Posts Tagged ‘Elmer Ellsworth Flag Pole NYC’

The body of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War comes to City Hall

May 31, 2021

The metal coffin reached Jersey City by train at half past three o’clock on May 31, 1861. It was loaded into a hearse and onto a ferry, and when it arrived in Manhattan it was brought to a parlor inside Astor House—at the time New York’s most luxurious hotel, on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

For several hours there, the coffin lay under a large draped American flag. Family, friends, and National Guardsmen mourned the man inside it, whose “pallid features,” as the The Sun described them the next day, could be seen through a piece of oval glass.

“Few would have recognized in the ghastly features the gallant commander once so full of life and intelligent,” the newspaper wrote.

At 10 pm, the coffin went back in the hearse for the short trip to City Hall, where flags stood at half-mast and black and white crepe hung over the entrance. “Here an immense crowd had assembled on the steps and in front of the building, awaiting the funeral cortege,” wrote The Sun.

Politicians, such as mayor Fernando Wood, paid their respects. Soon the public was allowed to enter, and over the next few hours 10,000 New Yorkers passed by the coffin that contained Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, 24, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

“Remember Ellsworth” was a popular rallying cry among Union supporters during the War Between the States. Today, Col. Ellsworth, who commanded a funeral cortege similar to that of Abraham Lincoln’s four years later, has largely been forgotten. Who was he, and why did the death of this young lawyer from upstate earn such an elaborate farewell in New York City?

Part of it had to do with his status as a dashing young law clerk and National Guard Cadet who took a job in the Springfield, Illinois office of future President Lincoln. “The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him,” stated Smithsonian magazine.

Ellsworth also had a deep interest in military science. When President Lincoln put out the call for Union troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War, he responded by “raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops,” according to the NPS.

The 11th New York Volunteers were also known as the First Fire Zouaves, since many members of this unit—with their distinctive flashy uniforms and billowy pants—were recruited from New York’s volunteer fire departments.

In May 1861, Ellsworth returned to Washington with his Fire Zouaves. On May 24, the unit went to Alexandria, Virginia to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flying from the roof of a hotel called Marshall House, which could be seen from the White House roof 10 miles away.

The next day, “Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest,” wrote the NPS.

Jackson, a “zealous defender of slavery,” Smithsonian magazine stated, was then shot to death by one of the fire zouaves, Cpl. Francis Brownell.

The death of Col. Ellsworth so shook President Lincoln, he reportedly said, according to a PBS.org article on Ellsworth, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” Before Col. Ellsworth’s body came New York’s City Hall, Lincoln had it lay in state at the White House.

Col. Ellsworth became something of a folk hero, his image and actions reproduced in lithographs and sheet music. His story stuck in New York City’s memory through the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, an Ellsworth memorial was dedicated in Greenwich Village: It’s the flagpole at Christopher Park, the triangle across from Sheridan Square. (Above, a marker on the flag pole.)

[First image: Billy Hathom/Wikipedia photo of a portrait; second image: whitehousehistory.org; third image: Currier & Ives lithograph/Wikipedia; fourth image: Musicology for Everyone; fifth image: Corbis via Smithsonian magazine; sixth image: The Historical Marker Database]