ‘for my weak spot; however I knew poor Ellsworth properly, and held him in nice regard. Simply as you entered the room, Captain Fox left me, after giving me the painful particulars of his unlucky loss of life. The occasion was so sudden, and the recital so touching, that it fairly unmanned me.

Ellsworth could be specified by an iron “window” coffin for the White Home funeral. It was painted to appear like rosewood, and the higher half of the coffin’s lid contained an oval glass window to view the highest a part of the stays. He was wearing his formal Zouave uniform—his jaunty crimson cap, formal sword, and kidskin gloves positioned on prime of the casket. The captured Accomplice flag, stained with Ellsworth’s blood, was folded throughout the foot of the coffin, as it will be in subsequent companies.

Lincoln requested the Rev. Dr. Smith Pyne of St. John’s Episcopal Church to provide the funeral oration. Close to the top of the casket stood Non-public Brownell, the Springfield rifle with which he had “avenged” Ellsworth’s loss of life on his shoulder. After a number of hours, a full army cortege, full with muffled drums, furled flags, and Ellsworth’s riderless black horse, escorted the colonel’s stays to Union Station. There, with an eight-member guard of New York Fireplace Zouaves, his physique was placed on a particular funeral practice for New York Metropolis.

There, in Metropolis Corridor, Ellsworth’s coffin lay in state. Greater than 10,000 mourners filed previous to pay their respects. Later within the day, a non-public service was held for him on the Astor Home, the place his devastated dad and mom took custody of his physique earlier than escorting it, alongside along with his honor guard, on a steamer up the Hudson River to Albany.

Ellsworth’s picture was a standard function on envelopes early within the struggle. (Library of Congress)

Church bells tolled and a cannon saluted because the steamer docked within the state capital the morning of Could 27. The Albany Zouaves, an area militia unit organized simply after Ellsworth’s 1860 Zouave tour had carried out of their metropolis, escorted the coffin to the capitol, the place they positioned it on a big catafalque ready within the State Meeting’s chamber. Hundreds of mourners streamed previous, remembering that brilliant “Zouave” summer season lower than a 12 months in the past, and pondering of the sons, brothers, and husbands that they had despatched to Washington in response to Lincoln’s first name for troops. Brownell left the coffin solely as soon as, to talk to Governor Morgan and inform him, firsthand, the story of what had occurred that day in Alexandria.

Ellsworth’s physique was finally taken by practice to Mechanicville to finish the unhappy journey. The gap from the railroad depot to the hilltop burial floor was just a little over a mile. Within the funeral procession have been Ellsworth’s dad and mom, the Black-Plumed Riflemen of Stillwater (not less than those that had not joined the Military), a lot of the native townspeople, and Ellsworth’s Zouave honor guard, nonetheless marching collectively in unhappy cadence. A late Could afternoon thunderstorm erupted in the course of the procession, known as “tears from God himself.” It lastly cleared up, and mourners filed previous the casket for 3 hours.

Non-public Brownell sat on the picket platform, holding the flag that had began all of it. The group requested to see the flag, so he stood and unrolled it, to groans on the sight of Ellsworth’s bloodstains. Brownell then dropped the flag to the picket flooring and stomped on it along with his booted foot. At 5 p.m., ropes lastly lowered the coffin into the bottom. The Zouave honor guard fired three volleys in salute, then put down their rifles and picked up shovels. These eight males buried their little colonel, every saying a last, non-public goodbye.

The Nineteenth-century world considered loss of life very otherwise than individuals do in the present day. When he was killed, Ellsworth had already skilled the loss of life of his brother from typhoid. He lived at a time when toddler mortality was so excessive that folks knew to arrange themselves for early loss. What might sound unnatural to many in the present day—{that a} mother or father may bury a toddler—was the pure order of issues in antebellum America.

This concept was particularly important to oldsters of a younger man heading off to struggle. Ellsworth himself was extremely conscious of this. Earlier than heading to Alexandria, Va., the colonel wrote letters to his dad and mom and fiancée, Carrie Spafford. Though troopers didn’t essentially courtroom loss of life, it was all the time current of their lives. Ellsworth wished his family members to know he was able to make this last sacrifice, as this could assist them mourn, if crucial.

Ellsworth’s picture was painted on this forty fourth New York regimental drum. The forty fourth was generally known as Ellsworth’s Avengers or the Individuals’s Ellsworth Regiment, with former eleventh New York officer Stephen Stryker its first colonel. (©Don Troiani all rights reserved 2022/Bridgeman Photographs)

“The Good Demise”—an idea in regards to the understanding of mortality—offered a perfect loss of life expertise for each the dying and the dwelling. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her e-book This Republic of Struggling: Demise and the American Civil Battle, defines a “good loss of life” as a set of rituals for dying primarily based on Victorian beliefs. In principally Christian America and Britain, how one died epitomized the life simply ended, and predicted the standard of life eternal. The battlefield deaths of Civil Battle troopers, dying unattended by household and unable to atone for improper actions, was going to be exceedingly tough for Individuals each North and South to simply accept, however that terrifying actuality was nonetheless about two months away.

Ellsworth was the final public determine of the time to be given the distinction of a Good Demise, and the North adopted as lots of the prescribed rituals as doable. For a historic second, the esteemed colonel grew to become the Union’s brother, son, and liked one.

Music, poetry, and artwork have been methods through which Individuals celebrated the life and loss of life of the deceased, as this stuff saved the picture of the fallen hero all the time seen. The North was fast to capitalize on the patriotic spirit created by every thing Ellsworth had ever carried out. The nationalistic music trade was invigorated, with compositions written to honor Ellsworth offering a big a part of the power.

One effort, the “Zouave Cadets’ Quickstep,” had been composed by A.J. Vaas, conductor of the Gentle Guard Band that had accompanied the U.S. Zouave Cadets on their Chicago tour. It was not a dirge or memorial piece—the Cadets had used it of their tour performances. Root and Cady, a Chicago publishing agency, produced a piano model that offered properly. “Messrs. Root and Cady…are each day receiving orders by the hundred, from all of the principal cities of the Union.” On the whole, the regular stream of patriotic music grew to become a flood. Not less than 9 totally different musical tributes might be present in numerous library collections nationally, and these are fully written and inscribed. Funeral marches, dirges, and ballads bear witness to the nationwide outpouring of grief and mourning that came about for Ellsworth.

Demise poetry as a part of the outpouring of grief within the rituals of the Good Demise had lengthy been a staple in antebellum America, however the Civil Battle introduced a brand new permutation—the “Dying Soldier Poem.” It was a stylized kind of verse that sought to provide heroic significance to particular person struggle deaths, which in actuality could have occurred en masse, or from illness somewhat than in battle. This poetry introduced the reader on to the purpose at which the loss of life happens, the place the soldier fearlessly confronts the inevitable whereas holding his ideas on the heavenly rewards which have been absolutely his due. In a “Dying Soldier Poem,” each loss of life was lovely and heroic. At this time such works is perhaps thought of painfully formulaic and maudlin, however they served a particular objective: to assist the dwelling keep in mind their soldier and to appreciate that no struggle loss of life was in useless, it doesn’t matter what the precise circumstances of that loss of life. So many memorial poems appeared after Ellsworth’s loss of life that it’s nearly not possible to catalog them. 

Lieutenant Stephen W. Stryker was a part of the eleventh New York honor guard to accompany Ellsworth’s stays from Alexandria to his burial in Mechanicville. Right here, he poses—as did Francis Brownell—with the flag in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C., studio. (New York State Army Museum)

As a result of Ellsworth was the primary Union “hero” to fall in a time when the struggle was extra an thought than a actuality, he grew to become a cult-like determine within the eyes of the Union. Poems, songs, sermons, and memorial envelopes lamented his loss, hundreds of oldsters named their infants after him, and streets and cities nonetheless bear his identify. Memorial pictures of Ellsworth’s loss of life appeared in each Northern metropolis’s information publications. One of the best of those is the portray by Alonzo Chappel, who additionally painted Lincoln and different distinguished American historic figures. Copies of the portray have been made within the years following Ellsworth’s loss of life. The print agency of Currier & Ives rushed to their presses a stylized model of the occasion, which included Francis Brownell and James Jackson. Though this print is much less traditionally correct than Chappel’s portray, it was probably the most broadly distributed of all the photographs created. Many stay in existence in the present day.

Each Harpers Weekly and Frank Leslies have been lavishly illustrated papers, and their artists returned to the subject of Ellsworth many instances after his homicide. Newspapers created drawings of Ellsworth’s carte de visite pictures in addition to different pictures made by photographers of the day. Each Brownell’s picture, in addition to that of eleventh New York Lieutenant Stephen W. Stryker, was copied from his portrait sitting, after Ellsworth’s loss of life, on the Mathew Brady Studio in Washington, D.C., in addition to {a photograph} of him taken in Albany throughout the funeral procession. All these pictures have been broadly distributed all through the North and helped to arouse the sentiments of nationwide mourning that engulfed the area.

Elmer Ellsworth didn’t die at dwelling, his handheld lovingly by Phebe or Carrie. He was killed in a Virginia lodge, bleeding out on worn picket floorboards. He was the primary of many denied a Good Demise by a struggle that will rapidly turn out to be generally known as “merciless” by all involved. Reconstructing the Good Demise when a liked one had died distant from dwelling was one of many best challenges of the Civil Battle. One of the best answer, North or South, was a letter of condolence—a “letter dwelling” from a comrade or a commander. All troopers struggled inside themselves to make sense of the slaughter, however much more so, they struggled to speak the circumstances of a loss of life to these desperate to know the destiny of the lads so dearly liked and missed.

Understanding the deceased may by no means be discovered and moved to a house cemetery, the letter of condolence assumed an significance it had by no means loved earlier than. Homage given to the lifeless was provided not solely out of respect; it was a means of reclaiming a way of selfhood in a state of affairs the place individuality barely existed. The sanctity and integrity of human life, so clearly absent from a pile of severed limbs or corpses, may very well be reaffirmed in a private letter. Most troopers hoped that, in the event that they have been killed, somebody would do the identical for them, recognizing and honoring their existence.

Lincoln didn’t maintain again in his letter to Ellsworth’s dad and mom: “A lot of promised usefulness to at least one’s nation, and of brilliant hopes for one’s self and mates, have hardly ever been so immediately dashed, as in his fall.” (Library of Congress)

Receiving a condolence letter from Abraham Lincoln himself honored Ellsworth’s household. Lincoln was well-known for his elegant phrases in speeches and writings, and his letter of condolence to Ellsworth’s dad and mom is certainly one of his most well-known items of private correspondence. It was written the day after the East Room funeral and had remained mendacity on Lincoln’s desk for a number of days. With deep compassion, Lincoln praised his pal Ellsworth to his grieving dad and mom. It’s simple to image the still-distraught president sitting at his desk, the telegram to his left:

Washington, D.C.

Could 25, 1861

To the Father And Mom of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My expensive Sir or Madam, Within the premature lack of your noble son, our affliction right here, is scarcely lower than your personal. A lot of promised usefulness to at least one’s nation, and of brilliant hopes for one’s self and mates, have hardly ever been so immediately dashed, as in his fall. In measurement, in years, and in youthful look, a boy solely, his energy to command males, was surpassingly nice. This energy, mixed with a fantastic mind, an indomitable power, and a style so altogether army, constituted in him, because it appeared to me, one of the best pure expertise, in that division, I ever knew. And but he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him started lower than two years in the past; but by means of the latter half of the intervening interval, it was as intimate because the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would allow. To me, he appeared to haven’t any indulgences or pastimes; and I by no means heard him utter a profane, or intemperate phrase. What was conclusive of his good coronary heart, he by no means forgot his dad and mom. The honors he labored for thus laudably, and, within the unhappy finish, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, at least for himself.

Within the hope that it could be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I’ve ventured to deal with you this tribute to the reminiscence of my younger pal, and your courageous and early fallen baby.

Could God provide you with that comfort which is past all earthly energy.

Sincerely your pal in widespread affliction,

A. Lincoln

Why did the Union embrace the loss of life of Ellsworth so fully? Did Lincoln’s grief set the tone, or was there some indescribable one thing, realized solely within the atoms of Union bone marrow, that whispered the promise of an extended, unhappy struggle? Politicians and the army on each side had predicted a brief struggle, and an finish to the “unpleasantness” earlier than it was pretty begun; however then, Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman knew higher: “[Y]ou may as properly try and put out the flames of a burning home with a squirt gun. I…assume it’s to be an extended struggle—very lengthy—for much longer than any politician thinks.”

In a nation used to adhering to inflexible customs relating to the physique of the deceased and its burial, and mourning, the Civil Battle would create many modifications in kind, though not in underlying attitudes. Ellsworth’s elaborate multi-state funeral was the final of its sort, till that different horrible loss of life—Lincoln’s—in April 1865. In between, two nations sought methods to ease the grief of damaged our bodies and damaged hearts. Resting in peace was not possible whereas the struggle nonetheless ripped the nation aside. Many Union households have been rapidly exhausted by their private experiences with loss, which couldn’t be appropriately honored or remembered within the previous methods. The reminiscence of 1 soldier’s grand funeral must suffice. It will need to have given consolation to forlorn households, as a lot of them merely by no means noticed their family members once more.

“By no means,” it was opined in The New York Instances, “has a person of Ellsworth’s age commanded such nationwide respect and regard in so quick an area.” 

Tailored with permission from First Fallen: The Lifetime of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil Battle Hero (Savas Beatie, 2021). Meg Groeling, a instructor for greater than 30 years, writes from Salinas, Calif.

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