Lincoln’s Friend Early Martyr in War

May 20, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 22 (32 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

North Carolina Secedes, Kentucky Neutral

May 20, 1861. At a convention in Raleigh, the state of North Carolina officially voted to secede from the Union. On the same day, Kentucky, deeply divided, decided to remain neutral in the war.

Close Friend of Lincoln’s Becomes Early Martyr in War

May 24, 1861. “As war began, Washington, D.C., was a vulnerable city. Embraced on three sides by Maryland, a slaveholding state sympathetic to the South, the city also faced hostile Virginia just across the Potomac River. On the night of May 23, 1861, as Virginians celebrated popular ratification of their state convention’s earlier vote to secede, thousands of Union troops moved through Washington streets toward the Potomac. Crossing the river in four coordinated thrusts, the Federal troops quickly gained footholds on Virginia soil and began digging fortifications that would make the nation’s capital far more secure. There was so little opposition to the unexpected operation that the Federal forces suffered only one casualty — but it was a loss that plunged the Union into mourning.”

Death of Colonel Ellsworth after hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24, 1861.

Death of Colonel Ellsworth after hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24, 1861.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a former student in Lincoln’s Illinois law office, close friend of the entire Lincoln family, and well-known leader of the New York Fire Zouaves, was shot and killed by James Jackson after Ellsworth removed a massive Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House, Jackson’s inn in Alexandria. Ellsworth knew that the flag perturbed Lincoln, who could see it through his telescope from the White House. The innkeeper was immediately shot and killed.

Before the military operation, Ellsworth had written his parents,

“I am perfectly confident to accept whatever my fortune may be, and confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow, will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me.”

When Lincoln heard the news of Ellsworth’s death, he burst into tears. Ellsworth’s funeral was held at the White House.

Later, Lincoln would write Ellsworth’s parents,

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, c1861

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, c1861

“In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. . . . My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet . . . it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit . … [He was] my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.

Sincerely your friend in a common affliction 

— A. Lincoln”

With war casualties still a new phenomenon, both Ellsworth and Jackson were embraced as martyrs by the North and South, respectively.

SOURCES: Margaret E. Wagner, The American Civil War, 365 Days p. “February 2.”  Listen to an audiocast about the book.

Philip Kunhardt, Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography, pp. 150-51.

First Blood, Smithsonian Institution
The Photographic History of the Civil War
Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, First Hero of the Civil War by Charles A. Ingraham
The Death of Colonel Ellsworth,
First Regiment New York Zouaves

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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