May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, federal troops occupied Alexandria. Ever since taking office, President Lincoln had been annoyed by a Confederate flag over an Alexandria hotel, which he could see from his office in the White House. The 11th New York Infantry, commanded by Lt. Elmer Ellsworth, joined the occupation force with orders to take over the telegraph office. Their route took them past the hotel, and Ellsworth decided to take it down. When he came down from the roof, the hotel's proprietor fatally shot him. This 24-year-old lieutenant on his first day of military action became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War.

The news, which spread quickly, triggered a national outpouring of grief. Northern mothers named their babies for Ellsworth, and publishers in at least five cities issued at least nine pieces of sheet music, including one written and published a year after the war ended. How had this young lieutenant become so well known? And why are all the sheet music and other memorabilia dedicated to Col. Ellsworth?

Fascinated with all things military from childhood, Ellsworth was a natural leader and proved to be an excellent drillmaster. After cadet corps he lead amazed local crowds in his home town in upstate New York and later after he moved to Rockford, Illinois, he was elected leader of the moribund Chicago Cadets. They were about to disband in 1859 and needed someone to restore enthusiasm. Ellsworth accomplished much more than that.

Ellsworth and the Zouaves

Two years earlier, a chance encounter with a French veteran of the Crimean War, Charles de Villiers, had planted a new dream in Ellsworth's heart. De Villiers had served with the Zoaves, a unit famous for its colorful uniforms and acrobatic drills. Taking over the Chicago group in such dire circumstances allowed Ellsworth to start his own Zouave unit. Renaming the group the United States Zouave Cadets, he soon achieved a level of discipline and athleticism that he believed superior to any other group of cadets in the country.

In the summer of 1860, he issued his challenge to groups in twelve Northern states and embarked on a six-week national tour. By the end of it, his Zouaves had bested all of the competition and earned Ellsworth fame as their colonel. A dozen other Zouave units formed in their wake, imitating both the uniforms Col. Ellsworth had designed and his spectacularly choreographed drills.

United States Zouave Cadets QuickstepCredit: public domain

Not everyone was impressed with his achievements as a drillmaster. When he asked for the hand of the daughter of one of Rockford's leading citizens, her father had given consent on condition that he prepare himself for a more stable career than soldiering. All the time he worked with his Chicago corps, he was also studying law at the Springfield firm of Lincoln & Herndon.

Ellsworth and Lincoln

Lincoln and his whole family enjoyed Ellsworth so much that, in the words of one Lincoln associate, they adopted him as a pet. Lincoln later characterized their friendship as intimate. Shortly after the end of the triumphant Zouave tour, Lincoln persuaded Ellsworth to leave that group and move to Springfield. After all, the 1860 presidential campaign was getting into high gear, and Lincoln was the Republican candidate. Ellsworth gained further fame for himself as a campaign speaker.

When the victorious Lincoln traveled by train from Springfield to Washington, Ellsworth was part of his inner circle. He proved invaluable in handling the enthusiastic crowds that greeted the train at every stop. Within a week of the inauguration, Lincoln began to seek a special advisory appointment for Ellsworth, putting him in charge of all the nations militias. When that turned out not to be possible, Ellsworth went to New York City to recruit the infantry that he later led into Alexandria. He concentrated on firemen, and so they became popularly known as the 1st New York Fire Zouaves. Naturally, he trained them in drills to a high level of discipline. Not only did the drills become popular entertainment, they put out a fire at a Washington hotel before the local fire department arrived.

Desiring military glory, Ellsworth asked for permission to join the occupation of Alexandria. When he noticed the flag that so bothered Lincoln, his personal love for his friend outweighed his devotion to his immediate orders. His little detour cost him his life.

The Death of EllsworthCredit: Currier & Ives (public domain)

The first Union officer killed, therefore, was not just a green lieutenant known only to family and friends. He was the nationally known Col. Ellsworth of the Zouaves and close personal friend of the President of the United States. Therefore, he was not just an unfortunate war casualty. He was a martyr. That explains the babies named for him and the sheet music, as well as streets and towns quickly named or renamed Ellsworth and plenty of other memorabilia.