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Inside the Collection – Elmer Ellsworth

Posted under Collections by Guest author

Inside the Collection is a video series that invites you into the Chicago History Museum’s storage spaces to explore unusual, interesting artifacts from our vast collection.

In this installment, senior collection manager Britta Keller Arendt discusses three artifacts related to Elmer Ellsworth, a law clerk to Abraham Lincoln who became a martyr at the onset of the Civil War. These artifacts are a sword presented to Ellsworth after one of his many performances with the Chicago Zouave Cadets; a hand-painted pitcher depicting the scene of Ellsworth’s murder and a wreath-encircled photograph made by Mary Todd Lincoln that was placed on Ellsworth’s casket at his funeral.

Born in New York in 1837, Ellsworth moved to Chicago to study law. During his time in Illinois, he served as a commander of the National Guard cadets, which he renamed the Chicago Zouave Cadets. Ellsworth admired the Zouaves—the Algerian troops who fought under the French Army in North Africa—adapting their training methods and eclectic uniform of baggy red trousers. Ellsworth toured his cadets around the country, performing zouave drills, and soon a “zouave craze” was born.

When President-elect Lincoln headed to Washington, Ellsworth followed. As the country descended into civil war, Ellsworth travelled north to raise the Eleventh New York Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Fire Zouaves.” On May 24, 1861, he and his men were in Alexandria, Virginia, assisting with the occupation of the city. When Ellsworth spotted a large Confederate flag hanging from the roof of the Marshall House Inn, he climbed up and tore it down. As he was heading back downstairs, James Jackson, the innkeeper, shot and killed him. One of Ellsworth’s men Francis Brownell fatally shot Jackson in retaliation. The Union mourned this tragic loss, and “Remember Ellsworth!” became a rallying cry. His name and face soon appeared on stationary, sheet music, and common household items.

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