“The greatest little man I ever met”*
It is appropriate that on this Memorial Day we toast Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who was the first “conspicuous casualty” and Union officer killed in the Civil War.
He was killed on May 24, 1864, age 24, while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House Inn of Alexandria, Virginia at Lincoln’s behest, as the flag had been visible from the White House as a defiant sign of the growing rebellion.
“Remember Ellsworth” became a patriotic slogan: the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment called itself the “Ellsworth Avengers.”
President Lincoln wrote the following letter to his parents:
To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:
My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction —
Ellsworth’s funeral was the first of three held in the East Room of the White House during the war. The second, in 1862, was a service for the president’s 11-year-old son Willie. The third was Lincoln’s own.
Sigh. I’m not sure why Elmer Ellsworth came to mind, but he did, and he seems a worthy example of the American soldier whom we honor today.
Here’s Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the U.S.A,” which kind of says it all:
I hope I am never too blasé or jaded that this song doesn’t prompt a tear.