“My boy! My boy!” — The Death of Elmer Ellsworth

May 24, 1861

Col. Elmer Ellsworth

Only weeks before, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth had led the New York Fire Zouaves into Washington, D.C., part of the force collecting there to defend both the capitol and the Union.

Young Ellsworth had quickly become a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s, and he enjoyed frequent access to the White House. Today, noticing Lincoln’s frustration over a Confederate flag flying over Alexandria, Virginia — just across the Potomac River and in full view of the president’s office — Ellsworth mounted a campaign to remove the irritant.

Ellsworth led the 11th New York into Alexandria. Ellsworth detailed companies to secure approaches to the town, then, finding the offensive flag flying above the Marshall House Inn, he himself led a detachment to collect it.

Ellsworth’s men entered the Marshall House, and he bolted upstairs and onto the roof. He pulled down the flag, then started back down the stairs. The hotel owner, James W. Jackson, met him on the stairs, however, and fired a shotgun blast into Ellsworth’s chest. The colonel fell dead.

The death of Ellsworth

A Union corporal, Francis Brownell, returned fire and killed Jackson.

News of Ellsworth’s death sent Lincoln into one of his frequent depressions. He allowed Ellsworth’s body to lie in state in the East Room of the White House, and he and Mary Lincoln attended Ellsworth’s funeral.

The president cried frequently in the days following Ellsworth’s death.  At one point he exclaimed, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be?”

Hundreds of thousands of such sacrifices were yet to come.

Mr. Lincoln’s White House
Long, Day by Day

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