- Historic Sites
It Was Fun Soldier
— until the shooting started
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
On the night of May 23, 1861, the First New York Fire Zouaves led the march across the Long Bridge, headed for Alexandria, Virginia. It was the very beginning of war, and the lovely moonlit scene, the steady tramp of boots, and the Hashing rows of bayonets made a lasting impression on the boys who were there. For each of them it was the beginning of a great adventure, and at this particular moment war was a splendid thing to be a part of, full of bright uniforms and waving banners, with the promise of quick victory and lasting glory. It was the kind of night to make men eager for all that was to come, and for none of them did the future seem to hold more promise than for their young colonel—Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth.
Only 24 years old and small of stature, Ellsworth was nevertheless a man whose flashing eyes and soldierly bearing lent a look o[ authority and power to handsome features. Already he had a reputation to uphold. President Lincoln was among the many admirers who thought this was a man to watch—a man whose abilities wotdd bring him honors on the field of battle.
At sunrise, when his troops reached Alexandria, Ellsworth swung into action immediately. He led a squad of men oil on the double to seize the telegraph office. On the way, passing the three-story Marshall House, Ellsworth looked up at the hated symbol of rebellion—the Confederate Stars and Bars—waving from an attic window. Here was a fine prize for the on-lookers across the Potomac, and he determined they should have it.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he detailed several men to come with him into the hotel. Up the stairs to the attic they went, where Ellsworth cut down the banner. As he and his men started downstairs, Corporal Francis E. Brownell caught sight of a man—James W. Jackson, proprietor of the hotel, as it turned out—aiming a gun at them from the foot of the steps. Brownell leaped at him just as Jackson’s gun went off, but he was too late, and the blast caught Ellsworth square in the chest as he stepped oft the landing. Falling heavily down the stairs, he landed in a heap just outside the door of a room once occupied by George Washington, and one of the first men to reach him noted that a medal he wore which bore the motto Non nobis, sed pro patria was “wet with his blood.” This observer saw, too, that Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, colonel of the First New York Eire Zouaves and a man whose future had seemed infinitely bright, was dead.
From the military standpoint, as pointed out by Major Charles West of New York’s Seventh Regiment, Ellsworth’s death was hardly justifiable; certainly it was a grandstand play for a colonel personally to rip down the Confederate flag. But this was the beginning of war, and Ellsworth, as the first Union officer killed, became a hero to the North.
At the time of his death. Elmer EHsworth was a personal symbol of that remarkable institution which nourished between the 1830’s and the Civil War—the volunteer militia company. And if his final act was Hamboyant, colorful, and not very military, so was the institution he did so much to popularize.
By the 1840’s, the nation’s military philosophy had undergone a number of changes—mostly for the worse. From earliest colonial times there had existed a “militia”—but within the broad meaning of this word there were actually two separate and completely différent types of units. The first may be called standing militia; the other was the uniformed volunteer company.
The standing militia consisted of civilians who were subject to call in time of emergency on the principle that every able-bodied man in a democratic society owes his country military service. The farmers who dropped their plows at Lexington, Concord, and the siege of Boston (the battles on which their fame rests) were militiamen of this type. Colonial tradition made every man a soldier and every soldier a working man, and after a battle was over the militiamen simply melted away, back to the farm. True, they assembled for occasional musters, but these consisted of sonic rather haphazard drilling, liberally interspersed with eyeing pretty girls and drinking.
And the trouble was that these soldiers were little better in time of war than in peace. During the Revolution the standing militia was numerous enough—probably 100,000 or more saw sonic kind of service—but of these no more than seven or eight thousand had actually been whipped into a real corps by war’s end. Washington called them his “broken stall,” and his judgment was borne out in full a few years later, in America’s worst-fought land war. Of 6,000,000 white males in the United States, the government never succeeded in getting more than 7,000 regulars and militia together for one battle during the War of 1812. On many occasions, the militiamen distinguished themselves only by the speed with which they left a battlefield, and during the invasion of Canada many New Yorkers refused to cross the border while their countrymen were being shot or captured on the other side. Between the annual musters and the poor performance of the standing militia under fire, many young men became so disgusted that they joined or formed independent volunteer companies, and between 1840 and 1850 most New England states in effect did away entirely with the standing militia.