Saturday, May 21, 2022

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth -- A Death That Made History -- May 24 1861

  Is Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth a heroic martyr or just another slain tyrant?  Depends on which side you stand with during the early days of 1861.  If you stand with the Union, then he is a heroic martyr who needs to be remembered.  If you stand with the Confederacy, then he is just the first of many tyrants who need to be killed.

Here is a eulogy for him entitled “The Murder of Colonel Ellsworth” printed on May 26, 1861 in the New York City Sunday Mercury Newspaper two days after his death:
We hope, and do not doubt, that every fireman, every patriot, and every American citizen will recollect, and hold in eternal remembrance, the assassination of the young, the gallant, and the glorious Colonel Ellsworth whose fate, at Alexandria on Friday last [May 24], sealed the last seal which consecrates the book of martyrs to the cause of human liberty.  He died at the hands of an assassin – not at the hands of a foeman who met him in the field of war; for, had he died on the field of battle, we might have ascribed his sacrifice to the chances incident to a glorious, or even inglorious, fight.  Young, honorably ambitious, patriotic, and zealous in the cause of his country, he entered the lists of the nation to win a glorious name or a soldier’s grave.  He fell too early and young, but his death shall not go unavenged.  The whole North and North-west will rally to punish the cowards and braggart, who to propagate and advance the cause of human slavery.
Currier and Ives engraving 1861
The murder of Ellsworth will carry fire, faggot, and flame to every region where his assassination shall be applauded by rebels, knaves, and thieves!
Ellsworth!  Brave, determined and gallant!  He led to the field of war our Fire Zouaves, and will they not, and all their sympathizers, rally to avenge the death of their chosen leader and chieftain.
Colonel Ellsworth, though not a resident of the city of New York, and, in some sort, a stranger to our firemen, yet commanded their respect, confidence, and lasting love.  They will not permit his assassination to go unpunished, and woe to be those who hearafter fall into the hands of his enemies.  His death has awakened a feeling, excited loud notes from the tocsin of war, and called into action, which cannot be subdued or silenced until every road of land between the Potomac and the Rio Grande is conquered!

The writer of this eulogy mourns Ellsworth’s death as that of a heroic martyr who gave his life for an honorable cause, and in so doing set an example of courage to be followed by every true patriot – total commitment to human liberty and preserving the union.
Now if you were to ask a young person today “who was Col. Ellsworth, and was he a hero or a villain?”  they would glance up from their smart phone for moment with a total blank look, shrug that they haven’t seen him on YouTube, and then go back to texting their friends that they just got asked a stupid question.  But in early 1861 he became well known because of his death at the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria VA on May 24th.  In fact, “Remember Ellsworth!” became a rallying cry in the North to show support for the Union early in the war.  Poems and songs were written in his memory, and patriotic envelopes showing his picture were very popular.
He was born in Malta, New York (April 11, 1837) and then grew up in nearby Mechanicville.  At age 17 he made his way out west to the state of Illinois where his intense interest in military history and tactics led to his involvement in developing a local Militia company based on the French Zouaves model.  He also clerked and studied law in pursuit of a better livelihood and hopes of gaining approval of beloved young lady’s father so they could marry.  In the summer of 1860 he and his Zouaves toured the North performing precision drills in 20 cities.  This introduced him to Abraham Lincoln who invited him to come to work in Lincoln’s law office in Springfield IL and then help in Lincoln’s presidential campaign.  This connection led to his accompanying President Lincoln to Washington DC.  As political tensions between North and South increased after Lincoln’s election and in response to his call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, Ellsworth went back up to New York City and raised the 11th New York Volunteer Regiment which had many firemen in its ranks, hence the name the Fire Zouaves.  The unit then proceeded to Washington DC in May of 1861 where they encamped at Camp Lincoln on the banks of the Potomac River.  

Some interesting context to Ellsworth's actions which led to his death and fame is recorded in the same May 26th edition of the Sunday Mercury in a letter from a soldier serving in the Fire Zouaves printed in “Letters to the Editor” section.  (All throughout the war, this newspaper was known for printing letters sent to it by soldiers.)  The man in the ranks makes these observations on May 18th, (the date he wrote the letter), about the rising political tensions: “Here we still remain, directly opposite our enemies and the enemies of our country, leading and holding the ‘even tenor of our way’.  Why don’t the knights of the red-tape councils (for, you know, red tape is predominant) order us into immediate action?  Here we remain, in dull inactivity, rusting for want of excitement.  The ‘boys’ would rather attack a second Sebastopol than have days and weeks pass away with ‘nothing to do’.  If an order was promulgated to the effect that we were to have a daring brush or engagement with the rebels, it would be hailed as a god-send.  Directly across the river is the rebel rendezvous – Alexandria.  Is it not tantalizing to see the secession flag flying there, and we unable, though anxious, to pull it down?  Between you and me, and the guardhouse, there was a plot that some fifty of us would secretly cross the river to-night, and bear it away in triumph; but the colonel, by some means unknown to us, discovered the plot, and positively refused to countenance it, therefore, we must let the matter drop for the present.”  [His reference to “attack a second Sebastopol” is a reference to the charge of the Light Brigade, and means ‘we’d rather go down in a glorious defeat than waste away here in camp.’]

From the above letter it is obvious that the Confederate flag flying over James Jackson’s hotel, the Marshall House, was viewed by Col. Ellsworth’s men as a secession insult that needed to be torn down. Jackson had raised the large Star & Bars flag in February to show his support of the Confederacy.  It was large enough so it could be seen across the river by people in Washington DC.  
Virginia ratified the ordinance of secession through popular vote on May 23.  The next day, May 24, Lincoln sent about 13,000 Union troops across the Potomac to secure various strategic points in Virginia.  Col Ellsworth and the Fire Zouaves (11th New York) crossed the river into Alexandria, landed at the city’s wharf where they met no resistance since the small Confederate militia force there had evacuated the town by railroad to Manassas.  Ellsworth sent one company to occupy the railroad depot.  He led another small group toward the telegraph office.
Though Ellsworth had evidently prohibited some of his men’s earlier unauthorized plan, it is no surprise at all that when his regiment did cross the Potomac on May 24 under proper military orders that he led a group of them to tear down that insulting secesh flag.  Many view his action as an impetuous decision, since it seems to have been done on the way to occupying the telegraph office, and since he did not bring with him a significant number of soldiers.  So, was it simply an impetuous action with a bad outcome getting used to push the larger political agenda?  I think that his removing the insulting flag was a determined action to confirm to both the local residents of Alexandria as well as to his own men that he did indeed stand with the Union.  He may have moved up his timing of the flag’s removal in his mind’s order of actions to secure the city for Union control, but I doubt it was just an unplanned impulse on his part.  His taking so few men with him may just be an indicator that since he had met no real resistance thus far, he therefore assumed it would be a simple task.  And that he went up and cut the flag down himself instead of sending a detachment to do so also shows his personal desire to stand for the Union.
Ellsworth was shot by Jackson as he came down the stairs.  Jackson was also killed in the struggle by Private Francis Brownell.  In the North “Remember Ellsworth” became a rallying cry to defend the Union and put down the rebellion.  While in the South, Jackson’s death was viewed as that of a patriot killed defying tyrants and defending his home.  Is Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth a heroic martyr or just another slain tyrant?  Depends on which side you stand with during the early days of 1861.
Patriotic Envelope US32
"True to the Union" is in the banner the eagle is holding.
This is just one example of the many patriotic covers done to rally support for the Union.

Children Projects:
This could be an interesting discussion about “who your hero is” depends on “which side you support”.  Also, how narratives of deeds and deaths are often used to support "the greater cause".  As well as how “heroes change over time”.  So, help your child develop God honoring values.  That will help them sort through the “narrative of the moment” that they will be bombarded with throughout their lives.