The Civil War #2
By Daniel J. Vance
Elmer Ellsworth was a 24-year-old New York native who had studied law in Chicago, been hired in 1860 as a law clerk for Abraham Lincoln, and managed Lincoln’s journey from Illinois to Washington after Lincoln won the 1860 election.
While in Chicago, he had been a National Guard colonel. So right before the Civil War began, it made sense for him to return to New York to recruit a regiment, the 11th New York Volunteers, which he then led to Washington.
Then on May 23, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. To create a buffer zone around Washington, the next day, Col. Ellsworth and his regiment crossed the Potomac River joining other units to occupy Alexandria, Virginia. In weeks prior, a 8- by 14-foot Confederate flag had been seen from Lincoln’s White House office flying atop the Marshall Inn in Alexandria. When Ellsworth and others entered the inn to lower the rebel flag, innkeeper James Jackson shot Ellsworth dead. Cpl. Francis Brownell then killed Jackson. Ellsworth was the first Union officer to die in the Civil War.
Ellsworth’s body lay in state at the White House and was transported to New York City, where, according to Smithsonian magazine, “thousands lined up to view the cortege bearing Ellsworth’s coffin. Along the route, a group of mourners displayed a banner that declared: ‘Ellsworth, ‘His blood cries for vengeance.””
In a letter to Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth, Elmer’s parents, Lincoln, still grieving himself, wrote, “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 altogether military, constituted in him, as 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 a common affliction—A. Lincoln.”
[Daniel J. Vance was editor of Connect Business Magazine from 1996-2015. He wrote the newspaper column Disabilities from 2003-17. He lives in Vernon Center, Minnesota.]