If he was born after 1861, your ancestor was named for
Union officer Elmer Ellsworth (1837-1861).
At the age of 24, as commander of the 11th New York Volunteers, also known as the First Fire Zouaves, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Ellsworth was killed not in battle, but by an innkeeper in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union.
Born and raised in upstate New York, Elmer moved to Rockford, Illinois, in 1854, where he worked for a patent agency. In 1860, he moved with his wife Carrie Spafford to Springfield, Illinois, where he read law in Abraham Lincoln’s office and helped with his 1860 campaign for president. Once Lincoln was elected, Ellsworth followed him to Washington, D.C.
A student of military history and tactics, Ellsworth admired the Zouaves, Algerian troops fighting with the French Army in North Africa, and had employed their training methods with his cadets. He even designed a uniform with baggy trousers in the Zouave style.
On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia voters ratified the state convention’s decision to secede from the Union, Ellsworth and his Zouave troops entered Alexandria, Virginia, to assist in the occupation of the city. As it happened, an 8- by 14-foot Confederate flag—large enough to be seen by spyglass from the White House—had been visible in Alexandria for weeks, flown from the roof of an inn, the Marshall House.
The regiment, organized only six weeks earlier, encountered no resistance as it moved through the city. National Portrait Gallery historian James Barber notes that “the Zouaves were an unruly bunch, spoiling for a fight, and when they got into Alexandria they may have felt they were already in the thick of it. So Ellsworth may have wanted to get that flag down quickly to prevent trouble.”
At the Marshall House, Barber adds, “Colonel Ellsworth just happened to meet the one person he didn’t want to meet”—innkeeper James Jackson, a zealous defender of slavery (and, says Barber, a notorious slave abuser) with a penchant for violence.
Ellsworth approached the inn with only four troopers. Finding no resistance, he took down the flag, but as he descended to the main floor, Jackson fired on Ellsworth at point-blank range with a shotgun, killing him instantly.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin, Elizabeth Grimsley, wrote to her family that Ellsworth “was a great pet in the family and Mr. Lincoln feels it very much.” Lincoln was quoted as saying, “Excuse me but I cannot talk. I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”
He has been assassinated! His murder was fearfully and speedily revenged. He has lived a brief but an eventful, a public and an honorable life. His memory will be revered, his name respected, and long after the rebellion shall have become a matter of history, his death will be regarded as a martyrdom, and his name will be enrolled upon the list of our country’s patriots.
Ellsworth’s funeral service was held in East Room of the White House. Sheet music, poems, engravings, marches, and other tributes followed.
And that’s why you may have an Elmer Ellsworth in your family tree.
Mine is Elmer Ellsworth Neff, b. 7 Jul 1861, in Kendall County, Illinois. Do you have an Elmer Ellsworth too?
Nancy E. Loe, MA, MLS, is a genealogy researcher and educator. After a long career in libraries and archives, Nancy now writes and lectures on her specializations: organizing research and U.S. and European records. She appears frequently at regional, national, and international genealogy conferences. She recently completed two Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy classes on Nordic research and reading German handwriting and Fraktur.