The Sons: Elmer Ellsworth (1837-1861)

“Another ‘military’ character, a sort of pet of Mr. Lincoln, was Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, who, though a mere youth, of small but broad figure, curly black head, and handsome features, had achieved considerable local notoriety as a captain of a crack “Zouave” militia company in Chicago,” wrote journalist Henry Villard in describing the traveling party of President-elect Lincoln in late February 1861.1 For Villard, this was high praise. “There has been no more noted character in Springfield, next to Mr. Lincoln himself than Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, commander of the celebrated corps of the United States Zouave Cadets, of Chicago. He is now studying law with the law partner of Mr Lincoln,” wrote Villard in early February. “I found the colonel to be very thoroughly posted on military matters and, in my opinion, his love for the military will override his intention to become a lawyer.”2

Ellsworth admirers clustered around Mr. Lincoln. “It was not possible for Ellsworth to be neutral in anything, or idle while others were working,” wrote another young Illinois friend of Mr. Lincoln, John Hay. “He soon became indispensable. No one could manage like him the assemblage of turbulent loyalty that crowded and jostled at every station” along the railroad route from Springfield to Washington.3

Elmer E. Ellsworth indeed had a magnetic personality. He was “very self possessed and cheerful,” reported presidential secretary John Nicolay.4 Mr. Lincoln could easily have identified with Ellsworth’s struggle to make a success and a name for himself – despite a hard life and difficult personal reverses. Mr. Lincoln himself said of Colonel Ellsworth: “He is the greatest little man I ever met!”5 Shortly before he made the comment, Mr. Lincoln had seen Ellsworth drill his company of Chicago Zouaves. The Zouaves were “more an athletic club with military organization, drill, and discipline, than an ordinary militia regiment,” recalled journalist Isaac Hill Bromley. “Its picturesque uniform, which has since become familiar, was then so novel and unusual as to constitute in itself an attractive feature, while the remarkable acrobatic performances, of which the drill largely consisted, and the rapidity and precision with which they were executed by the whole regiment, as if by one man, lent to the exhibition all the charm of the circus of the period.”6

Mr. Lincoln was fascinated by the height of other tall men. Elmer Ellsworth was not tall. He was small and slender and became known as “le petit colonel”, but he possessed a big talent for motivating men. “Lincoln specially admired his young friend Elmer Ellsworth, who had endured poverty and hardship with monastic devotion to train himself for service,” noted historian Allan Nevins.7 Ellsworth had studied law in Mr. Lincoln’s law office but his real profession was military drill. “Lincoln and others knew that his life had been a heavy struggle against poverty, a model of stainless virtue, and an example of burning ambition channeled into public service. He had long since dedicated himself to an important cause, the complete reorganization of the militia system of the United States,” wrote historian Nevins. “He had studied every branch of military science; and to illustrate his principles, he had organized in May, 1859, company which he drilled to such discipline, endurance, skill and energy that when taken on an eastern tour, it aroused the admiration of all beholders.”8

Increasingly, Ellsworth had been at the President’s side. In the late winter of 1860 Ellsworth had received a letter from General John Cook expressing Mr. Lincoln’s interest in having Ellsworth relocate to Springfield. Ellsworth had written his fiancé that “Mr. Cook told me that Mr L – especially desired him to leave no means unturned to induce me to come to Springfield.”9 In early autumn, Ellsworth left the Chicago Zouaves and relocated to Springfield to finish his legal studies in the Lincoln-Herndon law office. But instead, Ellsworth seems to have been primarily employed in giving Republican campaign speeches and became “one of the most popular speakers known to the schoolhouses and barns of Central Illinois,” according to John Hay.10 According to biographer Ruth Painter Randall, “During these days in Springfield from September 1860, to February, 1861, Ellsworth was seeing Lincoln constantly and their friendship had become, to use Lincoln’s own word, ‘intimate.” The whole Lincoln family adopted him as one of their own.11

John Langdon Kaine was a drummer for Ellsworth’s Zouaves and “it was natural that Colonel Ellsworth should employ me for little services, and this took me often to Mr. Lincoln’s office.” On one occasion, he found Mr. Lincoln alone. “Evidently Mr. Lincoln was in a talkative mood, for, in the absence of an older person, he seemed pleased to see me. He put me through a course of questions, probably to get at the thoughts and interests of the boy of the day. One discovery was that the thing in which I was most interested at school – probably because I had a knack of doing it fairly well for a boy – was declamation. Nothing would do but I must repeat an oration. To this day I wonder at and admire the tact with which he overcame my great embarrassment. The place and conditions were such as to make a boy resolve to perish before raising his voice in a school declamatory exercise. Yet before I quite knew it, or knew how he did it, he had me standing at the table and shouting a tribute to Washington. He was really interested, for he went over the piece himself, to give his notion of the emphasis and inflection; and he undertook to make me explain why ‘he needs no marble monument, no consecrated pile.'”

Kaine recalled that “The arrival of Colonel Ellsworth did not at once put an end to the entertainment, for he, too, was concerned. As a law student he was then making a study of forensic expression. The interest, however, was shifted from oratory by Mr. Lincoln, who asked the colonel to hear a dramatic poem.” The poem was one that made repeated appearances in Mr. Lincoln’s relations with friends: “Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud?”12

With a week of taking the presidential oath, Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron regarding Ephraim Ellsworth: “You will favor me by issuing an order detailing Lieut. Ephraim E Ellsworth, of the First Dragoons, for special duty as Adjutant and Inspector General of Militia for the United States, and in so far as existing laws will admit, charge him with the transaction, under your direction, of all business pertaining to the Militia, to be conducted as a separate bureau, of which Lieut. Ellsworth will be chief, with instructions to take measures for promoting a uniform system of organization, drill, equipment, etc. etc. of the U.S. Militia, and to prepare a system of drill for Light troops, adapted for self-instruction, for distribution to the Militia of the several States. You will please assign him suitable office rooms, furniture etc. and provide him with a clerk and messenger, and furnish him such facilities in the way of printing, stationary, access to public records, etc. as he may desire for the successful prosecution of his duties; and also provide in such manner as may be most convenient and proper, for a monthly payment to Lieut Ellsworth, for this extra duty sufficient to make his pay equal that of a Major of cavalry.”13 The note had written at Ellsworth instigation. He had employed the President as well as Judge David Davis and New York politico Thurlow Weed to put pressure on Cameron. And even Mrs. Lincoln was employed to coerce Cameron into the appointment.

A previous promise by Cameron prevented the appointment of Ellsworth as chief clerk of the Department and military regulations prevented the establishment of a Bureau of Militia without congressional approval. Mr. Lincoln himself told Ellsworth: “I am pressed to death for time – and don’t pretend to know any thing of military matters – fix the thing up so that I shant be treading on any bodies’ toes, or carrying anybody across lots, & then come to me & Ill finish it.”14 Ellsworth’s papers were then readied for appointment as an army major – until it was pointed out by General Winfield Scott that Army majors were so few in number that such an appointment would inevitably cause intense jealousy and antagonism. Ellsworth went to Cameron and “related the conversation which had just occurred – & told him that I would do nothing to cause ill feeling toward Mr L. or himself & I would not therefore take the Majority.”15 Friend John Hay later wrote: “He withdrew from the contest for the position he desired, and the President, who loved him like a younger brother, made him a lieutenant in the army, intending to detail him for special service.”16

This and a case of measles Ellsworth acquired from the Lincoln children seemed more in the long series of setbacks that Ellsworth had experienced in his short life, but it did not prevent Mr. Lincoln from seeking alternative employment for Ellsworth. “Ever since the beginning of our acquaintance, I have valued you highly as a person[al] friend, and at the same time [without much capacity of judging] have had a very high estimate of your military talent,” President Lincoln wrote Ellsworth right after the evacuation of Fort Sumter. “Accordingly I have been, and still am anxious for you to have the best position in the military which can be given you, consistently with justice and proper courtesy towards the older officers of the army. I can not incur the risk of doing them injustice, or a discourtesy; but I do say they would personally oblige me, if they could, and would place you in some position, or in some service, satisfactory to yourself.”17

The letter was written the same day that President Lincoln called up 75,000 volunteers to deal with the assault on Fort Sumter. Armed with the presidential letter, Ellsworth rushed from Washington to New York City to raise a Zouave regiment from local firefighters. The tough Zouave unit quickly became a crowd pleaser in Washington – where it extinguished a fire at Willard’s Hotel on May 9. The President and his son Tad had attended the swearing in on May 7 of the Zouave Regiment in front of the Capitol. The regiment was soon detailed to put out the Confederate fires in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. Ellsworth was finally achieving the kind of recognition he sought – when tragedy struck.

The events leading up to Ellsworth’s death on May 24, 1861 were described by Navy Captain John Dahlgren, also a friend of Mr. Lincoln: “I landed at his camp at midnight and reported myself to the Col. who promptly responded that he was ready. I pointed out to him the difficulty of getting the men embarked which he at once readily comprehended, and at which he rendered me marked assistance both in advice and direct help. His men obeyed him perfectly, and here as well as during the whole trip (and there was danger in the very voyage itself with so many men crowded into a small vessel) behaved with all the confidence and steadiness of veterans. The same thing was apparent again at the landing at Alexandria. I was remarkably impressed with the Col’s. Promptness, his constant good judgement and discretion, the perfect command which he had of his men, and of his coolness and bravery. He acted with the apparent experience of a trained officer of the regular service, and his men kept perfect silence and composure and executed with alacrity every order and direction he gave them”18

Ellsworth took his Zouave squad into Alexandria to occupy the city’s telegraph office. Along thee way, he entered a hotel to lower a Confederate flag that was flying there. Having accomplished his mission, he descended the stairs and was confronted by the hotel owner carrying a shotgun. Ellsworth was shot and killed instantly. His body was returned to the Washington Navy Yard and word of his demise sent to the White House.

Ellsworth’s death devastated President Lincoln. “He was a great pet in the family and Mr. Lincoln feels it very much,” a family house guest, Elizabeth Grimsley, wrote her cousin.19 A New York Herald correspondent accompanied Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson to the White House. When they entered his room, they found Mr. Lincoln “standing before a window, looking out across the Potomac, running at [the] foot of Presidential grounds. He did not move till we approached very closely, when he turned round abruptly, and advanced towards us, extending his hand: ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I cannot talk.’ We supposed that his voice had probably given way from some cause or other, and we were just about to inquire, when to our surprise the President burst into tears, and concealed his face in his handkerchief. He walked up and down the room for some moments, and we stepped aside in silence, not a little moved at such an usual spectacle, in such a man, in such a place.”

President Lincoln composed and seated himself before saying: “I will make no apology, gentlemen for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard. Just as you entered the room, Captain [Gustavus] Fox left me, after giving me the painful details of Ellsworth’s unfortunate death. The event was so unexpected, and the recital so touching, that it quite unmanned me.”20

Describing how Ellsworth died, Mr. Lincoln added: “Poor fellow, it was undoubtedly an act of rashness, but it only shows the heroic spirit that animates our soldiers, from high to low, in this righteous cause of ours.”21 Ellsworth had a naturally heroic disposition, noted presidential secretary John G. Nicolay. “I had known and seen him almost daily for more than six months past, and although our intimacy was never in any wise confidential as to personal matters, I had learned to value him very highly. He was very young – only 24 I think – very talented and ambitious, and very poor – a combination of the qualities upon which sadness and misfortune seem ever to prey. He had by constant exertion already made himself famous, and that against obstacles, that would have been insurmountable to any other. Since my acquaintance with him, my position has enabled me to assist him in his plans and aspirations, until I felt almost a direct personal pride and interest in his success.”22 Nicolay wrote the father of Ellsworth’s fiancée: “I had been with him daily – almost hourly for the six months past; I had talked over with him his plans, hopes and aspirations, and had learned to know so well his great talents as well as his great goodness, that I felt a direct personal interest in everything he did.”23

“All classes seem to regard his death as a personal affliction,” wrote John Hay. “The family of the President went down to the navy yard on Friday and gazed long and tearfully on the still face which had so often brought sunshine with it, into the Executive Mansion.”24 At Ellsworth’s funeral in the East Room of the White House the President was said to have exclaimed: “My boy! my boy! was it necessary this sacrifice should be made!”25 The funeral was began on May 25 in late morning. “President and Mrs. Lincoln entered and were seated near the foot of the coffin with various members of the Cabinet around them,” wrote historian Ruth Painter Randall. “Mrs. Lincoln was unable to control her grief and at times Mr. Lincoln too wept.”26

The relationship among the young men whom Mr. Lincoln brought to Washington had grown close during the first three months of his Administration. The death of Ellsworth came as a deep shock. “I had supposed myself to have grown quite indifferent, and callous, and hard-hearted, until I heard of the sad fate of Col. Ellsworth,” Nicolay wrote his fiancé. “I have been quite unable to keep the tears out of my eyes whenever I thought, or heard, or read, about it, until I have almost concluded that I am quite a weak and womanish sort of creature.” He added: I know the whole nation will mourn for him, yet I am grieved also to feel that they do not half appreciate his worth or their loss….”27 Hay wrote of “a smaller circle who mourn him in tears as the truest, tenderest, most loyal-hearted man that ever died.”28

Journalist-biographer Noah Brooks wrote: “The death of Ellsworth, needless though it may have been, caused a profound sensation throughout the country, where he was well known. He was among the very first martyrs of the war, as he had been one of the first volunteers. Lincoln was overwhelmed with sorrow. He had the body of the lamented young officer taken to the White House, where it lay in state until the burial took place, and even in the midst of his increasing cares, he found time to sit alone and in grief-stricken meditation by the bier of the dead young soldier of whose career he had cherished so great hopes.”29

The day after Ellsworth’s death, the President wrote a touching note to Ellsworth’s parents which began: “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.”30 Ellsworth’s father replied to Mr. Lincoln’s letter several weeks later:

“Pardon us the long delay in answering your kind and sympathizing letter. It has not occurred through want of inclination to write, but from the many calls made upon our time. The fact that Elmer succeeded in gaining the love & esteem of those with whom he was associated is to us one of great joy, and the reception of a letter, expressing such sentiments, from one whom we all so much respect is highly gratifying.

It would be useless for us to attempt to describe our feelings upon the receipt of the sad news of Elmers death. Although the blow was severe, how severe God only knows, yet through his goodness and mercy we are enabled to say ‘thy will not ours be done’ The sympathy of all true Christians, and lovers of that country in whose defence he perished has done much to assuage the intensity of our grief[.] We sincerely believe that God has removed him from a life of strife to one of eternal peace.

He was indeed toward us all you represented him, kind loving & dutiful. Our present comfort and future happiness always seemed uppermost in his mind. But he is gone and the recollections of his goodness alone is left us. We trust he did not die in vain, but that his death will advance the cause in which he was engaged.

With these few words accept our most grateful thanks for your kindness to and interest you have shown in our beloved son May it never repent you.

We would always be pleased to hear from you31

Mr. Lincoln provided employment for Ellsworth’s infirm father during the remainder of the Civil War. Zouave drummer John Langdon Kaine later wrote that “Colonel Ellsworth was the war’s first conspicuous victim; Lincoln himself the last.”32

Ellsworth left a lasting impression on those who knew him. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard wrote that Ellsworth was “brimming, running over with health, high spirits, ambition, hope, and all the exuberant life of a rarely vigorous nature.”32 A much later writer of military historian, Geoffrey Perret, wrote that Ellsworth’s zeal “outran his strength. In poor health, his lungs ravaged by tuberculosis, he was too ill even to be a military storekeeper. Without the President’s personal interest, Ellsworth never would have been accepted for service.”33 Another Union officer, Francis E. Brownell, recalled: “His person was strikingly prepossessing. His form, though slight, was exactly the Napoleonic height. He was very compactly built, and his head was finely poised, and crowned with luxurious curling, black hair. He had a hazel eye, a nose such as you see on old Roman medals. A light mustache just shaded lips that were continually shading into the sunniest smiles. His voice, deep and musical, once heard was never forgotten. He always dressed well, looked neat, and sometimes wore the military medals presented him by different organizations. He had great tact and executive ability. He was a good mathematician. Possessed of a fine artistic eye, and sketched wonderfully well.”34

Friend John Hay later wrote of Ellsworth’s burning ambition: “This brilliant meteor, which shone with such light for a moment in our sky and then went out forever, has left no trail of truthful history. Often I have heard the remarks. ‘He was lucky in his death. He was a short-boy, or a charlatan, or a fop.’ I will believe no one in the world knew him so well as I did, and I have no authority to force my knowledge of him upon the world. From the hour when I first met him, when he was a penniless law-student, eating dry bread to save his pennies for books, he shared my scant purse and I shared his magnificent dreams, And will say this of him, that I never yet saw so much of manhood embraced within five and half from spur to plume. He was a soldier born to command men, and he was an artist also, a ready and persuasive stump speaker, a close, relentless student, but everything in him was subordinate to a feverish and passionate love of arms and lust of fame. He had that intense and romantic devotion to the flag which is only seen among young and imaginative men. I have seen him take the colors in his hands and caress them as a mother does her child. He was, perhaps, not a man of our time. He was too purely a soldier to be a perfect Republican. He was full of reveries of conquest.”35


  1. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 150.
  2. Henry Villard, Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61, p. 60-61.
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 69 (June 3, 1861).
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 44 (Letter to Charles H. Spafford, June 25, 1861).
  5. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 239-240 (Leonard Wells Volk, Century Magazine, December 1881).
  6. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 278 (Isaac Hill Bromley, Scribner’s Magazine, November 1893).
  7. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 145.
  8. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861-1862, p. 154.
  9. Ruth Painter Randall, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, p. 163.
  10. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 69 (June 3, 1861).
  11. Ruth Painter Randall, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, p. 210.
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 91-92 (John Langdon Kaine, Century Magazine, February 1913).
  13. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 485-486 (Letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, March 11, 1861).
  14. Ruth Painter Randall, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, p. 222.
  15. Ruth Painter Randall, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, p. 224.
  16. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 149.
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 333 (Letter to Elmer Ellsworth, April 15, 1861).
  18. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 44-45 (Letter to Charles H. Spafford, June 25, 1861).
  19. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 81 (Letter of Elizabeth Grimsley to John T. Stuart, May 24, 1861).
  20. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 122-123.
  21. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 123.
  22. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, 1860-1865, p. 43 (Letter to Therena Bates, May 25, 1861).
  23. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 44 (Letter to Charles H. Spafford, June 25, 1861).
  24. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 70 (June 3, 1861).
  25. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 356.
  26. Ruth Painter Randall, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, p. 264.
  27. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 43 (Letter to Therena Bates, May 25, 1861).
  28. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 70 (June 3, 1861).
  29. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 272.
  30. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 385 (Letter to Ephraim D. and Phoebe Ellsworth, May 25, 1861).
  31. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 636-637 (Letter from E.D. Ellsworth to Abraham Lincoln, June 19, 1861).
  32. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 95 (John Langdon Kaine, Century Magazine, February 1913).
  33. Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 9.
  34. Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief, p. 34.
  35. Walter B. Stevens, (edited by Michael Burlingame), A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 132.
  36. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 122-123.