Musical tributes to a Civil War martyr: Elmer Ellsworth

On May 24, 1861, Lt. Elmer Ellsworth, commander of the army unit that occupied Alexandria, Virginia, saw a Confederate flag flying over one of the hotels in town. Offended, he rushed to the roof to take it down. The hotel proprietor shot him. Ellsworth became the first northern officer to die in the Civil War. What is this piece of information doing in a music blog? Because the death of this very popular officer caused an outpouring of musical tributes from all over the country. In fact, of all the people who ever lived in Chicago, more music was written about Ellsworth than anyone else in history.

Ellsworth is second from the right, with his arms folded.

In the years before the Civil War, military companies were an important kind of social organization.  One such company in Chicago, the Chicago Cadets, was drifting toward dissolution until it elected Elmer Ellsworth, then 22 years old, as its captain in April 1859.  In the process of restoring discipline and morale, Ellsworth renamed the company the United States Zouave Cadets.  In 1860 took them on a nationwide tour, along with a band conducted by A. J. Vaas. The company’s spectacular precision drills, and Vaas’s “Zouave Cadets  Quickstep”, soon became nationally famous.  The Chicago firm of Root and Cady published a piano version of the piece, which was its most successful publication before the war.  The Chicago Tribune (August 20, 1860) noted that “Messrs. Root & Cady, the publishers, are daily receiving orders by the hundred, from all the principal cities of the Union.”


At about the same time he built up the Zouaves in Chicago, Ellsworth was studying law with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield. In a description of the party traveling with President-elect Lincoln in February 1861, journalist  Henry Villard had some very favorable comments about Ellsworth:

“There has been no more noted character in Springfield, next to Mr. Lincoln himself than Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, commander of the celebrated corps of the United States Zouave Cadets, of Chicago. He is now studying law with the law partner of Mr. Lincoln. I found the colonel to be very thoroughly posted on military matters and, in my opinion, his love for the military will override his intention to become a lawyer.”

In his memoirs, Villard further recalled, “Another ‘military’ character, a sort of pet of Mr. Lincoln, was Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, who, though a mere youth, of small but broad figure, curly black head, and handsome features, had achieved considerable local notoriety as a captain of a crack ‘Zouave’ militia company in Chicago.”

In moving from the Zouaves to the real army, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and sent to Alexandria in command of a unit that he had recruited and trained in New York. At the start of what he certainly hoped would be a long and illustrious military career, Ellsworth’s objective was to take over Alexandria’s telegraph office, but he saw the offensive flag at the hotel on the way.

I have written another article about how the death of of the President’s friend prompted such an outpouring of musical tribute. Here are the pieces I found at the Chicago Historical Society in their files of music:

  • Brave Men, Behold Your Fallen Chief: Tribute to Col. Ellsworth / words by H. C. Ballard, music by J. P. Webster (Chicago, H.M. Higgins, 1862)
  • Col. Ellsworth’s Funeral March (piano piece) / Septimus Winner (Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, 1861)
  • Col. Ellsworth’s Gallopade (piano piece) / Calixa Lavallee (Cleveland: H.P. Danks, 1861)
  • Col. Ellsworth Requiem March (piano piece) / A. J. Vaas (Chicago: Root & Cady, 1861)
  • Ellsworth’s Funeral March (piano piece) / J. C. Beckel (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1861)
  • Ellsworth’s Requiem (piano piece) / George William Warren (New York: Firth & Pond, 1861)
  • Our Laddie’s Dead, Jem “uttered by one of Colonel Ellsworth’s Zoaves” / Ballad written by Miss L. Both Hendriksen, music by Otto F Jacobsen, professor of music at the Rockland Female Institute, Nyack, N.Y. (New York: William Hall & Son , 1861)
  • Sadly the Bells Toll the Death of the Hero / words and music by A. Tobey (Chicago: A. Judson Higgins, 1861)

The Newberry Library in Chicago has at least one more Ellsworth tribute, and its date indicates that Ellsworth’s memory and popularity lasted past the end of the Civil War:

  • Ellsworth Zoaves’ and National Lancers’ Greeting Grand March (piano piece)  / Adolph Baumbach (Chicago:  Root & Cady, 1866)

There may well be other Ellsworth tributes in other archives and collections all over the former Union states, copies of which never made it back to Chicago.

This post is based on research for my article “Eye Catching Music,” Chicago History v. 16,  no. 3-4 (Fall and Winter 1987-88), pp. 90-103. After it appeared, the Chicago Historical Society sent me black and white photographs of the illustrations used in the article. I was able to find one color image on line.

Photo credits
Civil War Daily Gazette, Public domain
Black and white images (qF38RL / M973 / folio P)  used by permission of the Chicago History Museum


There has been a lot of material published about Ellsworth this year. Here are some interesting articles I have found since publishing this one:

Remembering Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth: Local Hero (this from Rockford, Illinois)

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: Hometown Hero (this from Mechanicsville, New York)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *