Saturday, May 26, 2012

First Blood 1861: The Death of Colonel Ellsworth

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth.

Even though he was a candidate in the 1860 Presidential election, Abraham Lincoln, with his partner William Herndon, still ran a law office at 105 South Fifth Street in Springfield, Illinois. In August of that year a young man five feet six and clean shaven arrived at there to study law under Mr. Lincoln. His name was Elmer E. Ellsworth.

A New Yorker who had been born in Saratoga County in 1837, Ellsworth was sufficiently young to be Lincoln's son. Indeed, it seemed that he was his son at times. With Robert Lincoln away studying at Harvard, Ellsworth took on his role of being the older brother to Tad and Willie, being infected with the measles from them, and when President-elect Lincoln traveled to Washington for his inauguration, Ellsworth went with him.

But before he accompanied Lincoln, Ellsworth in 1860 met Charles A. DeVillier, a veteran of the famous French Zouaves. Inspired by the DeVillier's tales, Ellsworth, influenced by what the Zouaves wore, completely changed the uniform of the Sixtieth Regiment of the Illinois State Militia:

A bright red chasseur cap with gold braid; light blue shirt with moire antique facings; dark blue jacket with orange and red trimmings; brass bell bottoms, placed as close together as possible; a red sash and loose red trousers; russet leather leggings, buttoned over the trousers, reaching from ankle halfway to knee; and a white waistbelt.
Zouave soldier by Matthew Brady.

From Chicago, Ellsworth and fifty men of the Sixtieth dressed in the new attire traveled across the nation, not only amazing audiences with what soldiers were trained to do at the time but challenging other militiamen to drill competitions. On many newspapers, Ellsworth and his U.S. Zouave Cadets were front page news.

Then came Fort Sumter. With the coming of the Civil War, Ellsworth went to New York City, organizing the Eleventh New York, a Zouave regiment 1,100 strong. Since all the New Yorkers were firemen, the unit became known as Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves. Arriving in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1861, Ellsworth and his Fire Zouaves marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. From that point on, they marched in front of the White House and on the South Lawn for the President to see.

Across the Potomac and south of the District of Columbia, Virginia dissolved its bonds with the Union on May 23, 1861, joining the newly formed Confederate States of America. The next day, Colonel Ellsworth and his Eleventh New York crossed the river, disembarking at Alexandria. From there, they went to telegraph office with the intention of cutting all communications between Alexandria and the rest of the Confederacy. As they were heading towards the office, Ellsworth spotted the Confederate Bonnie Blue Flag flying from the Marshall House, a three-story hotel. Going across the street, he entered the house, went up the stairs, and pulled it down; however, going downstares, James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, fired his double-barrel shotgun, killing him. Ellsworth was the first officer to die in the American Civil War.
Marshall House, Alexandria, Va., where Col. Ellsworth was shot down for attempting to remove a Confederate flag from the roof. by Matthew Brady.
Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusettes and a correspondent entered the White House library. Lincoln was there, so was a young captain, too, who had just told him of Ellsworth's fate. A saddened Lincoln turned to Wilson and the reporter, reaching out his hand. "Excuse me, but I cannot talk." was all he could say. He had Ellsworth's body lie in state in the East Room, and on May 26 a funeral service for the dead colonel was performed.

The day before, though, Lincoln tried to console Ellsworth's parents:

What was convulsive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents... In hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address this tribute to your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.

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