Let's Learn From the Past: Col. Elmer Ellsworth

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The importance of the American flag as a symbol of the nation is embodied in the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Elmer Ellsworth, a patent lawyer and part-time soldier, was born in Malta, N.Y., in 1837 before moving to Rockford, Ill., when he was 17 years old.

While studying law during the day and military science in his spare time, Ellsworth became drillmaster of the Rockford Greys, a local militia company based in Springfield, Ill. In the 1860s, he founded the Zouave Cadets, a ceremonial drill unit modeled after Algerian soldiers in the Crimean War.

With flashy uniforms and elaborate drill team techniques, Ellsworth caught the attention of local attorney Abraham Lincoln. The duo became close friends, and Ellsworth eventually went to work for Lincoln's law firm and later for his presidential campaign. In February 1861, when president-elect Lincoln stopped in Pittsburgh en route to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., the 24-year-old Ellsworth served as his bodyguard.

At the onset of the Civil War, Col. Ellsworth trained an elite fighting unit in New York, eager to lead the first assault on the Confederate rebels. The day after Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, President Lincoln looked out from the White House across the Potomac River and saw the Confederate stars and bars flying from a hotel in Alexandria, Va. Immediately, Ellsworth led his troops to retrieve the flag for Lincoln and take back the city from the rebels.

Along with four of his men, the impetuous Ellsworth stormed into the Marshall House Inn and tore down the Confederate flag. As Ellsworth rushed downstairs with the captured flag, he was shot in the chest and killed by the hotel's owner.

Lincoln was deeply saddened by his young friend's death and ordered that Ellsworth's body lay in state in the White House. Because of his heroics for the Union cause, a number of towns and streets across the nation were named in honor of the Civil War hero, including Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood.

Visitors can learn more about Col. Ellsworth -- and the stories of the people behind the American flag -- as part of the Heinz History Center's exhibition "Stars & Stripes: An American Story." For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org/flags.

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