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THE NEW ANNALS OF THE CIVIL WAR
STACKPOLE BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Stackpole Books
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Chapter OneEllsworth's Career
Frank E. Brownell, Sergeant, 11th New York Volunteer Infantry
Philadelphia Weekly Times 5, no. 17, June 18, 1881
There is perhaps no more interesting and remarkable incident of the War of the Rebellion than that which resulted in the death of Col. Ephraim E. Ellsworth, in the city of Alexandria, Va. on May 24, 1861. The fact that his was the first Union blood shed on rebel soil alone gives it an historical interest. The fact that Ellsworth was a loved protege and bosom friend of Abraham Lincoln and that both fell by assassination-the one the very first, the other the very last to bleed-makes one of those remarkable coincidences which border on the marvelous. There is evidence of the existence of a singular sameness in the lives of these two heroes of an unhappy era in American history, as well as in their untimely taking off. It was given to them the rare lot to subserve a greater purpose in the manner of their dying than in the acts of life. But the most minute acts and words of Mr. Lincoln have become as familiar as household words. It remains to clear away the rubbish of abuse and the cobwebs of misapprehension from his humbler prototype to show a character as clearly cameo cut and as interesting as the tragic event which abruptly closed his career and roused the men of the North. The event is far enough behind us to claim the attention of a new generation, and not too far to prevent a correct chronicle. It is wise to thus take the hour when living witnesses may give their testimony. It is only by a brief review of this short career that the true significance of the tragedy at Alexandria can be understood and appreciated. My own part in that tragedy as the instrument in the hands of Providence to visit sudden and condign punishment on the murder of Ellsworth makes it fitting that I should bear this testimony to the memory of a gallant soldier, a pure-hearted gentleman and an exalted patriot.
Ephraim E. Ellsworth was born April 11, 1837, at Saratoga, N.Y., and went to New York City in 1854. He remained there about a year and then went West, residing in several Western cities, but finally locating in Chicago.
At a very early age Ellsworth appears to have been stricken with the military fever. He joined a company in Chicago called the National Guard Cadets. Without any apparent definite purpose he took up the study of military tactics. He was made first sergeant of the Chicago company, but his rigid ideas of drill and military discipline made him unpopular and he was soon forced out of the organization. He went from Chicago to Elgin, Illinois, carrying his military spirit with him, and there organized a company. It was not long after that he extended a challenge to his former companions in Chicago to a competitive drill, in which his Elgin company so effectually put them to blush that they returned to Chicago humiliated and sore over defeat. Realizing their mistake in losing such a drillmaster the Chicago boys never rested from that time until they secured his return as captain of their organization. This was in the spring of 1859.
At this time Ellsworth told his mother that he was so engrossed with military matters and military ideas that he could fix his mind on nothing else, and henceforth he would make military matters the study and business of his life. His mother replied that it was very unfortunate that he was not born in Europe, where there was war nearly all the time, as there was no prospect of utilizing his talents in this country. With words that in the light of after events seem almost like prophecy he wrote that he could not but feel that this country would soon need his services and the services of a large and well-drilled army. He said the political struggle being waged between different sections could result in nothing but war. "Would to God," he exclaimed, "that I might believe otherwise"
Ellsworth was very poor at this time, having neglected all other business for the business that did not pay. His diary of that date tells the story:
April 11, 1859 Room No. 5, 79 Dearborn Street, Chicago Have decided to keep a diary. Shall wrote a sketch of my life to the present time and place it in front of this book. I do this because it seems very pleasant to be able to look back upon one's past life and note the gradual change of sentiment and views and because my life has been and bids fair to be such a curious jumble of strange incidents that should I ever become anybody or anything this will be useful as a means of showing how much suffering and temptation a man may undergo and still keep clear of despair and vice.
The last line of this day's entry is as follows: "One dozen pages Blackstone today. Sleep on office floor tonight." This office was where he copied law papers and thereby eked out a scanty living.
On Thursday, April 14, he wrote:
Rose 6:30 A.M. According to promise went for Mrs. Smith and took her to [dinner] at Tremont House. She insisted on paying her fare in omnibus. She meant right and I could take no offense. I simply insisted on dropping the matter and paid it myself. (Charged it to my dinner.) "Very pressing invitation." Nay, command, to take dinner at Tremont with Mrs. S-. Refused. Gentlemen who like myself live on crackers and water seldom dine at hotels. (Reason very obvious to inquiring mind.)
Received a letter from home. Mother well, but father sick with rheumatism. Will the time ever come when I can place my parents above the necessity of labor?
As the day's record winds up with the inevitable crackers and the office floor the prospect of helping his parents into comfortable circumstances must have been very dull indeed. The next day he wrote:
I almost feel downhearted tonight. Copying consumes so much time that I cannot study to advantage, although I rise early and work late. I am unable to fix my mind on my studies, for I am forced continually to think there is so much copying which must be done or nothing to eat to-morrow. I can't starve. Oh! That the want of a few paltry dollars should retard my progress in this way!
It was on April 16, according to this diary, when he received a visit from the secretary of the Chicago Cadets with a letter notifying him of his selection as their captain. He was very much surprised that a company of young men which included many of the flower of the city should seek out a penniless youth to take command of them-more especially since he had been driven out from among them less than a year before. But he discusses their shocking want of discipline in a business like way and promises his decision on the following Tuesday. On that night he attended the meeting of the cadets, made a speech to them and accepted the proffered captaincy. His amusing self-congratulation appears pardonable under the circumstances:
Had meeting and drill of cadets tonight. This is something of a triumph for me a small one, it is true, but nevertheless pleasant. After having taken from them every particle of military prestige and reputation-met them on equal ground-now, they come supplicating to me, the person of all others in the world they have left no stone unturned to wrong, whose reputation they have tried by every means in their power to best-they come to me to command them. It makes me laugh. Time will tell. Five pages Blackstone tonight. Nothing to eat today and I'm tired and hungry tonight. Onward flow tonight!
It was on April 29 that he accepted the captaincy, which he coupled with these severe conditions: He wanted soldiers in every sense of the word and insisted they should be strictly moral, obedient and should allow themselves to be ruled with the iron hand of military discipline. If they would do this he would make them the best company in the United States; if they wouldn't he would have nothing to do with them. He was unanimously chosen. The next day he got some money and bought a lounge for three dollars and seventy-five cents, and congratulates himself on having a comfortable place to sleep. He had concealed his uncertain life from his parents:
I was very lucky in getting my lounge just when I did for mother would be put off no longer and wanted to know in her letter today where I was boarding. So I can write back to her that I have a good lounge to sleep on. The eating part is getting along nicely. There is no use of making father and mother (God bless them!) miserable by the knowledge of my circumstances. I owe them more already than I can ever repay.
From this time the whole soul of young Ellsworth was swallowed up in his military company. He drew up a code of regulations, which were printed in all the Chicago papers and excited general comment. In this code expulsion was the penalty of entering any drinking saloon while wearing the uniform of the corps, attending public masked balls in uniform and the use of language unbecoming a gentleman while in the reading or drill room. To get rid of objectionable members he disbanded the "National Guard Cadets" and on the nucleus of the best formed the "U.S. Zouave Cadets." By this rigid course he began to gather around him the aid and sympathy of the best citizens of Chicago. He still kept up his law studies, copied and lived on crackers and water. In military drill he was indefatigable. He pasted on his desk a schedule of time, which he lived up to regularly. It ran as follows:
Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays-Rise at 5:00 A.M.; 5 to 10, study; 10 to 1, copying; 1 to 4, business; 4 to 7, study; 7 to 8, exercise; 8 to 10, study. On Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and Fridays-Rise at 6:00 A.M.; 6 to 10, study; 10 to 1, business; 1 to 7, study and copying; 7 to 11, drill.
Here was a rigid disciplinarian willing and able to apply rules to his own daily life that followed by any young man who possessed a fair amount of ability would command success in any walk of life. It appears that he carried his exercise to include the use of the sword. On May 14 he writes, "Have received a challenge to trial of skill with a very expert fencer in daily practice. As I have not practiced with a master for nearly eighteen months he will probably worst me. Nevertheless, I shall foil with him, as I must fence with some expert or lose my skill altogether. One and a half pound crackers and meat tonight."
About this date he appears to have become so thoroughly engrossed in his military ideas, exercise, drill and details that he dropped Blackstone and only kept up his copying to keep soul and body together. His diary falls off and but fitful entries appear at intervals. In one of these he relates an experience with a toothache. He was recommended to smoke by some of his "boys" as he familiarly calls them. After having gone to his lounge sick that night he says he made up his mind there was one thing worse than toothache. So he gave up smoking. His indefatigable energy and his success with the organization of which he was captain began to attract the attention of the authorities of the State of Illinois and of military men everywhere. His journal begins to fondle military names and his mind to embrace state plans and national ideas. He received proposals to drill the officers of the State militia of both brigade and regimental staff, and an invitation to visit West Point at the graduation exercises.
On July 4, 1859, his corps gave an exhibition drill in which other organizations competed. Their performance raised a perfect furor in Chicago, and the Ellsworth Corps rose at a bound to the topmost round of popularity. At 2:00 A.M. on the fifth he enters the following record in his diary: "Victory! And, I thank God, a triumph for me"
The personal pride and sensitiveness of young Ellsworth surpasses belief. While he was achieving all this success which was so dear to his heart, being flattered by army officers and high state officials, he was living on, or rather starving on, his crackers and dried beef and water. And when these flatterers accused him of overworking himself and breaking himself down with excitement he merely writes, in the loneliness of his office: "It is under-eating" and goes on in the same indomitable spirit as before.
One day he returned to his room thoroughly dispirited, and confessed in his tablets that he had just indulged in a hearty, womanish cry. This was because of a sense of despair at being unable to marry, or to promise to marry, a young lady with whom he had conceived a deep attachment. He says after his cry he prayed. That night he had a good supper and slept on a bed for the first time in a year. The next week he received an invitation to go to California to teach the Zouave drill to a crack San Francisco corps. His fame had spread rapidly. He was wanted at Rockford and at Springfield to teach local companies. He consulted Col. [Joseph H.] Eaton, who advised him to continue his connection with the cadets. Colonel Eaton introduced him to many people. Among others the adjutant general of Illinois pressed him to accept a position on his staff. Several other military honors were thrust upon him, but nothing to eat, except tides, and he says rank was even less substantial than crackers and water. Together with several officers he attempted to secure the passage of a law for the complete reorganization of the militia system of Illinois. This seems to have been a pet idea. After wasting a good deal of time on it, however, the thing failed, though the system proposed by Ellsworth was considered the most perfect. The bill passed one house and fell.
On February 2, 1860, Ellsworth submitted a plan of drill to the Zouave Cadets and a comprehensive plan for state skeleton regiments of trained officers. The latter was complete in every detail, from the sword drill of officers, with accompanying sketches, to the fastening of the soldiers' shoes. It included every particular of uniform, with sketches and price, movements (from the French drill) of the company and battalion, with illustrations, and finally a code of moral law and discipline that presupposed the perfect human machine. Shortly after this Ellsworth and his Zouaves began the famous tour of the United States. Perhaps nothing ever excited more attention and emulation than this remarkable trip. His company drilled in all the principal cities of the North during the summer of 1860 and stirred up a military fever wherever they went. Immense crowds greeted them everywhere.
The organization of military companies followed in their wake. The Wide Awakes of the presidential campaign took up the Ellsworth drill and all went to prepare the popular mind for the great struggle of the following year.
Excerpted from THE NEW ANNALS OF THE CIVIL WAR Copyright © 2004 by Stackpole Books. Excerpted by permission.
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