Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 24, 1861: Death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born on April 11, 1837.  He grew up in Mechanicville, New York before moving to New York City.  In 1854, he moved to Rockford, Illinois.  In 1860, he read (studied) the law and clerked in Abraham Lincoln's law office.    He assisted in Lincoln's presidential election campaign and moved into the White House with the Lincoln family in 1861.   

In 1857, Ellsworth became the drillmaster for the Rockford Greys militia company.  He later assisted in the training of militia units in Wisconsin before moving to Chicago to become the colonel of the National Guard Cadets, which he reorganized as the United States Zouave Cadets and took on tour of cities throughout the US.   President Lincoln was unsuccessful in creating a Department of Militia, which Ellsworth could command so Ellsworth moved to New York City to create the First New York City Fire Zouaves (11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment).  Among the Zouaves were Lieutenant William Mathews, of Belvidere, in Company K, and 14 year old Jacob H. Cole, of Paterson, in Company A.

Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves arrived in Washington, DC on May 2, 1861 and set up Camp Lincoln on the lawn of the White House.    On May 23, the commonwealth of Virginia voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America.  On May 24, President Lincoln looked out a White House window and spotted a large Confederate flag flying over Alexandria, Virginia.  Ellsworth volunteered to tear down the flag.

The night before going to Alexandria, Ellsworth wrote a letter to his parents, "The regiment is ordered to move across the river to night.  We have no means of knowing what reception we are to meet with.  I am inclined to the opinion that our entrance to the city of Alexandria will be hotly contested, as I am just informed a large force have arrived there today.  Should this happen, my dear parents, it may be my lot to be injured in some manner.  Whatever does happen, cherish the consolation that I was engaged in the performance of a sacred duty; and to night, thinking over the possibilities of to-morrow, and the occurrences of the past, I am perfectly content to accept whatever my fortune may be, confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me.  My darling and ever loved parents, good by, God bless, protect and care for you. Elmer"

Col. Ellsworth led the Fire Zouaves across the Potomac River to Alexandria (the North's first invasion of the South).  Jacob Cole recalled in his 1906 book, Under Five Commanders, "We were early assembled and marched to the Potomac River, and taking boats, we floated down the river until we were opposite Alexandria, Virginia, where we made a landing.  Shortly after landing, and while marching through the streets of the city, Colonel Ellsworth saw a large Confederate flag flying from the roof of the Marshall House." 

Ellsworth detailed some of his men to capture the railroad station and the telegraph office.  He then march his men to the Marshall House.  Cole recalled, " The colonel, accompanied by some of his regiment, ascended the stairs to the roof and hauled down the flag. when coming down the stairs, folding the flag, he was met by [innkeeper James] Jackson, who, without warning, deliberately shot and killed Colonel Ellsworth.  Hardly had he committed the cowardly act when he was shot and killed by Sergeant Brownell [actually Corporal Francis E. Brownell, of Troy, NY]."  Corp. Brownell was awarded the Medal of Honor for killing Jackson.  

According to newspaper reports, Jackson pointed a double barrel shotgun at Brownell first, and Brownell struck the gun with his musket.  Jackson pulled the trigger as the shotgun was parried by Brownell. The shot hit Ellsworth between the third and fifth ribs.  Ellsworth hit the floor exclaiming "My God...!" and then died.  Brownell leveled his musket at Jackson and fired. The musket ball struck Jackson on the bridge of his nose and smashed through his skull, killing him instantly.  As Jackson fell, Brownell thrust his bayonet into Jackson.  The Zouaves who accompanied Ellsworth held back the lodgers as they ran toward the bodies.  

Ellsworth's body was taken to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where Mary Todd Lincoln visited the body on behalf of her husband.  President Lincoln ordered Ellsworth to be brought to the White House by an honor guard so he could lie in state in the East Room.  Corp. Brownell was a member of the Honor Guard.  

Jackson's body was taken to Fairfax, VA for a funeral.  Union troops later ransacked the Marshall House, stealing all the furniture.

On May 25, a new militia company was formed in Phillipsburg.  The company was a cavalry or mounted rifle company attached to the Warren Brigade.  The name of the new militia company was The Ellsworth Company.

In Belvidere, Captain Phineas B. Kennedy, 1st Lieutenant Calvin James and 2nd Lieutenant Richard T. Drake enrolled 100 men for the new Belvidere Infantry Company, of the Warren Brigade. 
Copyright 1997-2011: Jay C. Richards

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