Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Remembering Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Union Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first notable death of the American Civil War. He was but 24 years old at the time of his death and his loss sent waves of grief throughout the Union. Other than his parents, no family felt his loss as keenly and as deeply as Abraham and Mary Lincoln, and their sons.

Elmer Ellsworth was born in the state of New York in 1837. Although he yearned to join the United States Military Academy at West Point, his grades were not good enough for that institution. He eventually moved to New York City, then relocated to Chicago where he studied law and became a law clerk. He was unusual among men of his era in that he strictly avoided tobacco and alcohol, much like Abraham Lincoln.

Ellsworth's first love remained military science and not the law. In 1859, he formed the "Chicago Zouaves" a precision military drill team, based on the famous Zouave soldiers of the French Army based in northern Africa, primarily in Algeria. The Chicago Zouaves wore the same type of uniform as did the real Zouaves; open jackets, baggy pants, and colorful accoutrements.

The Chicago Zouaves led by Ellsworth went on a barnstorming tour of the Northern states in the months leading up to the Civil War. The "regiment" as it was called performed stunning acrobatic moves, swift actions with their weapons, including bayonets. and dazzling march steps. They took the crowds across the north by storm, and it didn't matter one bit that the Zouaves, especially Ellsworth, never had seen real military action.

It was through these displays that Abraham Lincoln first met Ellsworth. A fast friendship began when Lincoln invited Ellsworth to Springfield in the late autumn of 1860, to continue his law studies by working for and with Lincoln. It turned out, though, that Ellsworth really helped in the presidential campaign by giving speeches and making appearances at various Republican functions. By now, Ellsworth was a famous man, and his efforts for Lincoln were noted during the campaign. Lincoln, according to author Adam Goodheart (1861: The Civil War Awakening), seems to have developed almost a "schoolboy" crush on the much younger and much shorter Ellsworth, who stood just 5'6" tall. Indeed, the entire Lincoln family became quite fond of Ellsworth, practically "adopting" him into their family. After Lincoln's election, he asked for Ellsworth to accompany the family to Washington.

Once Lincoln was in office, he requested several appointments in the regular Army for Ellsworth, but these didn't pan out. Upon the attack and fall of Ft. Sumter, Lincoln requested 75,000 volunteers from across the Union to come to the aid of the nation. Ellsworth then immediately departed for New York City, where he proceeded to raise a regiment of New York firemen. The New York Fire Zouaves, about 1,000 in all, then came to Washington to help defend the city.

The state of Virginia held a referendum on May 23, 1861 to determine whether or not it would secede from the Union. The citizens of that state decided it would leave, dealing a blow to the efforts of Lincoln and others to keep the most politically important southern state from leaving.

It was then that a hotel proprietor in Alexandria, VA, raised a giant Confederate flag (The Stars and Bars) over his establishment. The flag was so large, in fact, that Lincoln himself could see it from his office window in the White House. The effect of seeing the flag so close to Washington was unnerving to Lincoln, and especially to Mary. Ellsworth knew this and embarked on this course of action which led to his untimely death.

Early on the morning of May 24, 1861, Ellsworth led his men across the Potomac River into Alexandria, where they proceeded to occupy the city's telegraph office, hoping to cut it off from the rest of the Confederacy. Ellsworth then realized he was close to the hotel displaying the offensive flag. He impulsively entered the building and with two of his men climbed up the stairs to reach the roof. He cut down the flag and began carrying it back down the stairs.

It was then that tragedy struck. The hotel owner, one James Jackson, then swiftly pulled out a shotgun, fired, and killed Ellsworth instantly, the shot going through Ellsworth's heart. One of Ellsworth's men, Cpl. Francis Brownell, returned fire and killed Jackson on the spot.

The news of Ellsworth's death traveled swiftly through his men and quickly came to the White House. The Lincoln's, especially the president, were horrified and devastated at the death of their young friend. Later, Ellsworth's body was taken to the Washington Navy Yard, where the president and Mrs. Lincoln arrived in shock to view the remains. Lincoln ordered that Ellsworth's remains be put on view in the East Room of the White House, where a funeral was held for their young friend. The same day of Ellsworth's death, Lincoln received two visitors, who were stunned to see the President Of The United States weeping openly. Lincoln told them men: "I will make no apology, gentlemen for my weakness; but I knew poor Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard. Just as you entered the room, Captain [Gustavus] Fox left me, after giving me the painful details of Ellsworth's unfortunate death. The event was so unexpected, and the recital so touching, that it quite unmanned me."

The Union, too, felt the loss of Ellsworth deeply. There was a funeral journey back to New York state, not unlike the journey that Lincoln's own body would be given in less than four years from that day. Many people came to witness the train as it passed through cities and towns along the way. Song writers composed funeral marches. Currier and Ives, the leading print makers of the era, quickly produced a print showing the murder of Ellsworth, fairly accurately depicting the event.

While alive, Elmer Ellsworth was one of the most famous men in the United States. In death, his popularity grew even more as he became known as the first Union officer to be killed in the American Civil War. The young man with no military experience at all ironically became the first Union martyr.

Today Elmer Ellsworth is mostly unknown to those outside of the circle of Civil War and Lincoln historians and enthusiasts. There is a plaque today at the scene of Ellsworth's death in Alexandria. It commemorates not Colonel Ellsworth, but his shooter, the owner of the hotel.

On this 150th anniversary of the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, I choose to remember him.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: My Thoughts Be Bloody

What motivated the actor John Wilkes Booth into committing one of the most infamous crimes in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? For the past nearly 150 years, most people have assumed it was a madman's attempt to seek revenge for his beloved fallen Confederacy.

Author and historian Nora Titone's recently published book, My Thoughts Be Bloody, posits a different reason for Booth's fateful decision to kill Lincoln. According to her, it was the intense rivalry between John Wilkes Booth and his older, more accomplished actor brother, Edwin, which eventually led to the assassination.

The Booths were America's greatest family of actors, most noted for their Shakespearean roles. The founder of the dynasty was the father of these two men, Junius Brutus Booth, a native of England who came to America in the 1820's after abandoning his wife to a life of poverty in that country. He arrived with his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, the eventual mother of both Edwin and John Wilkes.

The book takes the reader through the lives of the Booth family as Junius uses his natural talents to achieve fame and fortunes playing to packed theaters across the United States. As alcoholism sets in, his performances become more erratic and his teenage son, Edwin, becomes his travelling companion to help keep him away from the bottle. It was on this years-long journey with his father when Edwin learns the art of acting which eventually makes him one of the finest actors in American history, even by today's standards.

Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth, is left behind at the family home in Baltimore, where he attempts to learn the family trade of acting on his own. But without the natural genius of his father and brother Edwin to guide him in his education, he grows into something of a hack, more known for his athletic ability on stage than for his acting talent.

After their father finally succumbs to alcoholism, Edwin is ready to assume the role of Booth patriarch and quickly achieves a fortune of money, while finding fame on the stage in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The younger John, meanwhile, tries to achieve the same level of stardom, but cannot seem to make a go of it.

Edwin then calls a family "meeting of the minds" and with his influence, dictates that he will be the lone Booth brother acting in the prosperous markets of the northeast, while John is given the southern states, much less financially lucrative for actors. Edwin thus has the best chance for making money and his fortune continues to grow, while John in the "hinterlands" of the south, struggles constantly to make enough money to feed himself. It doesn't help, of course, that his acting is not good, but he never sees it that way. He seethes at his older brother.

All of this of course happens against the backdrop of the growing divide between North and South as the slavery issue (and other issues) threatens to tear the country apart. Although only a few years earlier he supported the Northern cause, John Wilkes gradually comes to take the side of the South. The rest of his family, including Edwin, their mother and other siblings, support the Union.

With John Wilkes' acting career seeing fewer roles, he attempts to go into the oil exploration business in Pennsylvania, the scene of the first big U.S. oil strike. He invests a great deal of money with friends, but they lose everything. The money losses further erodes his standing within the Booth family, helping to further intensify his rivalry (and hatred) of his brother Edwin.

John Wilkes returns to the family home nearly a broken man and meets with his brother, who is also home for a visit. They get into an argument filled with much rage and Edwin calls his brother "nothing but a rank secessionist" for expressing pro-Southern opinions. The outraged John Wilkes storms out of the home, more set in his support for the Confederacy than ever.

It was sometime in 1864 when John Wilkes began plotting against Lincoln, almost immediately after this huge quarrel with Edwin. The historical facts from this point forward are well known. Booth fell further and further into conspiracy until on the night of April 14, 1865, he murdered Abraham Lincoln.

After the assassination and John Wilkes Booth's own death on April 26, 1865, the surviving members of the Booth family struggled with what their son and brother had done. They seem to have tried to bury the deed and memories of John Wilkes along with his body. Edwin went on to even greater fame and fortune on the stage, establishing the Players Club for the wealthy and elite in New York City. None of Edwin's friends and associates mentioned John Wilkes, not even until after Edwin died in 1893.

My Thoughts Be Bloody is a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Each chapter title is also a line from a Shakespearean play. Since plays written by the Bard were so intertwined into the careers and lives of the Booth family, it is appropriate that the book's title should reflect that.

The book is excellent with its in-depth look at the dynamic of a highly dysfunctional family. The genius of Junius Booth is counter-balanced by his eccentricities which were made worse by his alcoholism. The Booth children were deeply affected by finding out that their mother, Mary, was not their father's wife. It was made even worse when their father's wife showed up unexpectedly to harass the family, making the children ashamed to be bastards. And of course the rivalry between John Wilkes and Edwin further roiled the family.

Titone has written a fascinating account of the Booths. The book is well-written, thoroughly researched, entertaining, and holds the interest of the reader. But does it make a strong case for the author's claim that it was the rivalry between the Booth brothers which led to the death of Lincoln?

I am not entirely convinced that it does. Yes, there was a rivalry. Yes, Edwin relegated John Wilkes to the less prosperous regions of the country for the latter's career. Yes, that led to jealousy and resentment. And yes, that led to John Wilkes advocating the Confederate cause.

But did this rivalry cause Booth to become an assassin? To make such a claim overlooks John Wilkes' oversized ego, self-absorption, feelings of failure from an acting career going nowhere and huge business losses. And perhaps, a touch of insanity. A lot of families have intense sibling rivalry, but they typically don't lead to murder. It may have been one motive, but I don't believe it was the only one.

Ultimately, where My Thoughts Be Bloody most succeeds is in helping us to find another piece of the puzzle in understanding what made John Wilkes Booth commit one of the greatest crimes in our nation's history. Above all, it is thought-provoking and that is the hallmark of what makes a work of history an achievement.

Well done. I highly recommend this book.

Movie Review: The Conspirator

Robert Redford's latest film, The Conspirator, tells the "story behind the story" of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. By now, Lincoln buffs know that this is not the story of the main conspirator and assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Instead, it focuses on Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house in Washington, D.C. where Booth and other conspirators plotted first to kidnap President Lincoln, then changed the plan to murder. The movie is based on the book The Assassin's Accomplice, written by the historian Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.

Mary Surratt was arrested on April 17, just two days after the death of the president. She was held in solitary confinement in harsh conditions along with her co-defendants. All of the defendants were tried by military tribunal, rather than civil court, and were found guilty. Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Payne (who nearly killed Sec. of State William Seward), George Atzerodt (assigned to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson, but didn't carry out the plan), and David Herold (Booth's companion during the manhunt for the two) were hanged on July 7, 1865. Mary was the first woman executed by the Federal government, an act which remains controversial to this day.

The Conspirator is the first film from The American Film Company which was founded in 2008. It has the goal to produce films about events from our nation's past. The company will use historians to assure the films depict the events accurately, unlike so many other films which omit, warp, and flat out lie about the events they purport to tell us about.

Portraying Mary Surratt in the film is Robin Wright. Wright's performance is outstanding. She injects her character with the right blend of strength, courage, despair, and contempt, all traits that Mary Surratt showed during the trial. Thanks to makeup, styling, and costuming, Wright bears more than a slight resemblance to Surratt, which also helps to lend authenticity to her role.

James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, Mrs. Surratt's co-counsel. Aiken was a young attorney who served in the large law firm of Reverdy Johnson, a strong Union man and personal friend of Lincoln. Johnson is portrayed by the fine actor Tom Wilkinson. McAvoy's performance is good and shows the personal struggles Aiken had about defending a person accused of conspiracy against the president. However, his performance doesn't match that of Wright's.

In the days, weeks and few months after the assassination, the country was run not by the new president Andrew Johnson, but by the Secretary Of War, Edwin M. Stanton. It was Stanton who led the efforts to arrest the conspirators, track down Booth, and put into place the tribunal which tried the conspirators. Stanton is played in the film by the excellent actor Kevin Kline, who does a marvelous job portraying the anger and thirst for revenge which Stanton exhibited during those few months. It's probably nitpicky, but Kline's beard is not nearly long enough for him to accurately resemble Stanton, who had a long flowing beard down to his chest. I would have liked to have seen Kline have a larger role in the movie.

The Conspirator is essentially a courtroom drama. Unfortunately, the courtroom scenes are not especially dramatic and at times the movie drags. While the film makes the case that the co-defendants should have been tried in civil court and not by military tribunal, it does not explain to the viewer why they were tried in such a manner. (Lincoln's Attorney General, Joshua Speed, one of his closest friends, made the recommendation for the tribunal, and President Johnson agreed.)

The film could have been much more dramatic and emotionally moving had director Redford chosen to depict in greater detail the maneuvers undertaken to stay (or overturn) the decision to hang Mary Surratt. In real life, her daughter Anna tried to get President Johnson to see her so she could plead to him directly for her mother's life, but Johnson refused. Anna is portrayed effectively by Evan Rachel Wood, the excellent young actress, and such a scene would have added some "oomph" to the drama surrounding the execution.

The greatest strength of The Conspirator is by far it's attention to historical detail. Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the film has a great "authentic feel" to it. The courtroom and setting for the execution of Surratt and her three co-conspirators look amazingly like the photos and sketches of the actual locations from that time. Even the fact that Mrs. Surratt was shielded from the blazing sun by an umbrella the morning of her execution is included in the film. Very well done.

I felt that the film was a bit too sympathetic towards Mrs. Surratt. The casual viewer of the film may even have the opinion at its conclusion that she was guilty of nothing more than owning the house where the conspiracy took place. While historians debate even today about the degree of her guilt or innocence, it should be pointed out that the author of The Accomplice, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, started her book thinking Mary Surratt was innocent. After her research, she reversed her own opinion and now believes in her guilt. I personally agree that Mary Surratt was deeply involved in the conspiracy. However, I am unconvinced that she should have been executed for her crimes. Her level of involvement simply was not the same as that of Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, and David Herold, who surely received a just punishment.

The Conspirator raises an interesting question for us today, which may or not have been director Redford's intention. It makes a case against the trying of civilians by military courts, as is happening today in the War On Terror.

I enjoyed The Conspirator far more than I expected. The political overtones weren't as heavy as I feared they would be, nor did it portray Mary Surratt with complete sympathy as I suspected it would. The actors did a wonderful job, and Wright's portrayal of Mary Surratt was for me a revelation of the depth of her abilities. And let's face it: Robert Redford is a truly superb film director.

If The Conspirator is still playing in your area, I encourage you to go see it. A movie with such attention to historical detail and accuracy is seldom made.

 
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