Elmer E. Ellsworth

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Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth
Col. Elmer Ellsworth (1861)
Born (1837-04-11)April 11, 1837
Malta, New York, U.S.
Died May 24, 1861(1861-05-24) (aged 24)
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
Buried at Hudson View Cemetery
Mechanicville, New York, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1861
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Unit 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars American Civil War
Death of Col. Ellsworth, a Currier and Ives engraving, 1861
Marshall House, Alexandria, Virginia - place where Elmer Ellsworth was shot to death. (photo 1861)
Last letter written by Elmer Ellsworth before he was killed. (1861-05-23)

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (April 11, 1837 – May 24, 1861) was a law clerk and United States Army soldier, best known as the first conspicuous casualty of the American Civil War.[1] He was killed in the process of removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a Virginia hotel.

Early life

Ellsworth was born in Malta, New York, grew up in Mechanicville, New York, and lived in New York City. In 1854, he moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he worked for a patent agency. In 1859, he became engaged to Carrie Spafford, the daughter of a local industrialist and city leader. Carrie's father demanded that he find more suitable employment, so he moved to Chicago, to study law and work as a law clerk.

In 1860, Ellsworth went to Springfield, Illinois, to work with Abraham Lincoln. He studied law in Lincoln's office and helped Lincoln with his 1860 campaign for president. Ellsworth was only 5' 6" tall, but Lincoln called Ellsworth "the greatest little man I ever met." He accompanied Lincoln to Washington, D.C. in 1861.

Military career

Ellsworth became drillmaster of the "Rockford Greys", the local militia company, in 1857. He studied military science in his spare time. After some success with the Greys, he helped train militia units in Milwaukee and Madison. When he moved to Chicago he became colonel of Chicago's National Guard Cadets.

Ellsworth had studied the Zouave soldiers, French colonial troops in Algeria, and was impressed by their reported fighting quality. He outfitted his men in gaudy Zouave-style uniforms, and modeled their drill and training on the Zouaves. Ellsworth's unit eventually became a nationally famous drill team.

The Civil War broke into open warfare in April, and on April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down rebellion. Ellsworth helped recruit these soldiers: he raised the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the "Fire Zouaves") from New York City's volunteer firefighting companies, and returned to Washington as their colonel.


Ellsworth died shortly after returning to Washington. He had, on previous occasions, joined the Lincolns in "peering curiously across the river at [a] large rebel banner that had mocked them for a month from the skyline of Alexandria. [...] For some anxious Unionists, that flag was becoming a symbol of the administration's slowness to move against the gathering forces of the Confederacy."[2] On May 24, 1861 (the day after Virginia's secession was ratified by referendum), with an order that came a day prior, Ellsworth found himself and his troops victorious in the face of a retreating confederate army in Alexandria. And on this day, Ellsworth would cut down the banner that he had seen countless times from the other side of the river. (This was not the later-designed, more famous "Battle flag", but rather the official "Stars and Bars" flag that more closely resembles the Union flag.)

On May 24, Ellsworth led the 11th New York across the Potomac and into the streets of Alexandria uncontested. He detached some men to take the railroad station while he led others to secure the telegraph office. On his way there, Ellsworth turned a corner and came face to face with the Marshall House Inn, atop of which the banner was still flying. He ordered a company of infantry as reinforcements and continued on his way to the telegraph office. But suddenly, Ellsworth changed his mind, turned around, and went up the steps of the Marshall House.

He entered the house accompanied by seven men. Once inside, they found a "disheveled-looking man, only half dressed, who had apparently just gotten out of bed" and who informed them that he was a boarder, upon Ellsworth's demand to know what the Confederate flag was doing atop the hotel.[3] Ellsworth and four men then went upstairs to cut down the flag. As Ellsworth came downstairs with the (very large) flag, the sleepy "boarder" who was actually the owner of the house and one of the most ardent of secessionists in Alexandria, James W. Jackson, killed Ellsworth with a shotgun blast to the chest. Corporal Francis E. Brownell, of Troy, New York, immediately stabbed Jackson with the bayonet on the end of his gun.[4] Brownell was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions.

Lincoln was deeply saddened by his friend's death and ordered an honor guard to bring his friend's body to the White House, where he lay in state in the East Room.[5][6][7] Ellsworth was then taken to the City Hall in New York City, where thousands of Union supporters came to see the first man to fall for the Union cause. Ellsworth was then buried in his hometown of Mechanicville, in the Hudson View Cemetery.

Thousands of Union supporters rallied around Ellsworth's cause and enlisted. "Remember Ellsworth" was a patriotic slogan: the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment called itself the "Ellsworth Avengers", as well as "The People's Ellsworth Regiment."


Relics associated with Ellsworth's death became prized souvenirs. The Smithsonian Institution and Bates College's Special Collections Library have pieces of the Confederate flag that Ellsworth had when he was shot—in 1894, Brownell's widow was offering to sell small pieces of the flag for $10 and $15 each. The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has most of the flag itself and Ellsworth's uniform, showing the hole from the fatal shot. The Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria dedicates a section of their museum to Ellsworth, displaying the kepi he wore when he was killed, patriotic envelopes bearing his image, a piece of the Confederate Flag (on which Ellsworth's blood is visible), and the "O" from the Marshall House sign that a soldier took as a souvenir.

In 1862, the newly established county seat of Pierce County, Wisconsin, located in the undeveloped center of the county to settle the controversy between two established cities, was named Ellsworth, Wisconsin in his honor.

The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia had a major exhibit devoted to Col. Ellsworth.

In addition, Ellsworth, Michigan, Ellsworth, Wisconsin, Fort Ellsworth, and possibly Ellsworth, Iowa were named in his honor.

In popular culture

  • He is a character in the 2012 film Saving Lincoln, in which his death is portrayed.

Selected works

  • Ellsworth, Elmer E. (1861). Complete instructions for the recruit in the light infantry drill: as adapted to the use of the rifled musket, and arranged for the United States Zouave cadets. Cornell University Library. p. 76 pages. ISBN 1-4297-1185-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

See also


  1. Hawthorne, Frederick W. ‘’Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments’’, The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, Hanover PA 1988 p. 54 & 55
  2. Goodheart, p. 280
  3. Goodheart, p. 285
  4. Davis, p. 64.
  5. Goodheart, pp. 288-289
  6. Fragment of Confederate flag cut down by Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, 1861, Smithsonian Institution web site (accessed July 2013).
  7. Schano, N., Let's Learn from the Past: Col. Elmer Ellsworth", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 2012


  • Davis, William C., and the Editors of Time-Life Books. First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983. ISBN 0-8094-4704-5.
  • Randall, Ruth Painter (1960). Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: A biography of Lincoln's friend and first hero of the Civil War. Boston: Little Brown.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bio of Ellsworth
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Goodheart, Adam (2011-04-05). 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 0-3075-9666-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links