Today is the 158th anniversary of the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War. His death is also notable because he was a national celebrity and a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln.
Ellsworth had become famous before the Civil War when he toured the country in the summer of 1860 with his drill team, the National Guard Cadets of Chicago, more famously known as the United States Zouave Cadets. The unit was famous for its spectacular drill sequences and helped inspire many Zouave units that would appear during the Civil War.
When war broke out and Lincoln called for 75,000 militia, Ellsworth raised a regiment from the volunteer fire companies of New York City. This unit, the 11th New York Infantry, became known as Ellsworth’s “Fire Zouaves.” The unit actually helped put out fires in the Washington D.C. area after they arrived in the capital. They also became famous (infamous?) for their rowdy behavior, doing things like dining at fine restaurants and then telling the staff to charge the bill to the government.
On May 23rd, the regiment was ordered to participate in the occupation of Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from the capital. Ellsworth, accompanied by a few officers and men, went to occupy the telegraph office. On the way there, they spotted a large Confederate flag flying from the Marshall House, a hotel. Ellsworth had seen the flag before from the White House, and vowed to remove it. From a side door they entered the hotel and headed up the stairs to the roof, where Ellsworth borrowed a knife and cut the flag down. The group was heading back down the stairs when they were confronted by the hotel’s proprietor, James W. Jackson, who jumped out in front of them, taking them by surprise.
Jackson fired one barrel of his shotgun into Ellsworth’s chest, killing him instantly. Jackson then attempted to fire the second barrel at an enlisted man, Francis Brownell. Brownell knocked the barrel of the shotgun up, so the shot missed, then he in turn shot Jackson in the face and then bayonetted his body. Brownell would later receive a promotion to corporal and the Medal of Honor.
Ellsworth’s body would lay in state in the White House, and later in New York City, where thousands of people turned out to see him. “Remember Ellsworth!” became a rallying cry for the Union, repeated on recruiting posters and patriotic stationery.
A regiment raised in New York after his death, the 44th New York Infantry, became known as “Ellsworth’s Avengers”. Towns in several states were named after him.