At the National Portrait Gallery: Remembering the Death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth

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As we continue our four-year-long coverage of the Civil War, highlighting the exhibitions and events around the Smithsonian Institution that commemorate the seminal moments of the war during this, its sesquicentennial, the ATM blog team focuses our attention today on the death of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first union officer to die in that conflict. A new exhibition opened over the weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, "The Death of Ellsworth."

Colonel Ellsworth (1837-1861), described as a "promising young Union officer," was born in Malta, New York, and, early on, had aspirations of becoming a professional solider. Unable to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, Ellsworth took a circuitous route to military service, during which he studied law and military science, commanded the United States Zouave Cadets and made the acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln when Ellsworth worked on his presidential campaign.

A friendship blossomed between the two men and when Ellsworth heard President Lincoln's call for 75,000 state militia on April 15, 1861, he went to New York City to recruit volunteers. Ellsworth soon became colonel of an untrained and undisciplined new regiment, the Eleventh New York Volunteer Infantry, which was eventually sent to Virginia as part of the Union advance there. Upon arriving in Virginia, Ellsworth saw a Confederate flag flying over the Marshall House and went with some men to remove it. As he climbed down the stairs with the flag, the innkeeper, James W. Jackson, came forward and shot Ellsworth, killing him.

Ellsworth's death marked the first Union casualty of the Civil War. The incident, which the writer Owen Edwards says has largely been forgotten, is remembered and explored this month at the National Portrait Gallery.

"The death of Ellsworth was a tragic harbinger for the nation at large, which would lose more than 620,000 soldiers in the four year long conflict," says James Barber, a National Portrait Gallery historian and curator of the exhibit. "Now at the start of war’s sesquicentennial, Ellsworth’s story is remembered nationally, locally, and here at the Smithsonian, which preserves several historic artifacts now on display."

See the exhibition "The Death of Ellsworth" at the National Portrait Gallery through March 18, 2012.

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