An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.


[2] Ibid.

From Civil War to Civil Rights, and Some Thoughts on Sleeping In

MLK at the Lincoln Memorial (courtesy NPS)

My university used to hold classes on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day—a policy I wholeheartedly supported. I used the opportunity to spend time in my writing classes looking at the masterful craftsmanship of King’s rhetoric. People tend to remember him today for his “I Have a Dream” speech, but King was a highly effective writer and a distinctive stylist. I thought this was an excellent way to not only give my students a useful lesson about writing but also help deepen their appreciation for a man worthy of a national holiday.

Alas, we have the day off this year—a decision unilaterally made last year by an interim president who declared it “the right thing to do.” I’ve never been a big believer that a day off is the best way to honor or commemorate someone. Better to have class and conduct a lesson relevant to the day as a way to try and raise my students’ appreciation, I’ve always figured. I’m not sure how many students are going to say “Thanks, Dr. King!” for their chance to sleep in on their extra day off.

But if we’re going to have King Day off because it’s “the right thing to do,” then certainly we should celebrate President’s Day in equal fashion, too, right? After all, it’s also a national holiday specifically designated to honor the contributions of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (not all presidents, as is often misunderstood). Except the university does not take the day off—which suggests to me that we have King Day off not because it’s “the right thing to do” but because it’s the politically correct thing to do. 

I’ve heard no viable argument for having one day off but not the other. The closest anyone’s come was a colleague who said that King Day is perhaps more relevant to us today because the Civil Rights struggle continues. I get that, particularly at a time when America seems especially troubled by racism. King Day is an important reminder of the work we still have yet to do in the name of equality and social justice.

But the “What have you done for me lately” rationale implies the exact reason why we should commemorate Presidents Day, too: to remind people (students especially) why the contributions of Washington and Lincoln remain relevant, too. By ignoring Presidents Day, we only contribute to the epidemic of historical illiteracy and lack of civic understanding that has weakened our society.

Yes, Washington and Lincoln have both “had their day,” as another colleague said. We don’t need to pay as much attention to them because they’ve had plenty attention paid to them already, he suggested—and implicit there was the idea that they had their moment because they were white men of privilege. Unfortunately, that demeans their contributions simply because of their race, which is exactly what the Civil Rights movements urges us not to do.

Washington made sure we had a country to begin with, first on the battlefield, then at the Constitutional Convention, then by the example of his personal integrity in the office of president at a time when America wasn’t quite yet sure if it was going to be a nation of laws rather than of men. Lincoln, for his part, saved that nation by seeing the Civil War through to its successful end, at the cost of his own life. Those are no small contributions, and they’ve impacted us all. Lincoln’s authorship of the Emancipation Proclamation and his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment are Civil Rights achievements arguably no less important than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vital leadership a century later.

King himself drew a direct line from the Civil Rights movement back to the Civil War, and from himself back to Lincoln, when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In that one line, King not only made an explicit reference to Lincoln, “a great American” in whose “shadow we stand,” but he evoked the “Gettysburg Address,” too, which began with its famous “Four score and seven years ago.”

The rest of King’s speech is filled with other powerful allusions and metaphors. (A personal favorite of mine is his evocation of Shakespeare’s Richard III when he laments about “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent,” but instead of a glorious summer made by the sun of York, he hopes for “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”) He had great skill at turning a phrase, and his rhetoric is as fresh and electric today as it was in 1963.

King’s use of repetition to drive home points works brilliantly on the page, and it had an almost hypnotic rhythm when delivered verbally. Again, his phrase “I have a dream” is best remembered today, but his speech gains its strongest momentum as he roars into the home stretch with a series of phrases that begin “Let freedom ring.” Among the places he calls out in that last sequence:

…let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi….

He specifically names a pair of iconic southern Civil War-related sites, Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain, followed by rather anonymous hills and molehills in a state that was literally afire with Civil Rights-related strife (“Mississippi Burning,” anyone?). King makes a deliberate connection between the Civil War and Civil Rights—a thread that carries on today, made explicit by the National Park Service’s theme for the Civl War Sesquicentennial.

King’s a remarkable speech—one I encourage everyone to read, and read closely, if you’ve never taken the opportunity. (And if you ever visit the Lincoln Memorial, you can stand on the step where King delivered the speech; an inscription on the step marks the exact location. It’s wicked cool to stand there.)

King fought for equal rights, and so it’s based on that premise that I argue King Day and Presidents Day should be given equal treatment. Both holidays have equally relevant stories worth commemorating, and in commemorating them, we strengthen, not weaken, our democracy by developing our students’ sense of history, justice, social responsibility, and civic engagement.

A day off, while always a welcome opportunity to sleep in, means a lost opportunity, too.

Lincoln’s Yard Sale

Into the grind of sourcing a book some sun must shine once in a while. As I rechecked an endnote from Harold Holzer’s Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, I also checked those little sticky tabs that mark the edges of almost every book I own and, behold! The sun! Sometimes a first read uncovers something that piques one’s interest but is not necessarily related to the specific topic under research.

Gathering early in the morning for the Lincoln Yard Sale?

I laughed out loud when I reread page 289: “Apparently eager to recoup his relocation expenses and avoid storage costs, Lincoln also authorized his era’s equivalent of a yard sale. . .” A YARD SALE?? Abraham Lincoln?? Well, he crowd-surfed his way to the nomination, so why not a yard sale?


Parlor and Chamber Sets, Carpets, Sofas, Chairs, Wardrobes, Bureaus,

Bedsteads, Stoves, China, Queensware, Glass, etc. etc., at the

residence on the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets.

is offered at private sale without reserve.

For particulars apply on the premises at once.[1]


Even without a more specific address, everyone seemed to know just where to find the yard sale. Local druggist Samuel Melvin bought a several items–six chairs, a spring mattress, a wardrobe, a whatnot, a stand, nine and a half yards of stair carpet, and four comforters–all for the price of $82.25. That is almost $400 in today’s currency, and that is a lot of money to bring to a yard sale. I am guessing Sam had a wagon.

a whatnot

Lincoln himself wrote out and signed the itemized receipts for every sale, recording the exact cost of each piece. You could get carpet for fifty cents a yard–probably stair carpeting, as I cannot imagine cutting a rug into yardage. Holzer indicates that the neighbors were gossipy over the whole thing.[2] They probably didn’t like the crowds either, but at least there were free autographs.

The Lincolns held their successful sale day sometime during the first part of February 1861. I will guess on or about February 9, based on a perusal of Earl Miers’ Lincoln Day by Day. Their well-worn furnishings, so carefully picked out by Mary Lincoln when new, went to a variety of folks. No one could predict Mrs. Lincoln’s obsession with interior decorating that got her into so much trouble, but that was in the future. For now, people trundled their newly bought old housewares along the streets of Springfield to their own homes. I am sure that some were secretly gloating over the great deals found at Eighth and Jackson, while others were disappointed in the condition, perhaps, of the whatnot. Anyone who has been to a yard sale knows how it goes, and there was probably little change to now from the 1860s.

A little over four years later, these purchases would greatly increase in value, and many were returned gratis when the Lincoln House became a museum in 1887. Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln’s eldest son, donated the house to the state of Illinois with the stipulation that the house be “kept up,” and that no money should be charged for public admittance. The Springfield house and Lincoln’s Tomb were designated National Historic Landmarks in 1960, then were taken over by the National Park Service in 1871.

The Lincoln Home today

There is much about Abraham Lincoln that makes him accessible as both a human and a historic person. That he had a yard sale yet is another example of his extraordinary ordinariness.

     *     *     *

[1] Daily Illinois State Journal, January 30, 1861, quoted in Thomas J. Dyba and George L. Painter, Seventeen Years at Eight and Jackson: The Lincoln Family in Their Springfield Home (Lisle, Ill.: Illinois Benedictine College, 1985), 63.

[2] Harold Holzer, Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008), 289.

Civil War Cookin’: It’s Just A Book Review

Well, it’s a couple days after Thanksgiving and since we’ve already “decked the halls with boughs of holly” (at least at my home), it’s probably time to wrap up Civil War Cookin‘ for 2017. If you’ve been intrigued by the recipes and historical accounts and want to read more, then we’ve got the right conclusion for you.

I spent the week reading a fascinating book about Abe Lincoln and mid-19th Century cooking, and here’s my short book review.

I stumbled across the title when I was browsing through a library catalog, requesting sources for this series. The book sounded interesting, and I placed a hold; when I picked it up, I knew I had to read it – not just speed-read and reference this book – and I’m sure glad I took the time.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times by Rae Katherine Eighmey (Smithsonian Books, 2013).

I became a little skeptical as I read the disclaimers in the opening chapters, but then my confidence was restored. Ms. Eighmey openly admits that the primary sources to answer the question “what did Lincoln eat?” are scarce. Most of the desirable details weren’t recorded (or didn’t survive). There are some anecdotes and variety of historical facts gleaned and interpreted with exhaustive research.

Yes, there are conclusions and “what-if” culinary scenarios presented in the text, but they are set in mid-19th Century historical context and are likely possibilities to join the known facts. I appreciated Ms. Eighmey’s honesty and clarity between facts and supposition.

The book traces Lincoln’s life with a focus on the foods he grew, gathered, bought, and ate. At the end of each chapter, there are authentic recipes adapted for modern measurements and kitchens. Although Lincoln and his family hold the spotlight of the book, the author also shares a wealth of information about cooking practices, growing and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables, changes in cuisine prompted by changes in America.

One of my favorite stories from the book is a story shared by one of Lincoln’s neighbors in Springfield. According to the account, Abraham Lincoln regularly returned from his law office in the evening, tied on a blue apron, and joined his wife in the kitchen to help her finish the last minute preparations for the family’s dinner. Now that’s an image of Lincoln that we haven’t heard much about!

The Lincoln’s Home in Springfield, Illinois

What recipe am I planning to try? Almond Pound Cake is definitely first on my list. (I might even make it for the Civil War caroling event I’m attending next weekend.) It’s not a Lincoln family classic because unfortunately historians haven’t found a bundle of Mrs. Lincoln’s recipes. However, the recipe featured in the book is adapted from The Kentucky Housewife which was published in 1839. We do know that Miss Mary Todd made an almond cake one evening when Mr. Lincoln came courting – so there is a fun historical connection to the dessert.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen is a light-hearted investigation of 19th Century cooking in Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington D.C. during the mid-19th Century. Ms. Eighmey shares her dedicated research, detailed knowledge of American culinary practices and recipes, and devotion to recreating historic recipes in modern kitchens. It’s a unique perspective in an easy-to-read format, and I’m sure it will give you a year’s worth of Civil War cookin’ inspiration.

Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.

An important monument of President Abraham Lincoln sits in Lincoln Park, a park in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C. This statue is seen by thousands of people each day – the Emancipation Memorial. I wonder about how many of them know either of its history or importance to the memory of the Civil War.

Emancipation Memorial (Library of Congress photo)

Reminiscing of my boyhood days of playing football in the Lincoln Park, I would always spend several minutes looking at the Emancipation Memorial. I would just call it the Abraham Lincoln statue, remembering the story my Uncle Mac told me, “… this memorial was paid for by former slaves and Frederick Douglass dedicated it in 1876.” 

The Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln project began just after President Lincoln’s assassination. A former enslaved woman, named Charlotte Scott, gave her former master five dollars for a monument to President Lincoln. The effort acquired more African American support after a local Ohio newspaper publicized the story. As more African Americans supported the effort, Frederick Douglass became involved in this endeavor.  Eventually, the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis, a volunteer war relief agency, was persuaded to sponsor the project and “make it known to the freedmen.”1

Frederick Douglass

There was never the possibility of the freedmen influencing the design of the monument, the sponsor indicated, as it tried to acquire white donors. Several designs were submitted, some more elaborate than others, prompting a call for donations from whites who supported blacks during the Reconstruction era. However, white support was absent, as there were many additional plans for Lincoln monuments. Subsequently, John Mercer Langston, a prominent African American attorney, was selected to help with raising monies from African American communities, for this venture.

In 1871, Thomas Ball was selected to execute the sculpture for the memorial. His statue depicting President Lincoln standing over a kneeling slave who was dressed only in a cloth around his waist was demeaning to many African Americans. This caused a controversy in the black community. However, although distressed, blacks wanted to show their gratitude to Mr. Lincoln.

In his book, “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America,” Kirk Savage, a historian and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, points out that opposition to the Emancipation Memorial isn’t a modern phenomenon.

The image of the kneeling slave was very common at the time, says Savage, but it rarely found its way into monuments. That it was used in such a prestigious one was offensive to many.

“It was resented by a lot of people,” Savage says. “It was like African Americans had done nothing for their own liberation. The role black Union soldiers played in fighting for emancipation was ignored, and that furthered the negative reaction to the statue.”

Mr. Douglass had insisted upon racial integration into the statue because he had demanded in 1865 – the black man’s “incorporation into the American body politic.”2 In spite of the design of the statue and because of his relationship with President Lincoln, he was the keynote speaker at the memorial’s dedication.

On April 14, 1876, in the presence of President Ulysses Grant, Frederick Douglass gave the keynote address, entitled, Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln. As usual, it was a powerful and eloquent oratory, expressing what President Lincoln meant to the country and to the black man, during his presidency.  There were 25,000 attendees in audience to hear this prominent African American lecturer.

I submit to you three excerpts of this powerful dissertation:

Fellow–citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic. It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery—the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a new crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell–black spirit of revenge. But it has done good after all. It has filled the country with a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deeper love for the great liberator.


I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow–countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Fellow–citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

Emancipation Memorial (Library of Congress photo)

“According to the historian John Cromwell, who heard the speech at close range, Douglass referred to the black figure only once, in an ad-libbed aside which did not appear in the published version….Cromwell later paraphrased it, Douglass objected to the monument’s design because ‘it showed the negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.’ The concern here with ‘manliness’ is consistent with Douglass’s lifelong understanding of masculinity as the structural opposite of slavery, an understanding that inevitably gendered emancipation as well.”3

A Washington Post article dated April 15, 2012, mentions the change to the monument.  This change occurred during the Civil Rights activities during the 1970’s. Washington D.C. was undergoing significant changes in its communities as prominent African Americans were recognized for their accomplishments. The memorial originally faced the Capitol, with a direct line of vision to the nation’s most powerful building. When a statue celebrating African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune was erected in the eastern half of Lincoln Park in 1974, the Emancipation Memorial was rotated 180 degrees to face it.

1 – page 91, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves by Kirk Savage, Princeton University Press, 1977

2 – page 117, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

3 – page 117, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling slaves