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NY honoring 1st Union officer killed in Civil War

Paul Loatmman
Paul Loatman, city historian in Mechanicville, N.Y., poses with a monument at the grave of Col. Elmer Ellsworth in Mechanicville.Mike Groll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 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 South's first martyr of the conflict.

The two men, one a confidant of Abraham Lincoln and the other a staunch secessionist, are forever linked by the deadly encounter in an Alexandria, Va., hotel that left both enshrined as the first fallen heroes in a four-year war that would produce them by the thousands, North and South.

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 instantly. A member of Ellsworth's armed detail then shot Jackson, who had vowed to die protecting the flag.

"He was lionized in the North as the first martyr of the war," Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer said of Ellsworth. Jackson's death spurred similar sentiments throughout the Confederacy.

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.

Among the re-enactors was Tim Heubner, a 48-year-old garden consultant from Los Angeles.

"I've been trying to explain to people in LA who Ellsworth was," said Heubner, a distant relative of Ellsworth. "It is nice to be in a place where people know who he is. An event like this will only come once in my lifetime."

In Alexandria, the 150th anniversary of the city's occupation 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 given to an officer with no battlefield experience who was killed while storming a hotel?

"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 day.

"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 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 dead.

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.

"He was so mourned, so celebrated, that he was used as a recruitment poster boy," Holzer said.

Ellsworth's loss also brought home the reality that America was at war, Aikey said.

"At this point the war is no longer an abstraction," he added. "It's now becoming real. People are now getting killed."

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.

The funeral cortege continued north to Mechanicville, where Ellsworth grew up. He's buried under a 40-foot tall granite obelisk erected in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, Jackson was buried with far less fanfare, first in an unmarked grave at the family cemetery in McLean, Va. Later he was re-interred at a cemetery in nearby Fairfax.

Vilified in the North as Ellsworth's "assassin," Jackson was hailed in the South as the first hero of the Confederate States of America. The Richmond Dispatch described the 38-year-old innkeeper as a Southern patriot who "fell at the threshold avenging nobly the infamous act of a piratical invader ..."

The plaque on the Alexandria building that now occupies the site of his former hotel says as much. The 98-word tribute refers to Jackson as the "first Martyr to the cause of Southern Independence" but does not mention Ellsworth or that anyone else had died at the site.

The plaque's wording is based on the original that was erected on the Marshall House around 1920 by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers.

"It's coming from another point of view, which also shows the Southern roots of the city and how those roots lasted a long time after the Civil War," said Susan Cumbey, director of Alexandria's Fort Ward.

In Mechanicville, Ellsworth is a revered local hero whose image graces the city's official seal. The interest in his story, here and in the Washington area, is evidence of Ellsworth's place in American history, said Mechanicville city historian Paul Loatman Jr.

"It ties us into a whole wider nexus of historical significance," Loatman said. "He's getting his due."