even more than his life, seemed to mark the passing away of one era and the beginning of another. He would be, briefly, the war’s most famous man. And for that moment, the entire conflict, the irreconcilable forces that set state against state and brother against brother, would seem distilled into—as one who knew him well would write—“the dark mystery of how Ellsworth died.”Ellsworth first achieved fame as a bold and innovative military drill instructor in the late 1850s when his chance meeting with a fencing teacher who had served in the French Zoaves—the elite fighting force named for a band of fierce Algerian warriors—led him to adopt the Zoaves’ exotic drills for his volunteer cadre of Chicago law clerks and shop assistants. Goodheart describes their first public performance:
Some forty cadets in the traditional blue-and-buff uniforms of eighteenth-century militias—Algerian Zouave-style attire had been ordered but didn’t arrive in time—gave a performance that was more like a gymnastics event (or a nineteenth-century version of Cirque de Soleil) than any military drill the onlookers had ever seen. Instead of forming neat lines, shouldering their guns, and marching straight ahead, these militiamen leapt and rolled and yelled, loaded muskets while lying on their backs, jumped up to fire them and then fell again, thrust and twirled their bayonets like drum majors’ batons—all with a beautiful and precise synchrony.When Ellsworth and his Zouaves toured the north in 1859–60, they started a “Zou-Zou” mania. Twenty-five thousand watched them drill in Albany, New York. Ellsworth, benefiting from the new invention that could reproduce many photographs from a single negative, became “the first male pin-up in America’s—and perhaps even the world’s—history.” The tour also brought Ellsworth into contact with Illinois attorney Abraham Lincoln. When the tour ended, Ellsworth became, in short order, Lincoln’s law clerk, his enthusiastic and effective presidential campaigner, his bodyguard, and his friend.
After the firing on Fort Sumter President Lincoln called for the mustering of 75,000 militiamen and Ellsworth undertook to create a new regiment of Zoaves under his own command from the ranks of New York’s firefighters. In The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It Lincoln’s secretary John Hay describes his first encounter with the new creation:
In the afternoon we went up to see Ellsworth’s Zouave Firemen. They are the largest sturdiest and most magnificent men I ever saw collected together. They played over the sward like kittens, lithe and agile in their strength.Following Virginia’s decision to secede on May 23, Ellsworth’s “Zouave Firemen” were selected to lead the first major Northern incursion into rebel-held territory, an amphibious assault on Alexandria, where, just across the Potomac, a large Confederate banner flew atop the Marshall House, in full view of the White House. Ellsworth’s decision to cut down that flag himself proved his undoing. As he descended through the trap door, swathed in the huge unfurled flag, the innkeeper, a devout secessionist, leveled a shotgun at him at point-blank range and fired, instantly killing Ellsworth.
On May 25 Lincoln wrote to Ellsworth’s parents:
My dear sir and Madam, 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 surprisingly great. This power, combined with fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, I ever knew.News of the killing inspired new rounds of Union recruits. In the beginning of May Lincoln had asked for 42,000 more volunteers. Within four weeks of Ellsworth’s death, five times that number would enlist. As Goodheart writes, “Ellsworth’s death made the North not just ready to take up arms, but ready to kill.”
Also of interest:
- The Death of Colonel Ellsworth at Smithsonian.com
- An NPR interview with Adam Goodheart on Fresh Air about 1861 with an excerpt about Elmer Ellsworth
- Kevin Baker cites Lincoln’s letter to the Ellsworths in his essay about how presidents have honored the war dead