By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle
“My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” ~ President Abraham Lincoln, upon viewing the body of Union Army Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth
Historians and those interested in history often like to determine who fired the first shot of a war, who was the first to fall, the last to die. It’s often a compelling story — compelling reading.
With the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War fresh in our minds, a look back at the first Union Army officer to fall in that war might shed light on what soon was to become America’s great blood-letting.
An article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the saga of Union Army Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first true hero of the War Between the States.
The date was May 24, 1861, just weeks after the first shots of the war had been fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., and the day after Virginia voters had ratified the state convention’s decision to secede from the Union — a tremendous boost to the fledgling Confederate States of America, since no state had more prestige than Virginia, the cradle of American presidents.
Tempers and patriotism were running high across the nation at this time in American history.
A New York native, Ellsworth raised a regiment — the 11th New York Volunteers — enlisting many of the city’s volunteer fire department members, who called themselves the “Fire Zouaves.”
Ellsworth had commanded National Guard cadets before the war, and served as a clerk in the Springfield, Ill., law office of one Abraham Lincoln. He accompanied the new president when Abe moved to Washington in 1861.
A student of military history and tactics, Ellsworth had admired the Zouaves, flamboyant Algerian troops who fought for the French Army in North Africa, and he designed their bright-colored uniforms with baggy trousers in the Zouave style.
Washington was ringed across the Potomac River with Virginia towns, and when Ellsworth’s troops entered Alexandria to occupy the city, a large Confederate flag — large enough to be seen by spyglass from the White House — was visible, being flown from the roof of the Marshall House, an Alexandria inn.
Approaching the Virginia inn with just four of his men, Ellsworth was determined to pull down the Confederate flag.
Apparently, the Zouaves were a rather unruly bunch, and had been spoiling for a fight as they marched into the city in Rebel Northern Virginia, so Ellsworth is said to have decided to haul down the flag before trouble kicked up.
Unfortunately for Ellsworth and his soldiers, the owner of the Marshall House was innkeeper James Jackson, a zealous defender of slavery and characterized as a notorious slave abuser with a violent temper.
And, since the institution of slavery was THE principal reason Southern states were seceding from the Union, passions were inflamed at a fever pitch in those early days of the war.
After removing the Confederate flag from the inn’s roof and with the large banner draped over an arm as he came down a staircase, Jackson appeared with a shotgun and immediately fired upon Ellsworth at point-blank range, killing him instantly.
Defending his colonel, one of the Zouaves — Cpl. Francis E. Brownell — leveled his rifle and shot down Jackson.
A New York Tribune reporter had happened upon the history-making shooting scene and it was reported quickly, and Ellsworth’s body — being a friend of the president — was taken to the White House.
Ellsworth became an immediate hero in the North for giving his life for what he perceived was the traitorous act of the innkeeper in flying the Confederate flag in full view of Washingtonians.
A cortege bearing Ellsworth’s coffin traveled through New York City, where thousands gathered along the route and mourners displayed a banner that declared “Ellsworth, ‘His blood cries for vengeance.’”
The 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment soon was nicknamed Ellsworth’s Avengers, and the Union rallying cry early in the war became “Remember Ellsworth,” as recruiters used any and all reasons to appeal to the emotions of recruits and future men at arms.
Ellsworth was remembered in song and his face appeared on memorial lithographs and even on stationary of the day.
On the other side of the coin, innkeeper Jackson instantly was a hero of the Southern cause — a book published in 1862 celebrated his gunning down of Ellsworth in “Life of James W. Jackson, The Alexandria Hero.”
The Medal of Honor was established by Lincoln in 1862, and after relentless petitioning of Congress, Cpl. Brownell, who shot and killed Jackson after he shot Ellsworth, was awarded the Medal of Honor after the war.
Oddly, Ellsworth — who had actually given his life for his country — was not awarded the Medal of Honor, yet goes into history as the first Union officer killed in that lamentable war.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.