The first officer
to die in the Civil War was Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, a twenty-four-year-old
personal friend of President Lincoln, who appeared to be the Union's most
promising officer. To the North, he was a symbol of patriotism, and America's
foremost parade-ground soldier. He commanded the U.S. Zouave Cadets,
transforming them from a halfhearted group of Chicagoans into a
national-champion drill team. So good was Ellsworth that he developed his own
variations of the Zouave drill, adding hundreds of acrobatic maneuvers with
musket and bayonet.
Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth
was born in Malta, New York on April 11, 1837. As a young boy he had always
desired to attend West Point, however, when he became of age, he did not have
the opportunity to study for the entrance exam. Consequently, as a young man,
her left home for New York City, then moved to Chicago where he worked as a law
clerk and a solicitor of patents.
His interest in the
military continued, so he joined a National Guard volunteer company in Chicago
that was about to disband. Bringing them back together, he also recruited new
members through his introduction of the Zouave dress and drill, that was
fashioned after French colonial troops in Algeria. His company's cadets, now
known as the United States Zouave Cadets of Chicago soon became a highly trained
and competent unit. Their unusual dress consisting of baggy pants, short
jackets, fezzes and gaiters, combined with their complicated drills gained
attention for them in the Midwest.
Within a short
time, Ellsworth was appointed a major of the Illinois National Guard, and soon
his unit became the governor's guard. In 1860, before the Civil War began,
Ellsworth and his unit toured all the major cities in the North section of the
United States, including Washington, D.C.
In August of 1860,
Ellsworth left his command temporarily to travel to Springfield, Illinois where
he worked and studied law in the offices of Abraham Lincoln. Becoming a close
friend of Lincoln's, he stayed with him and assisted him in his campaign for
president as well as traveled with him to Washington in the early months of
spoken to Lincoln concerning a position in the War Department, however, this was
put on hold due to the outbreak of the Civil War. As a result, Ellsworth
traveled to New York City where he raised a volunteer regiment. In order to find
the necessary men, he recruited them from the city's fire departments, then
uniformed them in Zouave dress, further training them in the arts of drill. This
regiment, commanded by the now Colonel Ellsworth, was soon designated as the 11th
New York Fire Zouaves.
On May 24, 1861,
the day after Virginia officially seceded, Union troops were ordered to cross
the Potomac River and seize and control important areas on the Virginia side. As
the port of Alexandria was a choice assignment, Ellsworth convinced the powers
that be to give this mission to him and his Fire Zouaves. Ellsworth even dressed
for the occasion, wearing a new gleaning uniform, affixed with a medal that was
inscribed in Latin, "Not for ourselves alone but for country."
at daybreak, Ellsworth and his troops traveled by steamer to an Alexandria
wharf. They were met by no resistance, as Alexandria's only Confederate troops,
a small Virginia militia, were hurriedly leaving town. Once there, Ellsworth
ordered one company of his soldiers to take and hold the railroad station, while
he and a small detachment went off to capture the telegraph office.
toward this office, Ellsworth and his men came upon an inn, known as the
Marshall House, on King Street. Glancing up, Ellsworth saw that the inn was
flying a large Confederate flag, and ordered that it be immediately taken down.
After stationing a few of his men on the first floor of the inn, Ellsworth and
four of his men went upstairs and leaning out a window, cut down the flag.
Ellsworth then started back down the stairs. In front of Ellsworth was Corporal
Francis E. Brownell, and behind him was Edward H. House, a reporter for the New
York Tribune. At the landing on the third floor, the innkeeper, James W.
Jackson, was waiting with a double-barrel shotgun. As Jackson raised his weapon
to fire, Corporal Brownell batted the barrel of Jackson's shotgun aside with the
barrel of his musket, to avert the shot. Simultaneously, Jackson fired, hitting
Ellsworth. Jackson then fired a second shot, barely missing Brownell. At the
same time as Jackson's second shot, Brownell fired, striking Jackson. As Jackson
lay dead, Brownell bayoneted his body, sending it falling down the stairs. They
then turned their attention to Ellsworth, who lay dead on top of the bloody
Confederate flag, his uniform medal embedded into his chest from the force of
the shotgun blast.
The death of
Colonel Ellsworth plummeted the North into a state of mourning. Flags flew at
half mast and bells tolled. Upon seeing his friend's body, President Lincoln was
grief-stricken. On May 25, 1861, upon Lincoln's orders, an honor guard brought
Ellsworth's body to the White House, where he lay in state, followed by a
funeral ceremony. Colonel Ellsworth's casket was then moved to City Hall in New
York, where thousands paid their respects. Following this, a train bearing
Ellsworth's remains traveled to his hometown of Mechanicsville, New York, where
he was buried in a grave overlooking the Hudson River.
death, Colonel Ellsworth became cult-like in the eyes of the Union. Poems,
songs, sermons and memorial envelopes lamented his loss, and parents named their
babies after him, and streets and towns used his name.