150 years ago today, on May 24, 1861, in Alexandria, Virginia, New York native Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was gunned down in the Marshall House hotel by owner James Jackson after personally having taken down a Confederate flag flying above the hotel, which was visible from the White House.
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was at the lead of an expiditionary force sent across the Potomac in response to Virginia's ratification of the ordinance of secession the day before on May 23. Ellsworth was a figure of national recognition. He was at the helm of one of the nation's first Zouave regiments. In 1860, as the fervor of nationalism and sectionalism was reaching a boiling point in both the North and the South, and it was readily apparent to all that armed conflict was just around the corner, local militia groups began to multiply and prepare for war. As an homage to the famed French African Corps, who wore distintive red and blue uniforms, some men took the name of Zouave. Ellsworth was at the lead of one of these units, the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the "Fire Zouaves," as the men were primarly volunteer fire fighters from New York City.
Ellsworth was the first Northern officer killed in the war, and his death became a rallying cry for the North as millions mobilized for war. Scores of Zouave regiments popped up as a tribute to Ellsworth and the 11th New York. President Lincoln, a close personal friend of Ellsworth's (Ellsworth had lived in Illinois for a period of time, and had actually worked as a law clerk in Lincoln's Springfield office), openly wept upon hearing of the Colonel's death. Several days later, Ellsworth laid in state in the East Room of the White House. When passing by the coffin, Lincoln was heard to say, "My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?" In the four years ahead, Lincoln no doubt repeated that question thousands upon thousands of times as he paced the corridors of the White House, pondering the casualty figures for that day. Ellsworth's death 150 years ago today was but one of the first of hundreds of thousands of deaths which would tear the nation asunder, only to create a new birth of freedom.
Our Country's Fiery Ordeal
A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)
Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)