MECHANICVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Col. Elmer Ellsworth and James Jackson died
within feet of one another, yet the perspectives reflected in historical
markers to the two men are as far apart as the 333 miles separating one
tribute from the other.
Ellsworth’s monument in this Hudson River city doesn’t mention his murderer,
Jackson, and Ellsworth’s name doesn’t appear on the plaque adorning the
corner of the suburban Washington, D.C., building where Jackson’s hotel once
stood and where both men died 150 years ago this month.
The monument marks the grave of Ellsworth, long recognized as the first
Union officer to die in the Civil War. The plaque hails Jackson as the first
rebel martyr of the conflict.
Jackson shot and killed Ellsworth on May 24, 1861, as the 24-year-old Union
officer descended the stairs leading to the roof of the Marshall House.
Ellsworth was carrying the large Confederate flag he had just torn down from
a flag pole atop the three-story hotel run by Jackson.
Jackson met Ellsworth on a landing and fired a shotgun into his chest,
killing him in cold blood.
A member of Ellsworth’s armed detail then shot Jackson.
“He was lionized in the North as the first martyr of the war,” Lincoln
scholar Harold Holzer said of Ellsworth.
The “Ellsworth incident” was remembered Sunday with a funeral re-enactment
at his gravesite in his hometown, Mechanicville, 18 miles north of Albany.
Civil War re-enactors, veterans and others gathered at Ellsworth’s cemetery
obelisk for musket and cannon salutes commemorating the upcoming 150th
anniversary of his death.
About 300 people, including more than 50 Civil War re-enactors, stood in a
steady rain during the one-hour ceremony at the gravesite.
In Alexandria, the 150th anniversary of the city’s liberation by federal
troops is being commemorated May 21 with a number of events in the Old Town
section, where Jackson’s inn stood until being torn down in the early 1950s.
Ellsworth is also the subject of exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National
Portrait Gallery in Washington and the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in
Alexandria, and his demise is detailed in Adam Goodheart’s new book on the
war’s opening year, “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”
Why so much attention?
“He was a national personality,” said Michael Aikey, director of the New
York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, where Ellsworth’s
bullet-torn uniform and Jackson’s flag are part of the collection. Before
the war, Ellsworth had left Mechanicville and moved to Chicago. While there,
he formed a military-style drill team based on the Zouaves, North African
tribesmen who fought for the French army. Known for their distinctive red
baggy trousers and tasseled fezzes, the Zouaves performed from New York to
Chicago, making the short, dark-haired Ellsworth the American idol of his
“They were like movie stars, and he was their leader,” Holzer said.
While in Illinois, he clerked at Abraham Lincoln’s law office, became a
close friend of the aspiring politician and campaigned for him during the
1860 presidential election. After Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter on
April 12, 1861, Ellsworth raised the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, a
regiment dubbed the Fire Zouaves because it was recruited mostly from New
York City fire brigades.
On May 24, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, they were among
the federal troops Lincoln ordered across the Potomac River to re-occupy
Alexandria. After seizing the city’s telegraph office, Ellsworth led a small
detachment to the Marshall House, where the 14-foot-by-24-foot Confederate
flag on the roof could be seen from the White House. Ellsworth was clutching
the bundled up banner when Jackson emerged from a darkened hall and fired
into the New Yorker’s chest. Cpl. Francis Brown of Troy then shot Jackson
News of Ellsworth’s death shocked the North. Men enlisted by the thousands
to avenge him, poems and songs were written in his honor, sales of souvenir
stationery and pins bearing Ellsworth’s image were brisk, and many Northern
boys born in the months after his death were named Elmer.
A devastated Lincoln had Ellsworth’s body laid out in the White House for
public viewing. The body also lay in state at City Hall in New York and at
the State Capitol in Albany. Thousands turned out to view Ellsworth’s
corpse, one of the first to be preserved using the new embalming procedures
that would become more prevalent as the war dragged on.
National Portrait Gallery:
NYS Military Museum: