The Colonel of the Zouaves

(from Redwood County Museum's collection)

By Noah Brooks
A Story of the Civil War

Among those who accompanied Abraham Lincoln on his journey from Illinois to the national capital, was Elmer E. Ellsworth, a young man who had been employed in the law office of Lincoln and Herndon in Springfield. He was a brave, handsome, and impetuous youth, and was among the first to offer his services to the President in defense of the Union, as soon as the mutterings of war were heard.
Before the war he had organized a company of Zouaves from the Chicago firemen, and had delighted and astonished many people by the exhibitions of their skill in the evolutions through which they were put while visiting some chief cities of the Republic. Now, being commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army, he went to New York and organized from the firemen of that city a similar regiment, known as the Eleventh New York. “Zouave” is a member of any of various volunteer regiments in the American Civil War.

Colonel Ellsworth’s Zouaves, on the evening of May 23, were sent with a considerable force to occupy the heights overlooking Washington and Alexandria, on the banks of the Potomac, opposite the national capital.

Next day, seeing a Confederate flag flying from the Marshall House, a tavern in Alexandria kept by a secessionist, he went up through the building to the roof and pulled it down. While on his way down the stairs, with the flag in his arms, he was met by the tavern-keeper, who shot and killed him instantly. Ellsworth fell, dying — the Confederate flag having the blood that gushed from his heart. The tavern-keeper was instantly killed by a shot from Private Brownell, of the Ellsworth Zouaves, who was at hand when his commander fell. 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 such great hopes. The life-blood from Ellsworth’s heart had stained not only the Confederate flag, but a gold medal found under his uniform, bearing the legend: “Non solum nobis, sed pro patria” – “Not for ourselves alone, but for the country.”