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Colonel Elmer Ellsworth>

Have you ever heard the name or exploits of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth? Place yourself in the library of the White House on the morning of May 24, 1861 - the onset of the American Civil War. A soft knocking is heard at the door of the library. Abraham Lincoln, sworn in as President of the Union just eleven weeks previously, is expecting dispatches regarding the invasion and occupation of Alexandria, Virginia by Union troops. He bids the visitor to enter. The downcast countenance of Captain Fox foretells that the account is unfavorable. Lincoln braces himself. The officer, painfully aware of the relationship between Lincoln and the leader of the volunteer army, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, sadly relates a tragic account. When the Captain concludes his report, he salutes and withdraws. Linclon's head, heavy with grief for his close friend, slumps upon his chest. Who was this man whom the leader of the free world held in such high regard? How did he come to the attention of the troubled president? The following essay will, in some small way, detail the short but dynamic life of one of the first and most colorful casualties of the American Civil War.

The Zouave legion's gallant and idolized commander, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, was shot through the heart as he descended a stairway of the Marshall House in Alexandria. The zealous officer, just turned 24 years the previous month, had entered this hotel for the purpose of removing a Confederate flag which, for weeks, had defiantly taunted the city of Washington, D.C. from its rooftop. When Virginia's legislature had passed an ordinance of secession on April 17, 1861, the rebel banner appeared. However, the ordinance was not ratified by popular vote until May 23rd officially making Virginia a member of the Confederacy. Lincoln then ordered military forces into the city of Alexandria. Ellsworth, an intimate friend of the Lincoln family and frequent visitor to the White House, was painfully aware of how this emblem's display vexed even the customarily stoical Abe Lincoln.

Ellsworth's life began on April 11, 1837 in the small community of Malta, New York. Different sources indicate that the family relocated to Mechanicville sometime between when Elmer was 3 to 10 years old when his father lost a tailoring business during an economic recession. After that, the elder Ellsworth worked at various odd jobs. Mrs. Ellsworth also augmented the family income by taking boarders and doing mending. Life for the Ellsworth's was one of constant laborious struggle. While they would never by any means be considered well off, they did not lack for basic necessities and lived in a modest, but adequate home on the south side of the city.

From his early youth, Ellsworth was instilled with a great sense of patriotism and convinced that the most glorious thing he could do was become a soldier and fight for his country's honor. Young Elmer recalled listening to thrilling stories which his great-grandfather, George Ellsworth, recounted involving his exploits in the American Revolution at the battles of Saratoga. Grandfather was also present at the capitulation. At that historic event, Brirtish General John Burgoyne surrendered his sword to the American commander, General Horatio Gates. The Ellsworth family certainly must have visited this nearby locale; the site of the colonists first major victory and the turning point in the War of Independence.

The eager youngster was constantly constructing forts from accumulated bricks and fashioning toy soldiers molded from mud. In school he rallied his classmates into small brigades of which he was always the leader. Surprisingly, the other boys willingly accepted his cheerful authority. He read and studied all the books on the subject of military drills and tactics that he could obtain. At one time, he became so absorbed in his reading that he forgot his household chores. At the age of fifteen, he assembled a group of adolescents from the neighboring town of Stillwater naming them "The Black Plumed Riflemen." He took great enjoyment in training and drilling them and seized many opportunities to exhibit their dexterity and physical prowess. They often performed stunts which constantly amazed the local citizens. In one instance, desiring to get to the second story of a building, the group formed a human ladder and scaled the outside of the edifice instead of using the easier, more conventional stairway. As a young man, he heard of the daring exploits of the French Zouave soldiers in the Crimean War from a Zouave veteran, Charles DeVilliers. Although short in stature but not in enthusiasm, young Elmer decided to form an American regiment of these intrepid and picturesque infantrymen. He organized his regiment in Chicago, having relocated there at the age of seventeen.

As Ellsworth led his Zouave brigade, through the streets of Alexandria that fateful spring morning, he might have reminisced on their gallantry and patriotic zeal which he instilled within their character since he had organized and trained this group of civilian volunteer soldiers. Leading a life of deprivation and hard work (often subsisting on just crackers and water for weeks), he expected similar sacrifices from his troops. He was a strict disciplinarian and maintained high standards for his men in moral conduct and physical fitness. No indulgences in alcohol consumption, tobacco or gambling were tolerated. He tried to set an example of good conduct for the youth of America . This deportment had its advantageous results as the colorfully uniformed Zouaves won many awards with their precise, split-second drills and maneuvers. They were often invited to both publicly and privately demonstrate their military skills. The Zouaves had also shown their bravery and agility by assisting in extinguishing a fire which threatened the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the morning of May 9, 1861 where they were bivouacked awaiting the Alexandria assignment. Being the "Fire" Zouaves - cadets recruited from civilian fire companies - they were able to assemble and douse the flames before the regular fire brigade, much to the embarassment of the Washington Fire Department. Mr. Willard, the proprietor, was so grateful that he presented the regiment with a $500 reward for their efforts. Ellsworth and his Zouaves were idolized by America in the 1850's just like popular actors or musicians are today. Foreshadowing modern action toys, Zouave dolls, resplendent in their blue jackets and loose-fitting scarlet trousers, appeared on the market. Willie and Tad Lincoln received one of these dolls and even staged mock battles with it. In the years before the Civil War, Ellsworth was considered the "the most talked about man in America" and was shortly to be again on the forefront of many thoughts.

Having destroyed the railroad tracks leading to Richmond, the Zouaves were now on their way to cut the wires of the telegraph office when Ellsworth spied the taunting emblem as they passed the Marshall House. "Boys, we must have that flag!" he exclaimed and made a hasty but fatal decision and entered the hotel with noble purpose and a small detachment consisting of Lieutenant Winser, Reverend Dodge, New York Tribune reporter Edward House, Corporal Francis Brownell of Troy, New York and three other soldiers. At that early hour, few guests were astir and the group met no resistance. As Cpl. Brownell and House waited in the attic, Ellsworth and Lt. Winser mounted the stairs to the roof of the building and reached the flagstaff. Ellsworth used Winser's knife to cut the halyards and haul down the offending banner. As the group descended from the attic to the first landing, a figure suddenly loomed out of the early morning shadows and fired almost point-blank into the group of soldiers. Ellsworth, preoccupied in handling the large flag, pitched forward, suffering an almost instantaneous death - the first conspicuous casualty of the Civil War. As the assailant prepared to fire again, Cpl. Brownell knocked the weapon aside and fired his own rifle, mortally wounding the attacker who was later identified as James Jackson, Confederate sympathizer and proprietor of the Marshall House. Ellsworth's body was carried into a nearby room as his grieving friends waited for reinforcements. The men wrapped their comrade's body in a scarlet Zouave blanket in which it was moved to the Navy Yard. As the tragic news spread over Washington, flags were lowered to half-staff, bells began to toll and telegraph messages of the tragedy swept across the land.

Ephraim and Phoebe Denton Ellsworth, the late officer's parents, received the heartbreaking news in the small city of Mechanicville, New York. On that fateful morning, Mr. Ellsworth, having a premonition regarding the Alexandria campaign, walked to the Mechanicville telegraph office and waited anxiously for the news wire. He heard the clicking of the receiver begin, then saw the operator burst into tears. This is how the Ellsworths learned of their son's fate. Their grief was inconsolable, having lost a younger son, Charley, to small pox the previous year. Ellsworth's love interest, Carrie Spafford of Rockford, Illinois was so overcome with grief, that she did not attend the funeral. It was as if all the great dreams, expectations and even purpose of life had gone from them with Ellsworth's passing.

On May 25th, Colonel Ellsworth's body was brought to the East Room of the White House where he lay in state as a seemingly endless thread of mourners filed past. The Lincolns attended the funeral and were unable to conceal their sorrow. They recalled the vital young man who, just weeks before, romped with their sons Willie and Tad on the White House lawn. A man who was scarcely over being a boy himself. A man too eager to see a battle and prove his courage. An individual to whom Lincoln refered as "The greatest little man I ever met."

The funeral procession which followed bore Ellsworth's body to a train station where it was transported to New York City to lie in state at City Hall. A private service was held for the family and close friends at the Astor House. With continued ceremony, Ellsworth was then taken to Albany by steamer where he again lay in state in the capital city of New York. A special train then brought him to his boyhood hometown of Mechanicville. Crowds lined the tracks and multitudes flocked to the train station despite the inclement weather. Ruth Painter Randall, in her definitive biography of Ellsworth, described the scene:

"A storm was raging in the town as if to represent the grief and rage in the hearts of the friends who received Elmer Ellsworth home. Through wind and rain the hearse, adorned with heavy black plumes,toiled up a high hill overlooking the town. In the loftiest spot on that lovely hilltop,
with highest military honors, Colonel Ellsworth was laid to rest."

An aerial view of the cemetery with gravesite circled in red.

Mechanicville has, over the intervening years, continued to venerate its martyred citizen. In May of 1874, a large granite monument was erected at the gravesite. The construction of this memorial was considered "an obligation sacredly due to the memory of the illustrious perpetuate the memory of a career which shall be to the living a memory and an inspiration." It was funded by private contributions, public solicitation, a grant from the New York State Legislature and a generous donation from the Fire Zouaves (part of which was the reward money for their efforts in extinguishing the aforementioned hotel fire). Special trains brought people from Albany and Troy. The estimated attendance at the unveiling was between 6 and 8 thousand on that May day, the thirteenth anniversary of Ellsworth's Mechanicville funeral service. The procession that began at the train depot and wended its way through the town to the gravesite consisted of political dignitaries, a police squad, Zouave company regiments, the monument committee, bands, Legion Posts and veterans. Several addresses were given (one by Francis Brownell who was at Ellsworth's side on that fateful day), as well as benedictions, music, a life sketch, and an epic poem. After the concluding "American Hymn" was played, the unveiling took place. "It was a moment of thrilling and peculiar interest and not one to be forgotten by the assembled thousands." A large outdoor banquet followed the ceremonies. "Not a untoward incident occurred to mar the completeness of the demonstration."

Click on the sheet music to hear the Ellsworth Funeral March composed by Sep Winner in 1861.

The Ellsworth family burial plot is located in the southeastern corner of the Hudson View Cemetery. The entire lot is surrounded with a black ironwork fence. Interred beside Colonel Ellsworth, are his parents, brother Charley, uncle John C. Denton, John's wife Abbie Scidmore, and great-grandfather George. The monument itself is a striking 25 feet tall, 5 feet square at the base and well-proportioned. On the western front face is a bronze medallion depicting the likeness of the late Colonel with a shield emblem above and the name of Ellsworth in bas relief engraved below. On the south is an inscription acknowledging the New York State Legislature as contributors. The north side bears the engraving of pertinent biographical details while the east face contains a slab of white marble depicting a coat of arms designed by Ellsworth and an excerpt from his last letter to his parents. Atop the grandeur perches a large bronze eagle. Not considered to be just a piece of granite and bronze, the monument has become a symbol adorning commemorative plates, banners, post cards and other mementos.

Mechanicville observed a three-day Ellsworth centennial celebration in 1937. Victor Theberge composed the "Colonel Ellsworth Centennial March" which was dedicated to the Mechanicville High School Orchestra. The driving rhythm of the music is both jaunty and stirring. A passage from this composition became the Mechanicville High School's fight song. The lyrics of the chorus are both succinct and reverential:

We offer tribute to a soldier true,
One whose deeds of valor made him war's first martyr.
Praise we bring and high our banners fling,
A great American patriot, Ellsworth's name we sing.

Click on the flag image to hear the march

To download a True Type font created to honor Colonel Ellsworth, right-click on the eagle icon then select "Save target as...." to download to a folder of your choice on your PC. You will have to unzip it then install the font file in your PC's fonts folder. The capital letters feature Colonel Ellsworth's likeness, the lower case letters are in stars, and numbers are beside the eagle's head. Some punctuation is also included (,.!?).

In the 1960's, a group of concerned children noted the deterioration of the monument and started a campaign to collect donations for its restoration. Acting in the capacity of adult advisors were City Attorney W. Donald Carola and local history enthusiast Lillian Dunbar. Despite the efforts of the "Youth for Ellsworth" movement, the needed work was never undertaken and the collected funds were turned over to the city.

The Ellsworth sesquicentennial was celebrated in 1987. "The Ellsworth Story," a pageant in six acts, dramatized the life of the Civil War hero. It was written by the city historian at that time, Harold Sheehan, produced and directed by Sal Izzo, and staged in Talmadge Park. It featured many area residents as performers. It was followed by a fireworks display. A commemorative service was also held at the gravesite. These words are graven in the monument, written to his parents in his last letter to them:

"I am...confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow,
will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me."

Ellsworth might have been heartened to learn that his passing did serve a purpose. Not unlike Jane McCrea of Revolutionary War fame and another civilian casualty of war, his ultimate sacrifice spurred military enlistments by arousing more public sentiment and a desire for revenge. Pondering Ellsworth's fate and its emotional effect upon the embattled Northern forces and citizens in general, William Burleigh penned:

The pulse that beat
But yesterday within his frame,
Today is like a living flame
In every manly breast we meet.

This sentiment was typified in Mechanicville where a group of young men were engaged in a sporting event when a friend reported the news of Ellsworth's demise. They immediately stopped their game and went en masse to enlist. Many Zouave companies did the same. In New York, a volunteer regiment was formed. The Forty-fourth New York came to be known as "Ellsworth's Avengers," and fought courageously in the Civil War. Fort Alexandria was renamed Fort Ellsworth. Infants were named in his honor. In time, many streets and towns throughout the nation would bear his appellation. "Remember Ellsworth!" became a rallying cry for Union troops. Many eulogies, poems, ballads and editorials were written to give vent to the public's extreme grief. A close personal friend of Colonel Ellsworth observed,

"Mourn him in tears as the truest, tenderest, most loyal-hearted man that ever died.
I do not remember but two faults that he had, and they were magnificent ones.
He was too generous and too brave."

On May 21, 2000, the Mechanicville Area Chamber of Commerce (221 Park Ave. Mechanicville, NY 12118 Ph.518-664-7791) sponsored its "first historical parade" which was dedicated to Colonel Ellsworth. Despite the inclement weather, a city-wide parade assembled near the location of Ellsworth's Mechanicville homestead and concluded in Talmadge Park on the city's west side. After the parade, many local dignitaries were on hand to welcome attendees as Master of Ceremonies, W. Donald Carola introduced them. The Uncle Sam Chorus led off the festivities with a rousing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." Beloved area resident and retired educator, Margaret Mehan, led the assemblage in the pledge of allegiance. Congressman John Sweeney praised the parade committee and touched on Mechanicville's role in history and its potential for the future. City Historian, Dr. Paul Loatman, spoke in detail of the Zouaves and Ellsworth's life in service to the country. The ceremonies concluded with a bayonet drill and firing by the 5th New York Zouave Regiment. (Additional historical essays by Dr. Loatman about Ellsworth and other Mechanicville history may be viewed by clicking on the Mechanicville City Seal in the above graphic).

On April 11, 2005, the 168th anniversary of his birth, the Town of Malta New York opened an exhibit of Ellsworth memorabilia at the Community Center. The display, enshrined within a glass enclosed alcove, features lithographs by Currier and Ives which were donated to the town by the Matrazzo family who found them in an antiques store and realized their historic significance. When the display opened, a reception was held with many local dignitaries in attendance. Civil War re-inactors were also on hand to demonstrate military life of the period and answer questions relating to day-to-day activities of soldiers. Town historian, Teri Ulrich indicated that the display would continue until June, 2005. Then the donated lithographs will be placed on permanent display in the Community Center. Below is a photograph of Ms. Ulrich and the exhibit taken from the newspaper "The Daily Gazette" of April, 9, 2005.

Hollywood has even paid tribute to this gallant civilian soldier. Ellsworth had a prominent role in the 1975 mini-series, "Sandberg's Lincoln" as portrayed by the late David Huffman. In the 1988 television miniseries "Gore Vidal's Lincoln," Colonel Ellsworth had brief but melodramatic scenes. A substantial part was offered in the 1995 TV movie "Tad." Actor Billie Worley played the character with alacrity despite the many historical inaccuracies. In 1934, Louis Laflin, Jr. wrote a play entitled "Ellsworth of the Zouaves." Laflin was a student at Lake Forest Academy, just north of Chicago, where Ellsworth had taught military exercises in 1859. Below are photos from that production staged at the academy.

However, not everyone has striven to preserve the memorabilia of Mechanicville's eminent Civil War casualty. The Ellsworth homestead in Mechanicville in which Ephraim and Phoebe both passed away in 1889, eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1960's. In the mid-1980's, several buttons were removed from his uniform while on unauthorized display out of state. It was also dry-cleaned without consent in an effort "to remove the blood stains." The eagle which embellished the Ellsworth monument was discovered missing in the spring of 1997. The desecration of the gravesite, which is the only one listed in the State and National Register of Historic Places, was a terrible comment on the extent some person or persons went to satisfy selfish ends. The thieves were so disrespectful of the dead as to damage other headstones in the Hudson View Cemetery in the vicinity of the Ellsworth monument in their haste, greed and insolence. Likely using the cover of night to rob the gravesite, the vandals trampled physically and symbolically the idealism of a national hero.

Mechanicville is proud to have claimed this Civil War hero as one of it's most notable and noble residents. Regrettably, some only saw the value as a bronze eagle to be taken for mere monetary gain. The ornament, of less intrinsic worth than as an historic resource, was sold for cash while the community was left with a great loss. The "Youth for Ellsworth" movement exhibited civic pride in attempting to rehabilitate Ellsworth's monument. Today, Mechanicville's children would have reason to feel shame in regard to the callous pillaging of its historic treasure. Fortunately, the missing emblem was recovered in December 1997 at a Bourne, Massachusetts auction house where an employee recognized the eagle from a picture and story placed on the Internet by The Sons of Union Veterans Camp 154. Mayor Higgins and Investigator Lavazzo made the 230 mile journey to assist in the recovery. Certainly this made everyone's Christmas that year a little brighter. Subsequent investigation revealed that an antique thief, Gary Evans, signed the bill of sale, but it is not known if he actually participated in the theft. It is also alleged that he killed his accomplices, then jumped to his own death from a bridge over Ellsworth's beloved Hudson River. Since then, the magnificent eagle has been refurbished and reinstated upon the obelisk to again resume its vigil over the city. Ernie Lefner, Jr. of the Ellsworth Legion Post put it succinctly: "I never thought we'd see it again. I guess you just have to have faith."

On March 23, 2011, a talk about Ellsworth was given at the Malta Community Center by the Malta Town Historian, Paul Perreault. Mr. Perreault made history come alive by noting the high points of Ellsworth's life - his younger years in Malta and Mechanicville, moving to Springfield, Illinois and meeting Abraham Lincoln, organizing the Fire Zouaves, the events surrounding Ellsworth's death and President Lincoln's grief.
On Saturday, May 21, 2011, there was a historical reenactment of a Civil War military encampment from 11AM to 1 PM on the grounds of the Presbyterian Church at 118 Dunning Street in Malta 0.2 mile from the intersection of Route 9 and about half a mile from Exit 12 of the Northway (Rt. 87). The following Tuesday, May 24, 2011 (the actual anniversary date of Ellsworth's death), there was a commemorative postal cancellation available from 10AM to 2 PM at the Veteran's Park on the Town Hall grounds.
A memorial ceremony for Ellsworth was held at Mechanicville's Hudson View Cemetery on May 15, 2011. Despite a steady moderate rainfall, approximately two hundred spectators watched historic re-enactors and modern military units pay tribute to the Civil War's fallen hero. A handful of local political and other dignitaries were also on hand. Many civic groups placed memorial wreaths at Ellsworth's gravesite. Members of the Empire State Youth Orchestra played "The Star Spangled Banner", "The Colonel Ellsworth Centennial March", "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Taps".

Here's an article regarding the ceremony written by Lucian McCarty, a reporter from the newspaper "The Saratogian" with additional photos:
"The Saratogian" article regarding the May 15, 2011 ceremony at the Hudson View Cemetery

In June 2016, Malta Town Historian, Paul Perreault, announced the completion of a permanent exhibit dedicated to Col.Ellsworth in Malta Community Center.

Material for this essay was obtained from these sources:
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth by Ruth Painter Randall (1960)
Exercises Connected with the Unveiling of the Ellsworth Monument (1875)
Ray Smith of the National Parks & Recreation bureau
Colonel Ellsworth Centennial March by Victor Theberge (1937)
The Mechanicville District Public Library city archive files
The Express. Vol. XV, No. 28
The Saratogian. March 15, 1999



Ellsworth's Denton Family Genealogy
Col. Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth
Mr. Lincoln and Friends
Ellsworth - Civil War Legend and Martyr
Col. Elmer Ellsworth: A Story of Love
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War - Ellsworth Camp No. 23
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War - George L. Willard Camp #154
Lincoln's Letter to Ephriam and Phoebe Ellsworth
The First Casualty of the Civil War
The 5th New York Volunteer Infantry - Duryee's Zouaves
Department of New York, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
The 114th PA, Co A. - Collis Zouaves
9th New York Volunteer Infantry - Hawkin's Zouaves
Mr. Lincoln's White House
Wikipedia on Ellsworth
Ellsworth on "My Space"
Schuylkill County Pennsylvania Military History

Mechanicville, New York

Click on the image to visit my page about the Revolutionary War battles of Saratoga

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