Col. Elmer Ellsworth, The Lincolns’ Favorite

Col. Elmer Ellsworth

Few Lincoln favorites were as beloved by the entire Lincoln family as Elmer Ellsworth.

The Young Militia Colonel

Ephriam Elmer Ellsworth (1837-61) was a poor New York fellow with long bootstraps. Blessed with a charismatic personality, solid brains, and an abiding interest in all things military, he gravitated to Chicago, had formed a local militia patterned after the French-Algerian Zouaves, drilled it and nurtured it, and became its Captain – all by the age of 21 or 22.

He came to the attention of Springfield attorney Abraham Lincoln, who took a paternal liking to the young fellow, considering him at only 5’6”, one of the greatest little men he had ever met. Sympathetic to his impoverished self-made background similar to his own, he suggested that Ellsworth come to Springfield as law student/clerk.  The advice and offer was taken.

Willie Lincoln adored Elmer Ellsworth.

So did Tad.

Within a short time, Elmer Ellsworth became a great favorite of all the Lincolns: Mrs. Lincoln (known to be picky) adored him; Willie and Tad Lincoln considered him a big brother who happily engaged in horseplay with the little boys. Robert Lincoln, away at Philips Exeter, would meet him Ellsworth later, and always thought well of him.

But Ellsworth’s love of the militia in all aspects would soon override his enthusiasm for law.

The Lincoln Campaign of 1860

Political campaigns have always attracted young enthusiasts, willing to “volunteer” for long hours and no pay, in the hope of experience, facetime with the powers that be, and potential reward down the road.

Lincoln’s Secretary John Hay thought highly of Ellsworth.

So did Lincoln’s other secretary John Nicolay.

So it was with young Ellsworth, who, along with John Nicolay and John Hay, men close to his own age, he offered to help wherever he was needed. According to Hay, “He soon became indispensable. No one could manage like him the turbulent assortment of loyal followers” that crowded along the railroad stops between Springfield and Washington. Nicolay would consider him “very self possessed and cheerful.”

Between September 1860 and February 1861, he saw Lincoln practically every day, and the whole family adopted him as one of their own.

In reality, just about everyone liked and admired Elmer Ellsworth.

Ellsworth in Washington

Invited to bunk-in with Nicolay and Hay at the White House, Ellsworth continued to impress the newly elected President. Within a week of inauguration, Lincoln wrote a lengthy recommendation to then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron, recommending that Ellsworth be appointed Inspector General, along with several perks and benefits. Cameron however, had already promised the position elsewhere, so it was never effected.

Abraham Lincoln had high hopes for the young officer.

The best that the young self-educated militia officer could obtain was a commission as Lieutenant, since existing army protocol placed high emphasis on seniority. Lincoln suggested appointing him to some special duties in the future since the new President who had little formal judgment in those matters, had formed “a high estimate” of his military talents. On the very day that Fort Sumter fell, he wrote to Ellsworth that he hoped [the army] “would personally oblige him” and place him in a position…”satisfactory to himself.”

On the day the President called for 75,000 volunteers, Ellsworth, armed with the presidential letter, raced to New York to raise a regiment of Zouave firefighters. They were quick to enlist, particularly attracted to the exotic uniform with its royal blue shirts and bright red pantaloons. Battles were still to be fought, but troops were trickling in to Washington from all the Northern states, setting up camps everywhere including on the lawn of the the White House and the Capitol. As one of the first units to reach Washington, they became a great hit in the capital – especially when they put out a fire at Willard’s Hotel. Lincoln personally attended the official swearing-in of the Zouave regiment. Ellsworth was beginning to make a name for himself in military circles.

Ellsworth in Alexandria

When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, the state of Virginia voted to join the Confederacy, to no one’s surprise.

A popular drawing of Ellsworth meeting his fate in Alexandria.

Alexandria, Virginia is only a short distance from Washington across the Potomac River. On the rooftop of the John Marshall Hotel, one of the taller buildings in the Virginia town, a makeshift rebel flag (not the one later associated with the Confederacy) was hoisted atop its flagpole – in easy view of the White House.

As a Volunteer Militia Colonel and practically a part of the President’s family, Ellsworth was incensed that his beloved Mr. Lincoln was confronted by this obvious sign of secession. He and a few of his men had gone to Alexandria for a minor assignment, but upon its completion, decided to haul down the offensive piece of material.

With cool judgment, he personally raced up the stairs of the small building, and lowered the offending flag. As he descended the stairs, the owner of the hotel shot and killed him instantly. One of Ellsworth’s men returned a bullet between the owner’s eyes.

Ellsworth Back in Washington

Word spread like wildfire – including notifying the White House that the young colonel was dead. Lincoln was devastated. “I knew poor Ellsworth well,” he told some congressional visitors, “and held him in great regard…the event was so unexpected…it quite unmanned me.”

Mary Lincoln wept at Ellsworth’s funeral.

The country mourned him.

Lincoln and his family went to the Washington Navy Yard, where Ellsworth’s body had been brought, and later arranged to hold funeral services in the East Room of the White House. The President and Mrs. Lincoln sat near the foot of the coffin, surrounded by their cabinet officers, and were known to have shed copious tears. Later, Lincoln was reported to have sat alone by the coffin, meditating on the young soldier of whose career he had cherished such high hopes.

Ellsworth left a lasting impression on all who knew him.


Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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