He was born and raised in New York, but eventually moved to Chicago with dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Elmer Ellsworth was also interested in military history. He read all about the great battles, studied the tactics, and reveled in the countless deeds of valor. He became a colonel in Chicago's National Guard Cadet unit and introduced his men to the flashy French colonial Zouave uniforms. Ellsworth and his comrades toured the country, performing flashy drill exercises for cheering crowds.
And then came the election of 1860. There was actually a presidential candidate in Springfield—and he was a pretty good lawyer too. Ellsworth had to meet him. Perhaps he could help with the campaign? He might even learn a thing or two about becoming a lawyer.
Lincoln and Herndon welcomed him into the law office. This twenty-three year old was full of energy—Lincoln called him, “the greatest little man I ever met.”
After the election the clouds of secession darkened the mood. But war captured Ellsworth’s imagination.
He knew the president…and there were people in the country plotting revolution! He began recruiting soldiers—he set up militia and cadet units. He found a girlfriend too—Carrie Spafford, the daughter of a leading businessman. He asked her to marry him and she said yes.
Ellsworth went to Washington with the new presdient. The revolution was underway and secessionists were everywhere. From a window in the White House you could even see rebel flags. And then Virginia joined the revolution. The day after they seceded from the Union, Colonel Ellsworth was eager to invade the South.
On this day, May 24, 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth led his men across the Potomac and into Alexandria, Virginia. They seized the railroad station and started toward the telegraph office. But then, Ellsworth saw something.
The Marshall House Inn was flying a rebel flag. Ellsworth had to tear it down—it was too symbolic to ignore.
With four others, he entered the building, made his way up the stairs, and cut down the rebel flag. Mission accomplished.
And then he met the rebel inn-keeper on the stairs.
Ellsworth, wearing a Union frock coat, clutching the rebel flag in his hand—the inn-keeper, awoken from his sleep, leveling a shotgun at the brash young soldier.
He fired and Ellsworth collapsed. Corporal Frank Brownell returned fire, killing the shot-gun wielding inn-keeper. They gave Brownell the Medal of Honor.
They said Lincoln cried when he heard his young friend was dead.
His body lay in state in the White House and then it was taken to New York City, where thousands of Union supporters turned out to pay their respects.
Elmer Ellworth was the first prominent casualty of the American Civil War.