First Union Officer To Be Killed In Civil War

Hat Tip to Solly.

As we observe Memorial Day weekend, and always having a fondness for history, I post this story about the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

Col. Elmer Ellsworth was a dashing young infantry commander and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. On May 24, 1861, he became the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War, during h


The image was taken around 1861 by an unknown portraitist in the New York studio of Mathew Brady, the photographer who would become indelibly associated with Civil War images. The photograph is a print from an original glass negative purchased by the NPG in 1981.

Ellsworth was a man with large military ambitions, but his meteoric fame came in a way he could not have hoped for: posthumously. At the age of 24, as commander of the 11th New York Volunteers, also known as the First Fire Zouaves, Ellsworth became the first Union officer killed in the war.

He was not just any Union officer. After working as a patent agent in Rockford, Illinois, in 1854, Ellsworth studied law in Chicago, where he also served as a colonel commanding National Guard cadets. In 1860, Ellsworth took a job in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield law office. The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him. 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 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. Barber notes, however, 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. One of Ellsworth’s men, Cpl. Francis Brownell, then fatally shot Jackson.