Book Review: First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero


by Meg Groeling

El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2021. Pp. x, 325. Illus., map, appends., notes, biblio. $29.95. ISBN: 1611215374

The Union’s First Hero

When 24-year old Elmer W. Ellsworth was killed in Alexandria, Virginia by Marshall Hotel proprietor James Jackson on May 24, 1861, he became the Union’s first hero in the war. The rallying cry, “Remember Ellsworth”, was heard throughout the war, and especially at the First Battle of Bull Run two months later. While he is not well known today, independent historian Meg Groeling has written the first full biography of the young man in many years. She tells a wonderful story that links Ellsworth with his times, and connects him with his friend and mentor Abraham Lincoln, as well as many others in his life, including the president’s family and secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, his finance Carrie Spafford, Cpl. Francis Brownell, later know as “Ellsworth’s Avenger”, and of course James Jackson.

Groeling argues that like many other Northerners, Ellsworth saw 1850’s politics as favoring the slave power, moving the United States from compromise and spreading slavery everywhere. She makes a good case that, like the President, Ellsworth was self-disciplined, self-reliant, and confident for someone who was not born into wealth, and attained prominence on the national stage by his own efforts

Groeling opens with Ellsworth’s “inauspicious beginnings”, follows his early career as he joined the militia, which brought him national prominence as a drill master and trainer of Zouaves, while he read law under Lincoln’s tutelage. She covers his journey to Washington accompanying the President-Elect, and then his role in raising the 11th New York Volunteers – “Ellsworth’s Zouaves” or the “Fire Zouaves”.

Naturally we get a close look at the events surrounding Ellsworth’s death on May 24, 1861, which sparked a remarkable emotional response from people across the North; reportedly 41,980 babies were named after him over the twenty years following his death. Ellsworth’s reputation was rather high in the South as well, Robert E. Lee is believed to have said that had Ellsworth survived, he might have become commanding general of the North’s army.

Groeling includes four helpful appendices which cover a number of matters, including Ellsworth’s obituary by John Hay, how his death affected public opinion in the North, prompting thousands of men to volunteer to fight, why James Jackson was viewed differently in the South than in the North, rescuing the reputation of the 11th New York from charges of cowardice and poor leadership at First Bull Run, where it suffered more losses than most Union regiments, especially at the start of the fighting, and the effect of Ellsworth’s death on his parents, Carrie Spafford, Francis Brownell, and the Lincoln family.

The best part of Groeling’s book is how she allows readers to know who Ellsworth was, what he accomplished in life, how he affected those around him, and why the people of the North thought of him as a martyr and an important symbol. First Fallen is a straightforward, deeply researched biography that is persuasively argued and well written, reminding us that symbolically Ellsworth was the first victim of the Civil War as Lincoln was the last.

First Fallen is an excellent book.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, , Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, and Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy.




Note: First Fallen is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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