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Elmer Ellsworth: First Union officer killed in the American Civil War

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Many people in the military hope to be remembered for what they did in battle. Their fame may come from saving the lives of other soldiers, or taking an objective against overwhelming odds, but some get their fame from just dying, and that is what happened to Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteer Regiment.

Ellsworth cannot be remembered for just being an ordinary officer. He began work as a patent agent in Illinois, and later studied law in Chicago. During this time he also served as a colonel, commanding National Guard cadets. In 1860, fate stepped in and he took a job in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield law office.

Ellsworth and Lincoln soon became good friends, and he accompanied Lincoln to Washington when Lincoln was elected president. As a student of military history and tactics, Ellsworth admired the Zouaves, who were elite Algerian troops fighting with the French Army in North Africa, and he became determined to raise a regiment and train them in the style of the Zouaves. Shortly before the Civil War started, he raised the 11th New York Volunteer Regiment. Many of his troops came from the ranks of the volunteer fire department, and he immediately began training his men using Zouaves tactics. He even had their uniforms designed similar to the Zouaves.

On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia voters ratified the state convention’s decision to secede from the Union, Ellsworth and his troops marched into Alexandria, Virginia to assist other regiments in the occupation of the city, but no sooner had he arrived, than he saw a large Confederate flag flying from the top of a building. It is said that the flag was so large Lincoln could see it with a spyglass from the White House, and ordered it removed.

According to reports, Ellsworth and four soldiers entered the Marshall House Inn, where the flag stood and proceeded to the roof and removed it. As he was coming down the stairs with the flag draped over his shoulder, James Jackson, owner of the Inn killed Ellsworth with a shotgun blast. Jackson was then killed by one of Ellsworth's men.

So, even though Elmer Ellisworth did not gain notoriety in battle, or for that matter, fight in a battle, he gained his fame as the first Union Officer killed in the Civil War. There are efforts in progress now to erect a statue of this man who believed strongly in the Union.

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