Shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union, Lt. Elmer Ellsworth led an army unit into Alexandria to take over the railroad station and telegraph office and occupy the city for the federal government. He stopped to take down a confederate flag that flew over the Marshall House Inn. When he came back from the roof with the offending flag in his hands, the proprietor shot and killed him. Ellsworth became the first Northern officer killed in the Civil War. As a result, every kind of tribute came from all over the country. For one example, sheet music archives in Chicago have at least nine songs and piano pieces written in Col. Ellsworth’s memory published in five different cities. How did the death of a 24-year-old lieutenant elicit such an outpouring? And why did the titles of most of the musical tributes call him Col. Ellsworth?
In 1859, Ellsworth took over leadership of a moribund military club in Chicago, outfitted them with uniforms that imitated the French Zouaves. He got them so well disciplined that he took them on a nationwide tour as the United States Zouave Cadets, which made him famous. That tour produced its own best-selling march, which shows Ellsworth as one of four men on a very colorful cover. After the tour, he took leave of his Zouaves to study law. His teacher? Abraham Lincoln. In a short time, they became close personal friends. As President, Lincoln wanted to appoint Ellsworth as his personal military advisor. When that didn’t work out, Ellsworth accepted a commission as lieutenant, recruited and drilled his troops. This friend of the President died on his first day of real action.