Our national holiday of Memorial Day, on which we remember those who died while serving in our armed forces, had its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War. Back then it was called Decoration Day, so named because people in both the North and the South decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers.
The observance of such a day serves to honor the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice, but it also serves to express our condolences and gratitude to those left behind: the family members and friends who have suffered the terrible loss of a loved one.
Abraham Lincoln had tragic occasion to demonstrate this in late May of 1861, with the Civil War barely underway and long before the establishment of any such official day of remembrance.
The Lincolns counted among their friends a young man from New York State by the name of Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth had moved to Illinois in the mid-1850s when he was 17 years old, eventually settling in Springfield in 1860 in order to join Lincoln’s law office as a clerk and continue his study of the law. He later campaigned for Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1860 and then helped to manage the President-elect’s journey to Washington. He became a close friend of the whole family, and almost like another son to Lincoln.
After the Confederate takeover of Fort Sumter in South Carolina in mid-April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellion. His young friend Ellsworth was among the first to join the cause, traveling to New York City to raise the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from among that city’s volunteer firefighting companies. Ellsworth then returned to Washington as the colonel of these famous “Fire Zouaves”, who were soon dispatched across the Potomac River to occupy Alexandria, Virginia. They were the first Union troops to occupy Confederate territory, and they accomplished this task with little trouble except for one terribly tragic incident. There was a large Confederate flag atop the Marshall House, a small inn, which for weeks had been visible from Washington, including from Lincoln’s office in the White House. Young Ellsworth entered the inn with several of his men and he himself went upstairs to remove the flag. On his way back down the stairs, he was shot and killed by the innkeeper.
Lincoln grieved for his young friend as if he had been his own son, and the next day wrote a letter of condolence to his parents, Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth. The President did not know it at the time, but this would be just one of many hundreds of letters of condolence which he would write to grieving parents, children, siblings, and other kin and friends over the next four years.
Washington, D.C. – May 25, 1861
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 –
At Lincoln’s request, the body of Elmer Ellsworth, one of the first martyrs for the cause of the Union, was brought by an honor guard to the White House and lay in state in the East Room. His death would serve as a rallying cry in the North over the coming weeks and months, but this would not dim the intensity of the Lincoln family’s great feeling of loss. It would serve as a reminder, however, that the price of peace is often very costly, requiring sacrifices and suffering by the members of our armed forces and by their families and friends.
Kevin J. Wood
May 28, 2017