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 emergingcivilwar.com. 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.

[1] https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/news/2017/march/170330d1.pdf

[2] Ibid.

On Location: Charlotte, NC

Jefferson Davis plaqueOne of the most oddball monuments I’ve ever seen is in Charlotte, North Carolina, embedded in the sidewalk. Last summer, I finally went On Location to seek it out: the spot where Jefferson Davis heard the news about Lincoln’s assassination. Check out the video on ECW’s YouTube page.

As part of my quest, I also spoke with ECW’s Bert Dunkerly about the episode. Bert wrote about it in his ECWS book To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy. He’s really the star of the video!


The Homestead Act, Early Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War

Nearly everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863.  This document formally established abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s goals in fighting and winning the Civil War and enabled the North to recruit African American men to fight as Union soldiers and sailors.  Before signing it, President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “If my name shall have a place in history, it will be for this act.”

However, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the only significant act or law to become effective 155 years ago today.  The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, also took effect on January 1, 1863.  While certainly not as well-known as the Emancipation Proclamation, the homestead law still had great impact on the United States and remained in effect for an incredible 123 years.

The Homestead Act’s provisions offered qualified settlers the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size (though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres).  Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months.  At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years.  Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred the property’s permanent title to the homesteader.  This law eventually led to the transfer of more than 270 million acres of land to settlers in 30 different states.  The Homestead Act remained active in some parts of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.

Abraham_Lincoln_O-77_matte_collodion_print

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homestead Act.  Both went into effect 155 years today-January 1, 1863.  (Photo by Alexander Gardner; public domain image.)

Questions about whether and how the federal government should distribute land to settlers had persisted since the end of the Revolutionary War.  Like so many other questions of national importance, land distribution eventually got wrapped up in the debate over slavery, and Congress was never able to agree on a bill that satisfied both northerners and southerners.  As the nation started down the road that eventually led to the Civil War, the Homestead Act became a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s.  As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more and more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—basically due to guilt by association with Republicans.  Early Republicans included abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former “Know-Nothings,” and the castoffs of other regional parties.  Homesteading, even more than abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for creating cohesion among the first Republicans.

As Americans clamored for some kind of homestead bill into the 1850s, the idea became more and more politicized.  Southerners that cared little about western settlement under a homestead act came to vehemently oppose it, viewing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery.  Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any real thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.

The Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills that Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object.  This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole.  Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure.  In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal some 70 years later.

JerryShoresFamily

The Jerry Shores family homesteaded in Custer County, Nebraska after the Civil War.  Shores was a former slave that took advantage of the opportunity to claim and own land under the Homestead Act’s provisions.  (Nebraska State Historical Society.)

The Homestead Act initiated significant changes to American society.  Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it.  Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads.  Significantly for a law that went into effect the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution African Americans were also able to claim and own land as homesteaders.  Thousands traveled west for the opportunity to do so.  Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims.  Homesteading contributed to the United States becoming one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.

The law was not perfect by any means.  Reflecting American society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading.  The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures.  Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations.  Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on America’s road to the Civil War.  The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war.  Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.


George McClellan in 1861: A Glimpse of Foibles to Come (part one)

George McClellanECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Jon-Erik Gilot.

(part one of two)

More than his battlefield prowess or organizational abilities, George McClellan is remembered for his less-than-desirable traits—quarreling with subordinates and superiors; micromanaging affairs; uncertain decision making; hesitant movement in the face of and wildly overestimating the size of the Confederate armies facing him.

As I’d mentioned in my last article, McClellan’s 1861 campaign in western Virginia can be used as a benchmark against which can be measured his later successes and failures. The campaign was a military and political success during an otherwise dismal summer for the Union, and was accomplished with minimal bloodshed. However, it is also where McClellan first exhibited his most McClellan-esque tendencies of the Civil War.

Let’s examine some of these traits that would rear their ugly heads later in the war. 

Quarreling with Subordinates & Superiors:

George McClellan was sure that no one above or below him could win the Civil War—only George McClellan was up to the task. In Western Virginia, he had no shortage of squabbles with his brigade and regimental officers. In a July 3 letter to his wife, McClellan singled out each brigadier, stating “I have not a Brig Genl worth his salt – Morris is a timid old woman – Rosecranz is a silly fussy goose – Schleich knows nothing…”[i]

Rosecrans had been on the receiving end of McClellan’s fury on July 1 after occupying Buckhannon, Virginia, because McClellan feared that Rosecrans had tipped his hand to the Confederates in the area. In a July 2 letter to Mary Ellen, McClellan bragged that Rosecrans was “very meek now after a very severe rapping I gave him a few days since.”[ii] Stephen Sears would relate the rebuke as “so sharp that Rosecrans had appealed to him to delete it from the record.”[iii]

McClellan was equally harsh with Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris, who McClellan would task with holding in place the Confederate army under General Robert S. Garnett at Laurel Hill. McClellan’s gross overestimate of Confederates at Laurel Hill caused Morris to seek reinforcements, believing he was severely outnumbered and vulnerable if attacked. This request infuriated McClellan, who responded with scathing instructions, reading, in part, “I propose taking the really difficult and dangerous part of this work on my own hands. I will not ask you to do anything that I would not be willing to do myself. Do not ask for further re-enforcements. If you do, I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command and to return to Indiana.”[iv] Following the war General Jacob D. Cox would recall that Morris was in the right—that had the Confederate troops numbered 10,000 as McClellan had believed, he had left Morris vulnerable with only 4,000 to oppose them. Should Morris have been defeated, Garnett’s army would have had a clear path to the vital rail and road junction at Clarksburg.

The rebuke of Newton Schleich was McClellan’s least offensive. Schleich was a savvy Democrat from Ohio who owed his commission more to political stature than military prowess. Schleich would come very near to upsetting McClellan’s plans when, on July 5, 1861, scoffing at McClellan’s slow movement, he ordered an unauthorized expedition from Buckhannon to Middle Fork Bridge, nearer the Confederate troops at Rich Mountain. A sharp skirmish ensued at the bridge, sending the Federal party stumbling back and alerting the Confederates to a possible movement against that sector. McClellan was furious, relieving Schleich of command and reassigning his regiments to Brigadier General Robert L. McCook. Schleich would again prove later in the war that he truly “knew nothing.”

As late as July 19—hours before being called to D.C.—McClellan was still bemoaning the officers under his command. “In heaven’s name, give me some General Officers who understand their profession,” he pleaded to Washington. [v] While early war officers were certainly a mixed bag, McClellan did have capable officers under his command who would distinguish themselves later in the war, most notably William Starke Rosecrans, who would rise to the rank of major general and masterfully strategize the often-overlooked Tullahoma Campaign in the summer of 1863.

McClellan likewise had no issue in quarreling above his rank in the summer of 1861. He would meddle in affairs outside his department in Kentucky and Maryland and scoffed at Winfield Scott—his only ranking officer—and Scott’s proposed “Anaconda Plan.” When called to D.C. in July, McClellan would ignore the chain of command, bypassing Scott entirely in favor of Lincoln and his cabinet.

McClellan’s squabbles with his superiors—namely Abraham Lincoln—and several of his subordinates would continue through 1861 and 1862. These feuds and distrust would often result in McClellan’s . . .

Micromanagement:

George McClellan was a masterful micromanager, seemingly taking satisfaction in overseeing tasks that should have been delegated to subordinates. He would write to Mary Ellen only days after arriving in western Virginia that “everything here needs the hand of the master,” and that “unless where I am in person everything seems to go wrong. He would similarly bemoan to Washington that “I give orders & find some who cannot execute them unless I stand by them. Unless I command every picket & lead every column I cannot be sure of success.” His belief that the army could not move without him would spill over into a belief that the army could likewise not fight without him, remarking to Mary Ellen that “I don’t feel sure that the men will fight very well under anyone but myself,” never mind that troops under Rosecrans and Morris had fought ably at Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford, and in the Kanawha Valley under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox.[vi]

McClellan would be routinely delayed after crossing the Ohio River in the micromanaging of transportation, supply wagons and logistics—traits that would likewise haunt him in the planning and execution of the 1862 campaign on the Virginia peninsula. This style of leadership would regularly lead to McClellan’s . . .

. . . slow movement, which we’ll talk about in part two.

To be continued….

————

[i] Sears, Stephen W., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860 – 1865, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), 44

[ii] Sears, Papers…, 41

[iii] Sears, Stephen W., George B. McClellan – The Young Napoleon, (New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pg. 86

[iv] Scott, Robert N., The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, (Washington, DC: Gov’t Printing Office, 1882), 208-209

[v] Sears, Papers…, 61

[vi] Sears, Papers…, 34, 40, 61


Searching for George Brinton McClellan

George_B._McClellan_-_Brady-Handy

In preparation for Rob Orrison’s and my upcoming ECWS book, To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, we closed the books and hit the trails and cement roads zigzagging through northern Virginia and central and western Maryland. At the end of one particular long day (soon to be even longer since we were squarely on the wrong side of rush-hour traffic), we made our last stop in the middle of bustling Rockville, Maryland. Our destination was the home of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

Before the historical society moved in, during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862,

 

the two-and-a-half story brick dwelling belonged to the widowed Jane Beall, “an old maid of strong Union sentiment.” Rob and I wandered around all four sides of the house, reading each interpretive marker dotting the property. None of them had anything to do with why we were there. They made no mention of the Maryland Campaign, only the Gettysburg Campaign that eclipses all others in public memory.

Despite the setback, there was no mistaking why we were there. George B. McClellan slept there his first night in the field–September 7–during his campaign to rid Maryland of the invading Confederate army. But still, no mention.

 

Rob turned to me and quipped, tongue in cheek, “You should write Searching for George Brinton McClellan,” calling to mind Tom Huntington’s Searching for George Gordon Meade. “Why isn’t Meade better remembered today?” Huntington questions in his opening pages. Here we were, at a point crucial to McClellan’s story in the campaign, and nothing. Why isn’t McClellan remembered at all here, today? I wondered. 

Of course, it is no secret that George McClellan is a lightning rod of controversy. It was not always so.

In the fallout of the Federal defeat at First Bull Run, a desperate Lincoln administration handed the 34-year-old general almost everything. “I seem to have become the power of the land,” he believed, as many in Washington appeared to bow down to him. “A better officer could not be found,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman in the war’s early stages.

Sixteen months after McClellan arrived in the eastern seat of war, raised the Army of the Potomac from the ashes, and crafted it in his image, the relationship between McClellan, Lincoln, and some members of Congress dropped out the bottom. McClellan lost his job and never again rose to the pedestal he had occupied in the summer of 1861.

The war of words swirling around McClellan’s head began even in his moments of prominence in the nation’s vast struggle. “By some persons he is considered the greatest strategist of the age. By others he is regarded as unfit to command even a hundred men,” commented an early biographer. Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant tried to dodge the debate entirely: “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”

No matter which way one sits in the ongoing conversation, very rarely does one find themselves wavering back and forth or sitting squarely on the fence in their deep-rooted opinions of the man. To have an unbiased discussion of McClellan is a rare occurrence at all.

Perhaps the turning point of all this comes when examining the general’s relationship with his most immediate superior, Abraham Lincoln. McClellan’s private letters to his wife demeaning (even dehumanizing) his commander-in-chief became public following his death. By that time, Lincoln had become a well-seated martyr for the Union cause and was well on his way to being memorialized on the National Mall in a temple of stone. Anyone anti-Lincoln was undoubtedly not a fan favorite.

On the flip side of that equation, McClellan sparred against a general viewed with much admiration throughout American history–Robert E. Lee. While not literally carved in stone to the extent of Lincoln, Lee’s symbolic figure equally seems untouchable. Indeed, George McClellan could not rival or best the Virginian Lee.

McClellan’s conflicts with Lincoln and Lee and the status those two achieved automatically places him at a disadvantage when it comes to being remembered. Additionally, his meteoric rise to fame and power followed by his corresponding fall from grace is something not easily equaled in the annals of history.

All of these factors, and probably more, combine to wane the memory of McClellan’s role in the Civil War. Like any career, his had its ebbs and flows. But for a time, perhaps George B. McClellan was the right man for the job, coming to Washington’s rescue in July 1861 and again when he rode through the night to reach his army’s camps around Rockville in September 1862. Despite this, he, like George Gordon Meade, appears to have been left behind it all.

McClellan Gun Club sign

It’s blurry, but that’s George Meade on the McClellan Gun Club sign. I guess they both shared the same first name, right?