Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, commander of the New York Zouaves. After the photograph by the Mathew Brady Studios, reproduced on page 351 in The Photographic History of the Civil War [Volume 1]: thousands of scenes photographed 1861–65, with text by many special authorities, 1911. Francis Trevelyan Miller, editor-in-chief; Robert S. Lanier, managing editor. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
In the predawn hours of May 24, 1861, the 11th Regiment of New York Infantry disembarked from steamers in Alexandria, Virginia. The men, commanded by Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837–1861), who was only 24 years old, met no resistance. Ellsworth had sent two companies to occupy the railroad depot and telegraph office before he spotted the Confederate flag that had been clearly visible from the White House ever since Virginia had joined the Confederacy on May 7.
The flag was affixed to a pole on the rooftop of a three-story hotel called Marshall House. Ellsworth, unarmed, ran up the stairwell to the roof. As he was descending the stairs, with the flag in his hands, he was shot, point-blank, by the hotel’s owner.
The news reached the White House later that day. The next day, President Abraham Lincoln and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln went to the Washington Navy Yard, where Ellsworth’s body lay draped in the Confederate flag from Marshall House. Lincoln ordered that the body be moved to the White House’s East Room, where presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor had lain in state.
Several hours later, President Lincoln sat down to write a letter to Ellsworth’s parents, Ephraim and Phoebe. The letter, known as the first letter of condolence of the Civil War, is currently on display in the Library’s Main Exhibition Hall.
The Marshall House, unknown photographer, 1861, stereograph, 3 1/4 x 6 3/4 in. (8.3 x 17 cm). The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia, at the corner of King and Pitt streets, the scene of the assassination of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth on May 24, 1861.
Before the Civil War, letters of condolence in the United States were relatively rare, perhaps because they can be exceedingly difficult to write. Style, literary skill, or eloquence, however great, are mostly useless in the face of overwhelming grief. In 1818, Thomas Jefferson sadly wrote to his friend John Adams, who had just lost his wife of nearly 60 years, that all words were in “vain.”
And then the Civil War came. The U.S. Army did not have a system of notifying next of kin when a soldier died; such a system would be established much later, during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of parents, siblings, wives, children, and sweethearts learned about the deaths of their loved ones during the Civil War from letters written by officers, fellow soldiers, nurses, or even total strangers.
After July 1862, when Congress passed a law providing pensions to the survivors of fallen soldiers, such letters functioned as death notices to be attached to pension applications.
In the fall of 1864, Lydia Parker Bixby, a Boston widow, produced five such letters, written by her five sons’ commanding officers. The governor of Massachusetts was so moved by the mother who had sacrificed her entire family to the Union cause that he informed the president.
A Letter by Abraham Lincoln: Executive Mansion Washington, Nov. 21, 1864, to Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass., broadside, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Lincoln’s original letter to Lydia Parker Bixby was never found, and it became a popular target of forgers. In the early 1900s, an “original” (with the word “assuaged” misspelled) was shown by a New York dime museum. Another “original”—which reportedly displayed “a model of purest English, rarely, if ever surpassed” on the walls of Brasenose College, University of Oxford, England”—was reproduced by Roy Jay Cook in his anthology One Hundred and One Famous Poems (Chicago, 1916). The college was never in possession of the letter. Crombie Allen (1875–1946), a California journalist and publisher of the Ontario Daily Report, produced his broadside hoping to see Lincoln’s words on “the walls of America.”
In November 1864, a Boston newspaper published the president’s letter to Mrs. Bixby. Lincoln conceded that “any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” were “weak and fruitless.” The commander in chief tendered to “the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle” the “thanks of the Republic they died to save.”
The letter, an instant sensation, has been celebrated ever since as one of Lincoln’s best and the gold standard for presidential condolences. It is solemnly read—and partly recited—by Harve Presnell as Gen. George C. Marshall, during a key scene in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, which is set during World War II.
Neither the missing original letter to Mrs. Bixby; nor doubts about Lincoln’s authorship; nor the fact that one of the Bixby boys, Henry, was mustered out of the army in December 1864; nor that another son, George, was captured in Virginia and might have enlisted in the Confederate Army; nor that yet another son, Arthur, deserted the Union Army, has diminished the letter’s fame.
Lincoln’s letter to the Ellsworths, however, attracted much less attention, even though young Elmer, unlike Mrs. Bixby or her sons, was a bona fide celebrity. Even before the war, he was famous for complex and athletic drill routines that he staged, to great acclaim, in numerous gyms.
As Brian R. Dirck noted in his book The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019), after Ellsworth was killed in Virginia, he was mourned and celebrated as a martyr and a victim of an assassin, much like Lincoln would be mourned and celebrated four years later.
The first and second pages of President Abraham Lincoln’s three-page letter of condolence to the parents of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, May 25, 1861. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Unlike the Bixby letter, the Ellsworth letter was never intended for publication. Its only purpose was to comfort his bereft parents on the loss of their “brave and early fallen child.”
For Lincoln, the loss was personal. The energetic, dapper, and enterprising Ellsworth was a close friend of Lincoln’s family. The president’s letter flowed from an “affliction” that was “scarcely less” than the pain of Ellsworth’s father and mother.
The Bixby letter closes with an eloquent valediction, calling upon “our Heavenly Father” to “assuage the anguish” of Mrs. Bixby’s bereavement and “leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
The letter to Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth ends much more simply with the heartbreaking words: “May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.”
The third and final page of President Abraham Lincoln’s letter of condolence to the parents of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, May 25, 1861. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Olga Tsapina is the Norris Foundation Curator of American History at The Huntington.