Even as a young boy, Elmer Ellsworth had a high appreciation for American military history. Ellsworth spent hours studying the United States’ martial figures. He had drawn images of two of the most heroic generals, George Washington and Andrew Jackson, and wanted to transform them into a painting. Unfortunately for the enthusiastic nine-year-old, Ellsworth used his mother’s window shade material as the canvas for his latest masterpiece.
After a hard life as a young man, Ellsworth’s job failures led him to where he belonged in the first place, a militia unit known as the “Chicago Cadets of the National Guard.” A chance meeting with Frenchman Dr. Charles A. DeVilliers helped guide Ellsworth to the unit. An expert swordsman, DeVilliers tutored Ellsworth in fencing and enthralled him with stories of his service during the Crimean War as an officer in a French Zouave regiment. Learning enough French to understand the complex Zouave drill manual, Ellsworth also replaced the shabby uniforms with the colorful attire of the French Algerian style. The young man eventually rose to lead the group. From this moment forward, Ellsworth “knew that God had made him a soldier.”
A confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, Ellsworth curried enough favor to become commander of the 11th New York Volunteers as the war began. Just a week after the First New York Fire Zouaves— as the 11th was popularly known—arrived in Washington, D.C., the former firemen were called to put out a massive blaze at the Willard Hotel. Across the state line in Alexandria, Va., a large Confederate flag was raised above the Marshall House after
Virginia seceded from the Union. This was no small irritant to Lincoln, as he could see the standard via a spyglass from the White House. Sending a flag of truce to prepare the now-Confederate town for their impending visit to capture that place, Ellsworth informed his men that they were under intense scrutiny and that very little bloodshed was anticipated.
Ellsworth wrote his parents the night before leaving Washington extolling the “sacred duty” upon which he was embarking. The colonel was not planning to order his men to take down the large Confederate flag; he wanted to remove it himself and personally present it to Lincoln. Pistol in hand, Ellsworth climbed a ladder to access the hotel’s roof through a trap door. His task accomplished, Ellsworth made his way back down the ladder, dragging the huge standard. As they descended the stairs, they came upon the hotel’s owner, James Jackson, his shotgun leveled at the young colonel. Ellsworth fell instantly after the discharge of the weapon, his blood falling on the flag. One of Ellsworth’s men, Private Francis Brownell, returned fire with his own rifle, killing Jackson. It was too late, however. Ellsworth was already gone.
The death of Elmer Ellsworth immediately plummeted the North into a state of shared mourning. Flags flew at half-staff, and church bells tolled their sorrow. There were, however, two distinctly different points of view about what had happened at the Marshall House that day—that of the Union, and that of the Confederacy. The one detail upon which both sides could agree was that two dead men were lying in pools of blood on the hotel’s floor. The description by journalist Ned House, an eyewitness, of the actions after both guns were fired is the same in almost every detail as the one given by Lieutenant Henry J. Winser and Private Francis Brownell in later accounts.
Many of those who lived at the hotel peeked out their doors, but no one stepped forward to attempt to help Jackson. The distressed men who had accompanied Ellsworth turned toward 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 House called his name. There was some confusion in later accounts as to whether Ellsworth answered, but House eventually decided that the colonel had not uttered a thing since the shotgun blast had struck him. House acknowledged that, in his initial report, he had claimed Ellsworth had spoken the words, “My God!” but he changed this to suggest that it may have been Brownell or Dodge instead, as both men were physically close to him.
House and Winser carried Ellsworth’s limp body to a nearby vacant bedroom, bringing with them the flag Ellsworth had died to cut down. They placed the dead colonel on the bed. Using the flag, both men attempted to clean the blood from Ellsworth’s face, then they laid it at his feet, “purified by this contact from the baseness of its former meaning…” They crossed Ellsworth’s hands over his chest in the classic death pose and gazed sadly upon his young face. House wrote that “his expression in death was beautifully natural. The Colonel was a singularly handsome man, and, excepting the pallor, there was nothing different in his countenance now from what his friends had so lately been accustomed to recognize gladly.”
At that moment, the detachment of Zouaves that Ellsworth had ordered up when he first passed the Marshall House could be heard arriving. None of the soldiers had heard the shotgun blast, or Brownell’s return shot, so they were not aware of the terrible scene inside the old boarding house. Ellsworth’s friend from the Chicago Zouave days, Lieutenant Edwin B. Knox, was put in charge of the unit while their captain went inside to see what had happened. The captain returned quickly. In a low voice, he spoke to Knox, telling him the awful news. Knowing that Ellsworth and Knox had been friends, the captain suggested that he go inside:
I ascended the stairs. Stepping over the body of Jackson, who still lay where he had fallen, I entered the room where all that was mortal of my beloved friend and commander lay silent in death. I will not attempt to describe my emotions while gazing upon that sad scene. I could scarcely credit my own senses. There lay one whom I had seen only a few minutes before full of life and the vigor of early manhood, cut down without a moment’s warning by the hand of the assassin. His face wore a very natural expression, and, excepting its pallor, his countenance looked the same as in life.
Knox returned to his unit, ashen-faced and shaken. He asked another Zouave to find the regimental surgeon, Dr. Charles Gray, presumed to still be at the wharf with Lt. Col. Noah Farnham. Knowing that Ellsworth had wanted to destroy the Western Union cable between Alexandria and the Confederate forces, House went with two Zouaves a bit farther up King Street to the wire service’s office. Finding several persons inside the small office, House and the Zouave soldiers made enough noise to convince the Confederate telegraph operators to vacate the premises quickly.
When House returned to the Marshall House, Mrs. Jackson was kneeling next to her husband’s body, crying with heart-rending agony. Flinging her arms in the air, seemingly abandoned to her grief, she did not appear to notice the Union men in the hallway. Lieutenant Winser finally helped her understand that neither she nor her daughters were in any danger and that they would be left alone.
Wrapped in one of the Zouave Cadets’ famous red bedrolls, Ellsworth’s body was tenderly carried out of the Marshall House on a stretcher improvised from rifles to the wharf, and eventually transported to the White House. Gray and Winser endeavored to keep Ellsworth’s death from the ears of the Fire Zouaves, but the news inevitably spread, leaving many of these “rough men” devastated, vowing to avenge his murder. As church bells tolled and flags were lowered to half-mast, Western Union telegraphs began alerting the entire North to the sad event.
Three families were devastated by this news. On the morning of May 24, in upstate New York, Ephraim Ellsworth had walked through the streets of Mechanicville to the post/telegraph office. He guessed his son might be involved in the movement into Alexandria expected of the army; so he sat, waiting. The telegraph clicked throughout the early morning, then one of the operators suddenly gasped and burst into tears. In this unfortunate way, Ellsworth learned of the loss of his son. He walked home slowly and broke the sad news to his wife. Much of the happiness of their lives was extinguished at that moment. They would not mourn alone, however. The entire North would support them in their sorrow.
In Rockford, Ill., Ellsworth’s fiancée, Carrie Spafford, had arrived home from school for the summer. The day before, she had severely turned her ankle in a riding accident, so perhaps she was still in bed when the awful news arrived. She was so stricken by grief that she was unable to leave the house for several weeks, and then clad only in widow’s black. All of Rockford mourned the loss of Ellsworth, along with the Spaffords.
The third family devastated by Elmer’s death occupied the Executive Mansion. On the morning of May 24, naval Captain Gustavus Fox was detailed to bring the tragic news to Lincoln personally. He spoke with the president in the second-floor library, telling what he knew of the sad details. Lincoln, who loved Ellsworth as part of his presidential family, as a son, and as a special friend to his wife and children, burst into tears. No one had ever seen Lincoln cry publicly, but he cried for Elmer Ellsworth.
Just as Fox left the White House, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and an unnamed reporter from The New York Herald, entered the library. They were there on “a pressing matter of public business,” and John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries, did not yet know of Ellsworth’s death and gave them access to the president. As the two men entered the office, Lincoln was standing with his back to the door, looking out a window toward the Potomac River. As the men drew close he turned, his eyes filled with tears and his whole countenance one of profound grief. He extended his hand, uttering, “Excuse me, but I cannot talk.” The men thought a cold had roughened his voice, but then Lincoln pulled a large handkerchief out of his pocket and again burst into tears.
The Herald reporter recorded his impressions:
He [Lincoln] walked up and down the room for some moments, and we stepped aside in silence, not a little moved at such an unusual spectacle in such a man and in such a place. After composing himself somewhat, Mr. Lincoln sat down and invited us to him. ‘I will make no apology, gentlemen,’ said he, ‘for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard. Just as you entered the room, Captain Fox left me, after giving me the painful details of his unfortunate death. The event was so unexpected, and the recital so touching, that it quite unmanned me.
Ellsworth would be laid out in an iron “window” coffin for the White House funeral. It was painted to look like rosewood, and the upper half of the coffin’s lid contained an oval glass window to view the top part of the remains. He was dressed in his formal Zouave uniform—his jaunty red cap, formal sword, and kidskin gloves placed on top of the casket. The captured Confederate flag, stained with Ellsworth’s blood, was folded across the foot of the coffin, as it would be in subsequent services.
Lincoln asked the Rev. Dr. Smith Pyne of St. John’s Episcopal Church to give the funeral oration. Near the head of the casket stood Private Brownell, the Springfield rifle with which he had “avenged” Ellsworth’s death on his shoulder. After several hours, a full military cortege, complete with muffled drums, furled flags, and Ellsworth’s riderless black horse, escorted the colonel’s remains to Union Station. There, with an eight-member guard of New York Fire Zouaves, his body was put on a special funeral train for New York City.
There, in City Hall, Ellsworth’s coffin lay in state. More than 10,000 mourners filed past to pay their respects. Later in the day, a private service was held for him at the Astor House, where his devastated parents took custody of his body before escorting it, along with his honor guard, on a steamer up the Hudson River to Albany.
Church bells tolled and a cannon saluted as the steamer docked in the state capital the morning of May 27. The Albany Zouaves, a local militia unit organized just after Ellsworth’s 1860 Zouave tour had performed in their city, escorted the coffin to the capitol, where they placed it on a large catafalque prepared in the State Assembly’s chamber. Thousands of mourners streamed past, remembering that bright “Zouave” summer less than a year ago, and thinking of the sons, brothers, and husbands they had sent to Washington in response to Lincoln’s first call for troops. Brownell left the coffin only once, to speak to Governor Morgan and tell him, firsthand, the story of what had happened that day in Alexandria.
Ellsworth’s body was eventually taken by train to Mechanicville to complete the sad journey. The distance from the railroad depot to the hilltop burial ground was a little over a mile. In the funeral procession were Ellsworth’s parents, the Black-Plumed Riflemen of Stillwater (at least those who had not joined the Army), most of the local townspeople, and Ellsworth’s Zouave honor guard, still marching together in sad cadence. A late May afternoon thunderstorm erupted in the middle of the procession, referred to as “tears from God himself.” It finally cleared up, and mourners filed past the casket for three hours.
Private Brownell sat on the wooden platform, holding the flag that had started it all. The crowd asked to see the flag, so he stood and unrolled it, to groans at the sight of Ellsworth’s bloodstains. Brownell then dropped the flag to the wooden floor and stomped on it with his booted foot. At 5 p.m., ropes finally lowered the coffin into the ground. The Zouave honor guard fired three volleys in salute, then put down their rifles and picked up shovels. Those eight men buried their little colonel, each saying a final, private goodbye.
The 19th-century world viewed death very differently than people do today. When he was killed, Ellsworth had already experienced the death of his brother from typhoid. He lived at a time when infant mortality was so high that parents knew to prepare themselves for early loss. What might seem unnatural to many today—that a parent might bury a child—was the natural order of things in antebellum America.
This idea was especially significant to parents of a young man heading off to war. Ellsworth himself was highly aware of this. Before heading to Alexandria, Va., the colonel wrote letters to his parents and fiancée, Carrie Spafford. Although soldiers did not necessarily court death, it was always present in their lives. Ellsworth wanted his loved ones to know he was ready to make this final sacrifice, as this would help them mourn, if necessary.
“The Good Death”—a concept concerning the understanding of mortality—presented an ideal death experience for both the dying and the living. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, defines a “good death” as a set of rituals for dying based on Victorian beliefs. In mostly Christian America and Britain, how one died epitomized the life just ended, and predicted the quality of life everlasting. The battlefield deaths of Civil War soldiers, dying unattended by family and unable to atone for improper actions, was going to be exceedingly difficult for Americans both North and South to accept, but that terrifying reality was still about two months away.
Ellsworth was the last public figure of the time to be given the honor of a Good Death, and the North followed as many of the prescribed rituals as possible. For a historical moment, the esteemed colonel became the Union’s brother, son, and loved one.
Music, poetry, and art were ways in which Americans celebrated the life and death of the deceased, as these things kept the image of the fallen hero always visible. The North was quick to capitalize on the patriotic spirit created by everything Ellsworth had ever done. The nationalistic music industry was invigorated, with compositions written to honor Ellsworth providing a large part of the energy.
One effort, the “Zouave Cadets’ Quickstep,” had been composed by A.J. Vaas, conductor of the Light 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 in their tour performances. Root and Cady, a Chicago publishing firm, produced a piano version that sold well. “Messrs. Root and Cady…are daily receiving orders by the hundred, from all the principal cities of the Union.” In general, the steady stream of patriotic music became a flood. At least nine different musical tributes can be found in various library collections nationally, and these are completely written and inscribed. Funeral marches, dirges, and ballads bear witness to the national outpouring of grief and mourning that took place for Ellsworth.
Death poetry as part of the outpouring of grief in the rituals of the Good Death had long been a staple in antebellum America, but the Civil War brought a new permutation—the “Dying Soldier Poem.” It was a stylized type of verse that sought to give heroic significance to individual war deaths, which in reality may have occurred en masse, or from disease rather than in battle. This poetry brought the reader directly to the point at which the death occurs, where the soldier fearlessly confronts the inevitable while keeping his thoughts on the heavenly rewards which were surely his due. In a “Dying Soldier Poem,” every death was beautiful and heroic. Today such works might be considered painfully formulaic and maudlin, but they served a specific purpose: to help the living remember their soldier and to realize that no war death was in vain, no matter what the actual circumstances of that death. So many memorial poems appeared after Ellsworth’s death that it is almost impossible to catalog them.
Because Ellsworth was the first Union “hero” to fall in a time when the war was more an idea than a reality, he became a cult-like figure in the eyes of the Union. Poems, songs, sermons, and memorial envelopes lamented his loss, thousands of parents named their babies after him, and streets and towns still bear his name. Memorial images of Ellsworth’s death appeared in every Northern city’s news publications. The best of these is the painting by Alonzo Chappel, who also painted Lincoln and other prominent American historical figures. Copies of the painting were made in the years following Ellsworth’s death. The print firm of Currier & Ives rushed to their presses a stylized version of the event, which included Francis Brownell and James Jackson. Although this print is less historically accurate than Chappel’s painting, it was the most widely distributed of all the images created. Many remain in existence today.
Both Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s were lavishly illustrated papers, and their artists returned to the topic of Ellsworth many times after his murder. Newspapers created drawings of Ellsworth’s carte de visite images as well as other images made by photographers of the day. Both Brownell’s image, as well as that of 11th New York Lieutenant Stephen W. Stryker, was copied from his portrait sitting, after Ellsworth’s death, at the Mathew Brady Studio in Washington, D.C., as well as a photograph of him taken in Albany during the funeral procession. All these images were widely distributed throughout the North and helped to arouse the feelings of national mourning that engulfed the region.
Elmer Ellsworth did not die at home, his hand held lovingly by Phebe or Carrie. He was killed in a Virginia hotel, bleeding out on worn wooden floorboards. He was the first of many denied a Good Death by a war that would quickly become known as “cruel” by all concerned. Reconstructing the Good Death when a loved one had died far away from home was one of the greatest challenges of the Civil War. The best solution, North or South, was a letter of condolence—a “letter home” from a comrade or a commander. All soldiers struggled within themselves to make sense of the slaughter, but even more so, they struggled to communicate the circumstances of a death to those eager to know the fate of the men so dearly loved and missed.
Knowing the deceased might never be found and moved to a home cemetery, the letter of condolence assumed an importance it had never enjoyed before. Homage given to the dead was offered not only out of respect; it was a way of reclaiming a sense of selfhood in a situation where individuality barely existed. The sanctity and integrity of human life, so obviously absent from a pile of severed limbs or corpses, could be reaffirmed in a personal letter. Most soldiers hoped that, if they were killed, someone would do the same for them, recognizing and honoring their existence.
Receiving a condolence letter from Abraham Lincoln himself honored Ellsworth’s family. Lincoln was famous for his elegant words in speeches and writings, and his letter of condolence to Ellsworth’s parents is one of his most famous pieces of personal correspondence. It was written the day after the East Room funeral and had remained lying on Lincoln’s desk for several days. With deep compassion, Lincoln praised his friend Ellsworth to his grieving parents. It is easy to picture the still-distraught president sitting at his desk, the telegram to his left:
May 25, 1861
To the Father And Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:
My dear Sir or Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste so altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.
Sincerely your friend in common affliction,
Why did the Union embrace the death of Ellsworth so completely? Did Lincoln’s grief set the tone, or was there some indescribable something, realized only in the atoms of Union bone marrow, that whispered the promise of a long, sad war? Politicians and the military on both sides had predicted a short war, and an end to the “unpleasantness” before it was fairly begun; but then, Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman knew better: “[Y]ou might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun. I…think it is to be a long war—very long—much longer than any politician thinks.”
In a nation used to adhering to rigid customs regarding the body of the deceased and its burial, and mourning, the Civil War would create many changes in form, although not in underlying attitudes. Ellsworth’s elaborate multi-state funeral was the last of its kind, until that other terrible death—Lincoln’s—in April 1865. In between, two nations sought ways to ease the grief of broken bodies and broken hearts. Resting in peace was impossible while the war still ripped the country apart. Many Union families were quickly exhausted by their personal experiences with loss, which could not be appropriately honored or remembered in the old ways. The memory of one soldier’s grand funeral would have to suffice. It must have given comfort to forlorn families, as many of them simply never saw their loved ones again.
“Never,” it was opined in The New York Times, “has a man of Ellsworth’s age commanded such national respect and regard in so short a space.”
Adapted with permission from First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero (Savas Beatie, 2021). Meg Groeling, a teacher for more than 30 years, writes from Salinas, Calif.
This article first appeared in America’s Civil War magazine
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