Your Views: Remember Ellsworth, martyr for the Northern cause


To the editor:

The first Union officer to die in the Civil War 150 years ago did not perish on a battlefield leading a thundering charge or holding off a desperate assault on a critical position. A man who owned a boarding house in Alexandria killed him after Col. Elmer Ellsworth cut down his Rebel flag.
Ellsworth did not die because he saw the war as an effort to end slavery, or even as a struggle over states rights. The Malta, N.Y., native died because he was insulted by the flag of an angry, new nation flying defiantly just across the Potomac River from the White House.  When he was given permission by President Abraham Lincoln to secure Alexandria and prevent an attack, Ellsworth did so out of respect for the president and the United States itself.    
Folklore has it that Ellsworth could not bear the thought of Lincoln being able to see the Rebel flag from the White House, although he would have needed a powerful spyglass to do so. He had known Lincoln since the future presidents days as an aspiring lawyer in Springfield, Ill., and clerked in his law office. Following the election of 1860, he traveled with him by rail through Buffalo, arriving together in Washington under the cover of darkness for fear of an attack by Southern sympathizers.
Both saw a need to protect the capital, and Ellsworth knew right where to turn.
He traveled north and enlisted 1,100 members of the New York City Fire Department, forming the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. The firemen were undisciplined, but Ellsworth worked day and night to make them a flashy fighting force worthy of the presidents respect.  Members even stepped up to help the Washington, D.C., Fire Department save the Willard Hotel on May 9, 1861, when it was threatened by fast-spreading flames.
Ellsworth outfitted his regiment in snappy uniforms modeled after the French Zouaves, with blue jackets and bright red pants. They looked like a million dollars as they paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. But they were not on parade on May 24, 1861, when they entered Alexandria. 
The telegraph station was secured, as was the boat landing at the foot of King Street.  Thats when Ellsworth looked up and saw the Rebel flag flying atop the Marshall House.
Surrounded by his firefighters-turned soldiers, he scaled the flagstaff, cut down the banner and headed down an interior staircase to the first floor. James Jackson, who owned the building, stepped out of the shadows and shot Ellsworth in the chest. Ellsworth, 24, was still clutching the Confederate flag when he died. Instantly, one of his men shot and killed Jackson.
Lincoln was horrified when the news reached the White House. He felt personally responsible for the death of the young man who would have done anything for him. He ordered that Ellsworths funeral be held in the East Room, an honor perhaps never before or after bestowed upon a non-president. The shocked nation shared Lincolns sentiment, and the cry Remember Ellsworth resonated from recruitment offices and battlefields from Maine to Minnesota.  
As the ultimate tribute, soldiers began to name their newborn sons after the fallen officer.  One such man was my great-great-grandfather. Twenty years ago, I gave my son the same middle name Ellsworth as a promise to my mother, three months before she passed away.
Ellsworth is otherwise forgotten today, though perhaps not in Alexandria. There is a bronze plaque on the side of the building where the Marshall House stood. It fails to mention him, instead paying tribute to Jackson for defending his property and personal rights as the first martyr for the cause of Southern independence.  
Shame. So youll forgive me if I frown when I see someone displaying a Confederate flag. What happened that morning in Alexandria 150 years ago this week gave my great-grandfather and my son a name.