Special Report

How Col. Ellsworth’s Death Shocked the Union

It took the killing of their first officer to jolt the North into wholeheartedly supporting the Union cause

Col. Elmer Ellsworth became the first officer to die in the Civil War when he was gunned down by an innkeeper in Alexandria, Virginia. (Corbis)

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As for Lincoln, his young friend’s death affected him like no other soldier’s in the four years that followed. On the morning that the news reached the president, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and a companion—not yet aware of Ellsworth’s death—called at the White House on a matter of urgent business. They found Lincoln standing alone beside a window in the library, looking out toward the Potomac. He seemed unaware of the visitors’ presence until they were standing close behind him. Lincoln turned away from the window and extended his hand. “Excuse me,” he said. “I cannot talk.” Then suddenly, to the men’s astonishment, the president burst into tears. Burying his face in a handkerchief, he walked up and down the room for some moments before at last finding his voice: “I will make no apology, gentlemen,” said the president, “for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”

Almost alone among the millions of mourners, perhaps, Lincoln understood that Ellsworth’s death had not been glorious. Others might talk of his gallantry, might hail him as a modern knight cut down in the flower of youth. But for the president, preparing to send armies of Americans into battle against their Southern brothers, the double homicide in a cheap hotel represented something else: the squalid brutality of civil war.

Excerpt adapted from 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart, to be published by Knopf on April 15, 2011

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