He was the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Celebrated commander of the elite Chicago Zouave Cadets and close friend of Abraham Lincoln, Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth would expand his zealous company into the Eleventh New York Volunteers when the Union dissolved, better known as the “Fire Zouaves” because of their extensive recruitment from the fire companies of New York.
Yet this man who would become the war’s first hero would never see a battlefield. Sent to Alexandria, Virginia, on 24 May 1861, the day after Virginia citizens voted for secession, Ellsworth ordered Company E to destroy the city’s railroad tracks to Richmond. Then with eight others, he set off for the telegraph office to cut the wires.
“We passed quickly through the streets,” recalled New York Tribune correspondent Edward H. House, “meeting a few bewildered travelers … when the Colonel first of all caught sight of the Secession flag, which has so long swung insolently in full view of the President’s House.”
“Boys, we must have that down before we return,” proclaimed Ellsworth, eyeing the broad, brazen rebel colors waving from the roof of the three-story Marshall House.
What happened next is Civil War legend. Folding the confiscated flag as he walked down the steps from the roof of the hotel, Ellsworth was shot in the chest at point-blank range by ardent secessionist and hotel proprietor James W. Jackson … who was then shot in the face and bayoneted repeatedly by Pvt. Francis Brownell of Company A, an action that would earn Brownell the Medal of Honor in 1877.
When President Lincoln heard the tragic news in the second floor library of the White House later that morning, he stared out the window across the Potomac, telling two gentlemen there on business, “Excuse me, but I cannot talk.” He then burst into tears and covered his face with a handkerchief. After composing himself, he invited his guests to sit down. “I will take no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”
On Lincoln’s orders, Ellsworth’s embalmed body — an uncommon mortuary practice that would be tragically expanded over the next four years — lay in state in the White House. The dead Zouave colonel would also become the first cause celebre of the Union, his image placed on memorial envelopes, his last act lionized in northern papers, his memory eulogized in verse, and the 44th New York Regiment taking the name, Ellsworth’s Avengers.
Yet beyond visiting Ellsworth’s grave in Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicville, New York, what else endures of this man? Yes, towns in Michigan and Wisconsin take their name from the colonel, and a good portion of historic Alexandria endures. But the Marshall House at the corner of King and South Pitt Streets was torn down more than half a century ago.
Students of the war in Virginia, however, can view Ellsworth’s well-preserved kepi at nearby Fort Ward and while there see a scrap of the flag the 24-year-old colonel cut down, still stained in his blood. Indeed that flag grabbed lots of attention during and after the war, Brownell’s widow offering cut squares of it for $10-15 each as late as 1894. Other examples are preserved at Bates College in Maine and in the holdings of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History on the Washington Mall where the double-barreled shotgun James W. Jackson used to kill Ellsworth is also preserved.
But the most enduring item from this tragedy — indeed what many consider the first true war relic of the Civil War — is Ellsworth’s pristinely preserved Zouave uniform — the fatal gunshot hole still visible below the second button above the wearer’s heart on the faded, blood-cleaned wool — on display at the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. There, visitors can also see the bulk of the secessionist flag the colonel cut down from the pole atop the Marshall House 150 years ago this coming Tuesday.
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