Monday, January 10, 2022

Booknotes: First Fallen

New Arrival:
First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling (Savas Beatie, 2021).

Every Civil War reader is familiar with the May 24, 1861 death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York "Fire Zouaves" at the hands of an enraged Alexandria hotel owner. Being the first Union officer killed in the conflict immediately vaulted Ellsworth into the ranks of national martyrdom, and his avenger (Pvt. Francis Brownell, who shot and bayoneted to death Ellsworth's killer) achieved a measure of fame of his own. However, while Ellsworth's death is one of the most famous events of the early war period, it's been over sixty years since a full-length biography was published. Meg Groeling's First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero thus stakes claim to being the "first modern biography."

Before his death, young Ellsworth had already achieved a degree of national renown as one of the leading figures of antebellum "Zouave Fever," which he parlayed into command of a 90-Day Zouave regiment. From the description: "Ellsworth and his entertaining U.S. Zouave Cadets drill team had performed at West Point, in New York City, and for President, James Buchanan before returning home to Chicago. He helped his friend and law mentor Abraham Lincoln in his quest for the presidency, and when Lincoln put out the call for troops after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Ellsworth responded. Within days he organized more than 1,000 New York firefighters into a regiment of volunteers."

Indeed, Ellworth's personal relationship with the Lincoln family remains a major part of his historiographical and reader appeal. More from the description: "When he was killed, the Lincolns rushed to the Navy Yard to view the body of the young man they had loved as a son. Mary Lincoln insisted he lie in state in the East Room of the White House."

The older biography referenced above is Ruth Painter Randall's Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: A biography of Lincoln's friend and first hero of the Civil War (1960). As is the case with nearly every Civil War topic updated after such a long period of time, "new information has been found that gives readers and historians a better understanding of the Ellsworth phenomenon and his deep connections to the Lincoln family." "(G)rounded in years of archival research, " First Fallen "examines every facet of Ellsworth’s complex, fascinating life." If you're interested in taking a deeper dive than ever before into Ellsworth's life, this looks like the book for you.

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