Col. Elmer Ellsworth, Early Civil War Martyr

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Elmer Ellsworth, Organizer of Zouave Militia Companies, Became a Martyr

Elmer Ellsworth
Elmer Ellsworth. Library of Congress

Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth rocketed to fame at a young age, befriended Abraham Lincoln, and became a very early casualty of the Civil War. His violent and newsworthy death only weeks into the conflict made him a martyr throughout the North.

Countless printed images of him, along with cries to "Avenge Ellsworth," helped to spur recruitment for volunteer regiments in the summer of 1861.

While not widely remembered today, Ellsworth received a funeral service in the East Room of the White House, and when his body was transported to New York City he was honored with a lavish tribute at the City Hall.

Early Life of Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth’s life began in obscurity, in 1837, in the village of Malta, New York. He received a minimal education, which thwarted his ambition to attend West Point and become an officer in the U.S. Army.

Educating himself, Ellsworth eventually became a law clerk in Illinois. At a time when American towns often had local militia companies, which were essentially drill teams that performed in parades, Ellsworth became the commander of a militia based in Chicago.

Learning what he could about military tactics and discipline, Ellsworth became fascinated with the French Zouaves, elite infantry soldiers who had fought in the Crimean War. The Zouaves wore elaborate and garish uniforms consisting of brightly colored baggy pants and short jackets. The distinctive uniforms had been adapted by the French from local fighters in Algeria in the 1830s.

Ellsworth reportedly ordered books from France so he could learn everything about Zouave regiments, uniforms, drills, and military tactics. He became convinced that the American military needed units of Zouaves.

Ellsworth Organized a Touring Troupe, The U.S. Zouave Cadets

Ellsworth turned his militia company into a precision drill team dressed as Zouaves. Billed as the "The U.S. Zouave Cadets" they toured 20 American cities in the summer of 1860.

The tour by the Zouave Cadets made Ellsworth a celebrity. With the threat of war hanging over the country, the public became fascinated by the showmanship of the 23-year-old Ellsworth and the dazzling military precision of the Zouaves.

A dispatch in the New York Tribune on August 6, 1860 noted that the Zouaves and Ellsworth had visited Washington's Tomb at Mount Vernon. And while visiting the White House, President Buchanan had invited the Zouaves to perform their precision drills on the south lawn.

By the autumn of 1860 Ellsworth had returned to Chicago, and newspapers were reporting that he was planning to organize other regiments of Zouaves. With war on the horizon, Ellsworth was trying to get the North ready.

And Ellsworth's fame was spreading. A New York Times article in November 1860 noted that Ellsworth had received hundreds of letters asking for information about Zouaves, and to accommodate his fans he had lithographs made detailing the elaborate uniforms.

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Elmer Ellsworth Recruited a Fighting Regiment of New York City Firemen

Elmer Ellsworth Recruited the Fire Zouaves
Elmer Ellsworth Recruited New York City Fireman to Fight as the Fire Zouaves in the Civil War. Library of Congress

Following the successful tour of the U.S. Zouave Cadets, Ellsworth spent the fall of 1860 campaigning for Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election. Ellsworth had known the candidate in Illinois, and they had become friends.

Following Lincoln’s election Ellsworth accompanied the president-elect on his famous train journey through northern cities to Washington, D.C. There were serious threats that Lincoln would be assassinated on the trip before ever being able to take the oath of office, and Ellsworth essentially served as an aide and bodyguard.

Ellsworth Recruited Soldiers From the New York City Fire Department

Following the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln put out a call on April 15, 1861 for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union Army.

Ellsworth immediately traveled to New York City, and within three days he placed notices in the city's newspapers calling for members of the Fire Department to volunteer for a new regiment. It was to be called the New York Firemen Zouave Regiment.

When asked why he was recruiting from among the city's firemen, Ellsworth answered: "I want the New York firemen for there are no more effective men in the country and none with whom I can do so much. Our friends at Washington are sleeping on a volcano and I want men who are ready at any moment to plunge into the thickest of the fight."

The firemen tended to be pretty rough characters, and there were serious doubts that Ellsworth could train city toughs to be soldiers. But the men were enthusiastic, and after an exuberant parade in New York City, they traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the war effort.

A newspaper article on May 3, 1861 noted that the new regiment, consisting of 1,100 men led by Col. Ellsworth, was being quartered in the United States Capitol, in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

The New York Fire Zouaves Became Heroes in Washington

Not long after arriving in Washington, the Zouaves got a familiar call to action when a city landmark, Willard’s Hotel, caught fire on the morning of May 9, 1861.

A Washington newspaper, The National Republican, published a glowing article the next day describing the action.

Headlined “Heroic Conduct of the New York Fire Zouaves,” the article detailed how the “conflagration” broke out and the call for help reached the New Yorkers. Racing to the scene, dozens of the Fire Zouaves manned engines, climbed through windows, and managed to put out the flames.

The article also described how Col. Ellsworth had addressed the Fire Zouaves, alluding to their reputation as New York City brawlers: “I trust that, in defiance of the opinion so generally entertained of the Zouave Firemen, you will make it clear to all that you can not only perform your duty when occasion requires, but when that duty is performed, be it as firemen or as soldiers, you can conduct yourselves as gentlemen, and quietly return to your homes.”

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Col. Ellsworth was Killed After Lowering a Confederate Flag at a Virginia Hotel

The Shooting of Col. Ellsworth and His Killer
The Shooting of Col. Ellsworth Was Depicted in Lithographs Which Received Wide Distribution. Library of Congress

After the New York Fire Zouaves demonstrated their courage and zeal while saving Willard’s Hotel in early May 1861, it seemed that Col. Ellsworth and his regiment could do no wrong.

A Washington newspaper even mentioned that some of the Zouaves, while “taking a stroll in the country,” had come across a farmer in Maryland who was hurrying to get his spring planting of corn into the ground.

According to the story, “they determined to help him out; so, pulling off their jackets, they pitched in with hearty good will, and did the job up in short order. They then marched back to camp, as tickled as a cat with two tails."

Col. Ellsworth Was Shot While Removing a Confederate Flag

When the Union Army made its first move into Virginia, crossing the Potomac to seize the towns closest to Washington, Ellsworth and his Zouaves boarded two steamers. They crossed the river to Alexandria on May 24, 1861.

Marching into the center of town late that afternoon, Ellsworth noticed a large Confederate flag flying from the top of a hotel, the Marshal House. Believing it to be a flag which was actually visible from Washington, Ellsworth was determined to capture it.

Entering the hotel, Ellsworth quickly went to the rooftop, where he lowered the flag and folded it up, intending to keep it as a trophy. As he descended a staircase in the hotel, the proprietor, a pro-secessionist Virginian named James Jackson, appeared with a shotgun.

According to a newspaper report the following day, the innkeeper “discharged the contents of one of the barrels into the heart of the noble and brave-hearted Colonel.”

Col. Elmer Ellsworth died instantly.

“Private Brownell, of the Zouaves,” reported the newspaper, “turned, and before the assassin had time to again fire, shot him through the center of the forehead.”

Jackson was then “bayoneted to the floor,” according to the newspaper account, his body left in the hotel as “a warning to all his rebellious sympathizers.”

Cries to "Avenge Ellsworth" Were Immediate

The body of Elmer Ellsworth was wrapped in a sheet, carried by the Fire Zouaves to the Alexandria docks, and placed aboard one of the steamers which had delivered the regiment. The flag of the ship was lowered to half-mast, and Ellsworth’s body was returned to Washington.

The effect of Ellsworth's death was profound. In the following days newspapers throughout the north ran extensive stories on what had happened in Alexandria, and the New York Tribune produced an issue with an illustration of Ellsworth at the center of the front page.

Col. Elmer Ellsworth had become a martyr at the age of 24.

The New York Fire Zouaves were outraged that their leader had been cut down. After the violent incident at the hotel, Union commanders ordered Ellsworth's men to spend the night aboard a ship in the Potomac, as it was feared the regiment might burn the city of Alexandria.

The cry to "Avenge Ellsworth" which began with the Fire Zouaves would soon be a national sensation.

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President Abraham Lincoln Was Devastated By the Tragic News About Col. Ellsworth

Col. Ellsworth's Funeral Was Held In the East Room of the White House
Col. Ellsworth's Funeral Was Held In the East Room of the White House, and a Devastated President Lincoln Sat Near the Coffin. Library of Congress

When President Lincoln received the news about Ellsworth the next morning at the White House, he reportedly lost his composure and burst into tears.

A visitor later recalled Lincoln's words: "I make no apology, gentlemen, 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 Ellsworth's unfortunate death. The event was so unexpected and the recital so touching that it quite unnerved me."

A Funeral Service for Col. Ellsworth Was Held at the White House

Considered a hero and a martyr for the Union cause, Col. Elmer Ellsworth's funeral was held, by order of President Lincoln, in the East Room of the White House. During the service, Lincoln sat with his head in his hands near Ellsworth's coffin.

Following the White House service a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue brought Ellsworth's body to the train station. Flags throughout Washington had been lowered to half-mast, and onlookers crowded the streets to pay their respects.

A Funeral Procession Was Held in New York City

After a railroad journey to New York City, Ellsworth's body lay in repose at the Astor House, the city's most prominent hotel. A program of honorary pallbearers contained prominent names, including John Jacob Astor, Jr., the son of the first American millionaire, and William M. Tweed, the city's fire commissioner, who would would later become notorious as "Boss Tweed," the leader of Tammany Hall.

On May 26, 1861, elaborate services for Col. Ellworth were held in New York. His body was moved from the Astor House to the City Hall, where thousands of mourners filed past his coffin.

By late afternoon a massive procession brought Ellsworth's body through the city to a dock where a steamer would take his body up the Hudson to the area where he had spent his childhood. He was buried in Mechanicville, New York, at a site near the Hudson River.

Reporting on the funeral procession, The New York Times noted that a Fire Department engine house on Worth Street, near Broadway, "had a banner, on which was inscribed, 'Ellsworth: His Blood Cries for Vengeance.'"

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The Cries to Avenge Ellsworth Became a Sensation In the North

The Fate of Ellsworth Was Depicted in Illustrated Magazines
The Violent Fate of Col. Ellsworth Was Dramatically Depicted in Illustrated Magazines. Library of Congress

While the killing of Col. Ellsworth isn't widely remembered today, his violent death was a monumental event in the early days of the Civil War. And the cries to "Avenge Ellsworth" became a sensation, prompting thousands of men to enlist in the Union Army.

The story of his life was portrayed in countless newspaper and magazines, and prints of Ellsworth sold widely. Millions of northerners bought envelopes printed with colorful depictions of Ellsworth.

New York State Formed a Regiment Called the "Ellsworth Avengers"

Soon after Ellsworth's death, political and civic leaders in his home state of New York proposed to form a volunteer regiment in his honor. The result was a recruiting drive in the summer of 1861 for the Forty-Fourth Regiment, New York Volunteers.

The new regiment, which was first mustered in August 1861, was known as Ellsworth's Avengers.

As a gift to the regiment, A. Lora Hudson, a young woman who lived near Albany, New York, wrote a song titled "Ellsworth's Avengers," which contained the following lyrics:

First to fall thou youthful martyr,
Hapless was thy fate,
Hasten we as thy avengers from thy native state.
Speed we on from town and city,
Not for wealth or fame,
But because we love the Union
And our Ellsworth's name.

To help the Forty-Fourth New York Regiment organize, a number of men from Chicago who had served with Ellsworth in the U.S. Zouave Cadets a year earlier traveled to New York and joined the ranks.

The Ellsworth Avengers served throughout the Civil War, and a monument to the regiment stands on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The Martrydom of Col. Ellsworth Spurred Enlistments

It is hard to understand 150 years later, but the veneration of Col. Ellsworth became something of a cult throughout the North. Ministers gave sermons about him and newspapers published editorials about his bravery and sacrifice.

It even became a fad to name babies for him. A Google search today will find references to a number of men who lived in the late 1800s and whose first names and middle names are, respectively, Elmer and Ellsworth.

There were even towns named for Ellsworth, such as Ellsworth, Michigan, and Ellsworth, Iowa.

The soldier who first avenged Ellsworth, Private Francis E. Brownell, posed for a photograph in which he stood upon the flag that Ellsworth had taken down at the Marshal House Hotel in Alexandria. The photographic card of Brownell, dressed in his Zouave pantaloons and jacket, sold very well as a souvenir.

Brownell, who survived the Civil War, saved souvenirs of that day in Virginia, including his rifle and bayonet. In the 1870s he donated them to the Smithsonian Institution, where they are displayed in honor of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

There is little doubt that for countless Americans, including even Abraham Lincoln, the loss of Col. Ellsworth bought home the reality that the war which had barely begun would be very costly.

And while he may be a forgotten hero, Elmer Ellsworth's role in life and death reveals much about America at the beginning of the Civil War.