Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24, 1861: Encounter at Marshal House

Col. Elmer Ellsworth (1861)
The Civil War
150 year ago today

Elmer E. Ellsworth was born in Malta, New York on April 11, 1837, about 8 miles northwest of Mechanicville, which is occasionally credited as his birthplace, as is Staten Island. Ellsworth moved to Chicago, where he befriended rising politician Abraham Lincoln, whom he met because Ellsworth wanted to be a lawyer and clerked for awhile at Lincoln's office.

As United States President, Abraham Lincoln waited for the outcome of the popular vote on the Virginia Ordinance of Secession, approved by the Virginia Secession Convention on April 23, 1861. With the vote on May 23, 1861 Lincoln gave Winfield Scott the go-ahead to take Alexandria across the Potomac River in enemy territory. While the city was easily taken, it was the Marshall House that presented the Union Army with its biggest challenge - a large banner reminiscent of the Rebel flag flew over the building and Col. Ellsworth was determined to pull it down.

Ellsworth led the "Fire Zouaves" into Alexandria that day, one of four columns intent on taking the town. The town was almost empty - the Virginia force holding the city had fled when warned by a United States naval officer under a white flag of truce of the approach of the Union Army. The streets of Alexandria were quiet when Ellsworth spotted the Secessionist banner. Entering the building with three men and a hometown newspaper reporter, Ellsworth climbed the steps to the roof, cut the banner and walked down the steps towards his men.

In the lead down the stairs was Private Frank Brownell, one of the four men who entered the building with Ellsworth. At the first floor entry Confederate sympathizer James Jackson, owner of the Marshall House, appeared from darkened hall and fired a single blast from a double-barrel shotgun and struck Ellsworth. Private Brownell turned and fired at Jackson, killing him. Brownell received the Medal of Honor awarded by Congress.

Lincoln wrote this letter to Ellsworth's parents when he learned of his death:

To the Father and Mother of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth:

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 surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent in that department I ever knew.

And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages and my engrossing occupations would permit. To me he appeared to have no indulgences and no pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane or an intemperate
word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and for which in the sad end he gallantly
gave his life, he meant for them no less than for himself. You this tribute in memory of my young friend and your brave and early fallen child.

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

Sincerely your friend in a common affliction,
A. Lincoln.

Live Long and Prosper....

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