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We Wave the Bloody Shirt — But Whose?

Has the mystery of one of our biggest political metaphors been revealed?

by
Jeff Durstewitz

Bio

May 28, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Ellsworth had become famous within the last year of his life as the nation’s top practitioner of the impressive “Zouave” style of French military drill. If that seems an odd basis for fame now, it didn’t in 1860, when northern governors were very much aware that the nation was heading toward war and that their small, ill-organized state militias would soon become the backbone of the Union army.

Ellsworth had organized a drill troupe in Chicago that had toured the North to tremendous acclaim. In doing so, he had come into contact with an ambitious Illinois politician who recognized the much younger man’s extraordinary motivational talents. Lincoln brought Ellsworth, then 23, into his law firm as an apprentice, but he also used him as a campaign speaker in the 1860 election. By the time war between the states became inevitable — after the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, and the secession of Virginia soon thereafter — Ellsworth had raised a regiment of rowdy New York City firemen (the 11th New York, known as the “Fire Zouaves”). He and they arrived in Washington about three weeks before the action in Alexandria.

His death at the hands of a secessionist touched off a firestorm of patriotic feeling that made anemic Northern recruitment suddenly robust. In fact, an entire regiment enlisted under the banner of “Ellsworth’s Avengers,” and the cry “Remember Ellsworth!” sounded across many of the war’s early battlefields. Elmer even became a popular boy’s name.

Of all the candidate garments, only one — Ellsworth’s tunic (no longer bloody after having been dry-cleaned in preparation for a Civil War centennial exhibit in 1961, but still as holey as it became on that fateful morning a century earlier) — was preserved at the time and still exists now. In fact, it’s on exhibit at the New York State Military History Museum in Saratoga Springs, not far from Ellsworth’s birthplace in Malta, NY.

Does that prove that it’s the actual “bloody shirt” of American politics? No — but it does suggest there’s no better claimant to that title.

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Jeff Durstewitz is the co-author, with Ruth Williams, of the Bantam memoir "Younger Than That Now — A Shared Passage From the Sixties." He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.
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