Interview: Groeling, “First Fallen”

14 01 2022
Meg Groeling

Meg Groeling has been a friend for a long time. She crossed over from what I call and “e-quaintance” to a real, live friend on the Bull Runnings “In the Footsteps of the 69th NYSM” tour a in 2019 when, despite some health issues, she made the trip from California and gamely joined us as we tramped the sometimes-challenging terrain of the battlefield. She has recently published First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero, with Savas Beatie, and was good enough to take the time to answer a few questions about it.

BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

MG: In high school I told my dad I wanted to be a writer and a historian. He told me that was a terrible idea, because I needed a job that would support me and writing history would never do that. He was correct, as dads usually are. I began this iteration of my life after thirty-three years of teaching 5th grade and middle school math. Sure enough—without my retirement I’d be out of luck. So, believe me when I say I am enjoying every moment of life just now. My master’s degree is from American Public University and is in Military History with an American Civil War emphasis. I have written one other book, published by Savas Beatie as well. It is The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. It is part of the Emerging Civil War series.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

MG: I think most of us has a parent, grandparent or some relative who loves history. They talk about the dead as though they were still with us, and laugh at their jokes. My maternal grandmother was the first one of those for me. My first remembered lullabies were war songs like “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Hail Columbia.” I learned to play checkers because “that’s what Uncle George liked to do.” (Uncle George was a Tennessee Yankee cavalryman). The oldest class at my elementary school re-enacted the Great Oklahoma Land Run, so from Kindergarten I was primed to want to be involved in participatory history. My stepfather was a WW2 vet who came with old records called Songs of the North and the South, and lots of books, including the one with the dead men at Antietam. When we moved to California, I loved the Life magazines that were issued to commemorate the Civil War Centennial. I had few Barbies, but enough Ken dolls to at least handle a cannon if need arose. They all had tattoos, too. Eagles, I think! Life intervenes, I reinvented myself a couple of times, but finally there is time in my life again for the Civil War.

BR: What got you interested in Elmer Ellsworth?

MG: A casual convo with my middle school principal actually inspired the book. I worked at—here it comes! —E. E. Brownell Middle School. The principal dropped by to say hello at my first parent conference. I had just started teaching there, and I happened to be sitting under a painting of a 1940s-looking chap. The principal was making general conversation and happened to ask if I ever wondered just what the E. E. in Brownell’s name stood for. I looked up at the painting and then said that I had guessed they stood for Elmer Ellsworth. “I wonder if he is related to Frank Brownell,” I mused. That was when I found out my principal was a serious Civil War buff and wanted to just get coffee and talk about Ellsworth and Brownell for the rest of the conference. Greg Camacho-Light is one of those bosses that becomes so much more than a boss. He gave me the opportunity to work on my Masters, he supported the writing I did, and we have become very good friends. And FYI, E. E. Brownell is a very distant relation of Frank Brownell, “Ellsworth’s Avenger.”

BR: Can you describe Ellsworth’s role in the militia system in the antebellum North?

MG: I am fascinated by this, and by the idea that the Algerian zouave infantry drill could have revolutionized the role of the infantry in a way that took many more years to happen. If Ellsworth had not been killed—one of the great what ifs! There is a quote from Robert E. Lee alluding to his thought that Ellsworth would have led the Army of the Potomac had he lived. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that his combination of tactics and troop usage could have brought the idea of “Special Forces” into being. Not in the Confederate sense of extra-legal maneuvers but playing a parallel role to Berdan’s Sharpshooters. I am actively researching the combination of Ellsworth’s ideas for organizing state militias, his mastery of infantry drill (any and all versions) and the changes in military basic training which might have ensued. Just in case you think I am jumping down an empty rat hole, please look at Seal and Ranger training videos, then compare what they are learning with what Ellsworth’s U. S. Zouave Cadets did. Getting the unit over the wall brought tears to my eyes.

BR: What were the most surprising things you learned about Ellsworth?

MG: I had a suspicion that Ellsworth had a bigger story than just what most people knew—that he was killed in Alexandria over a flag. It was what I had learned in reading about the early war in all the usual places that made me wonder if he had anything to do with that period, and my curiosity, which sprung from re-enacting and Billy Yank made me wonder about the Union men who so eagerly answered the call to war. I had gone through Vietnam, so I knew what it was like when folks did not care to fight. I wanted to understand these earlier volunteers better. After I got my degree, I saw where Ellsworth fit in in the antebellum militia movement and saw how important that was—not just to Elmer, but to Lincoln as well. Ellsworth created the first “national craze,” the Zouaves.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

MG: I began the book in 2011, thinking I would just fool around with the idea of writing a biography of someone I had always found interesting but who was not on the “A” list, as fellow author David Dixon says. I was not sure I had anything new to say about Grant. But since no one had said anything about Ellsworth since 1960, well—that looked more promising. I wrote a first draft in about a year (remember, I was also working full-time and writing new math curriculum for our district) and gave it to a few friends to read.

When I revisited the book again and heard/read the comments, I realized that this book might actually have legs. If that was true, I needed to be more than a “Civil War buff.” “Retired math teacher” didn’t sound so great either. I looked for a masters’ program in local colleges and universities, but quickly realized that if I wanted an advanced degree in tree hugging, California was the place. Military history? Not so much. I found a wonderful program at American Public University. APU is the sister program to American Military University, which was developed so that service members who are stationed worldwide could continue their educations in a single place. APU is the place where we civilians enroll, but the courses are the same. The work was demanding, the professors often were the same ones whose books I owned, and often the number of women in class was very small compared to the number of military men, all of which created a challenging, dynamic learning environment. I loved every moment! I would never consider the four years it took me to finish as any kind of impediment, but it did slow down things a bit.

The time it took, eleven years in all, worked to my advantage. I now came back to my manuscript with enhanced research skills, much more confidence as a writer, a far more complete understanding of the change the military needed to make to fight the Civil War effectively, and during all that time, I kept finding new information. For instance, it was not until 2017 that positive proof of Ellsworth’s passing the Illinois Bar Exam was found, clearing up at least one unknown detail of his life. Also, Ancestry.com had, by then, linked to Fold3, FindAGrave, and other online resources that are simply invaluable to understanding the details of a person’s life that place him or her in a specific social stratum. This culminated in my being able to refute Ellsworth’s claims of dire poverty. It also helped greatly as I chased the men who were U. S. Zouave Cadets into the Civil War and beyond. Every one of those fellows served in some capacity. Huzzah!

I realized I was done when Elmer died—seriously! I knew then that, except for polishing and improving my writing, I wanted to add some important things about his legacy and then John Hay’s NY Times obituary, but that was all. My amazing editor, Mitch Yockelson, suggested using appendices instead of trying to add unnecessary chapters. He was, in my opinion, spot on. This is where I became even more of a bullrunnings.com fan. Harry, you are a blessing to us all.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

MG: I think my reading/writing process is pretty common. I did plan the overall outline of the book, and when a particular source seemed to be rich in information I either printed it off in hard copy or bought the book from amazon, if possible. I bought used books whenever I could, so no priceless first editions line the shelves. As for brick-and-mortar, I have to say the museums and battlefields I visited. Not bookstores, but the Kenosha Civil War Museum, the Brown University Library, the New York State Military Museum, Fort Ward, and the battlefield at Manassas were inspiring, helpful, and very real. Mostly I was able to use on-line resources, even to point to hard copies of information.

I also read extensively. Lesley Gordon’s work on the exoneration of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves helped me navigate the OR in a totally different way, and that helped a great deal. I really like to write, so I have little trouble fitting it in, although my life went through full-time work, retirement, a new marriage, keeping up with a house built in 1928, writing for other places such as the magazine American Bungalow, and getting cancer. Reading and writing are my happy places, I guess.

BR: How has the book been received so far

MG: Amazingly enough, it is getting excellent reviews. I say “amazingly enough” because I doubt if many authors expect their firstborn to do as well as this one has. I am so grateful. The writing journey has been the best, people have been so kind, and the reviews say I have written a book that will help historians more fully understand Ellsworth, the years before the war in Illinois, and the earliest days of Lincoln’s presidency. I feel I have broken ice on the facts of the Baltimore Plot as well. The plot to kill Lincoln as he stopped to change trains in Baltimore was much debated. With the release of Alan Pinkerton’s personal papers and research done up to that time, I think I have what might be the closest (so far) explanation of that particular incident.

BR: What’s next for you?

MG: I have cancer, so staying well enough to do the traveling and presentations I have looked forward to is really what is next. I am working on a book about Walt Whitman for the Savas Beatie Emerging Civil War series, and I shall keep blogging for Emerging Civil War, which gave me my first opportunity to be published as a historian back in 2011. As I said before, I am researching Ellsworth’s ideas for interior drill changes and trying to push that forward. That and petting cats…





Sgt. Abraham Ford, Co. H, 2nd Vermont Infantry, On the Battle

12 05 2020

From the Second Vermont Regiment.

Alexandria, Va., July 23, 1861.

Dear Sir – * * * * When the head of our column came up to theirs, they opened on us with their artillery. We had then marched fifteen miles, were all out of breath, had no breakfast except hard crackers which we eat on the march, had drank nothing but muddy water, and the last two miles of our march we had made on the “double-quick;” but notwithstanding all that, we went into them, and drove them back to their stronghold. There they drew on us and gave us the best whipping an army ever had. But we fought until we were ordered to retreat, and then came bitter disappointment to crown a day of severe fighting, hard labor and dreadful misery. – They followed us up with artillery and cavalry in the rear, while they sent a force around to cut off our retreat where we had to cross a bridge; but they did not cut us up very badly there, for we took to the woods. We could not return fire, for we had no ammunition.

The number of killed and wounded is not known, for we had to leave them all, poor fellows. Only two of them, in a shed that I stopped in on our retreat, had their wounds dressed. I think there must have been fifty in that shed, and they were only a small portion of what were on the field. – Our Orderly Sergeant [of the Fletcher Company] had his arm shot through. I took him off the field and helped our surgeon perform the amputation; and just as we had got through and got it done’up the order came to retreat to our old quarter; but when we got there we found no place would be safe for us short of Alexandria, and so we kept on; and a longer road, for one that had no more miles in it, I think I never saw. We arrived here about 11 o’clock on Monday forenoon, making about thirty-six hours that we were under arms, marching in the time at least fifty miles, and fighting severely about half an hour. When I say this, I mean the Vermont regiment; you will see by the papers how long the fight lasted, from 7 A. M. to 4 P. M., I think.

When we arrived here we were tired, hungry and wet; our feet were blistered and bleeding. – All the wounded came on that were able. To-day we are all sore and lame; not a man of us can walk without limping.

We expect the wounded that we left are all murdered; for we showed a flag of truce on the field, and they fired into it. I nailed a white flag on the door of the shed where some of the wounded were, and left with our orderly two canteens of water, a filter to drink through and some hard crackers – all I had. Then I had to leave or be taken prisoner. The poor fellow begged of me to get a team and take him along, but that was impossible. I had to leave him to the mercy of a southern chivalry. I have heard since that the building was blown to pieces by their artillery and the wounded all killed.

Our Surgeon lost all his instruments and had to run for dear life. I could write a whole week of incidents which came under my observation, but I am tired and weak, and must close. More anon.

Yours Truly,
Abraham Ford.

The above letter inclosed a photograph of Col. Ellsworth, which the author found near the body of a fire Zouave who had been killed in the battle. It was taken in New York, by J. Gurney & Son, as their card is on the back of it.

Walton’s Daily Journal (Montpelier, VT), 7/23/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by John Hennessy

Abraham Ford at Ancestry.com 

Abraham Ford at Fold3 





11th New York Fire Zouaves Artifacts at Ft. Ward Museum

8 05 2014

Friend Ron Baumgarten of All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac has forwarded a few images Fire Zouave ephemera he recorded at the Ft. Ward Museum in Alexandria, VA. You can check out more on the story of Elmer Ellsworth, James Jackson, and Francis Brownell here. Enjoy! (Click on the photos for larger images – click those images for great big giant huge ones)

 

Elmer Ellsworth's Kepi

Elmer Ellsworth’s Kepi

11th NY Drum

11th NY Drum

11th NY Drum Placard

11th NY Drum Placard

Marshall House Incident

Marshall House Flag Raising

Commemorative Vase

Commemorative Vase

Lettering From Marshall House

Lettering From Marshall House

Marshall House Lettering Placard

Marshall House Lettering Placard

Remnant of Marshall House First National Flag

Remnant of Marshall House First National Flag

Flag Remnant Placard

Flag Remnant Placard

Boyhood Chair of the "Hero" James Jackson

Boyhood Chair of the “Hero” James Jackson

 





Marshall House Flag

20 09 2013

And reader Terry Yount sends this photo of Ellsworth’s grave site in Hudson View Cemetery, Mechanicville, NY.

photo





Ellsworth Artifacts on Display

23 05 2011

NY State Military Museum highlights artifacts of 1st Union officer killed in Civil War. Check it out here.





Family Ties – Kilpatrick Part V

15 10 2008

Here’s an update to the Kilpatrick Family Ties series.  I found this site the other day, which has confirmed some of the information I already had and also alerted me to a few other tidbits.  To quote the Dude: Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, lotta strands to keep in my head, man.

You’ll notice some stuff that expands a bit on Part II and Part III.  I found it really interesting that Kilpatrick granddaughter Consuelo Morgan’s husband Benjamin’s father, Benjamin Thaw, Sr, Harry K.’s half brother, was married to a woman named Elma Ellsworth Dows, born in October, 1861.  Elmer Ellsworth, the first Colonel of the 11th NY Fire Zouaves, was one of the war’s first martyrs (see here), and there was a multitude of babies born across the North in following years named for him.  This is the first time I’ve run across what appears to be a female namesake!

You’ll also see that Consuelo is buried in the Thaw plot in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery.  I didn’t notice her grave when I made my trek there (see here), and didn’t think to look for her because she remarried after the death of Benjamin Thaw, Jr.  It turns out that she is buried not far from her other grandfather, Philip Hicky Morgan.  I guess I need to go back there.

The site has lots of interesting stuff about the Thaws that I didn’t know – though you can probably fill a thimble with the stuff I do know about them.  For instance, the family supplied two aviators to the American forces in WWI, one of whom died in action.  It seems a shame they’re remembered almost exclusively for nutcase Harry Kendall Thaw – of Pittsburgh.





Fire Zouaves: A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

20 07 2008

I recently purchased Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine by Ira M. Rutkow (2005).  On page 12:

Poised at the foot of Henry House Hill, the Eleventh New York Infantry, best known as the First Fire Zouaves, may never have seen Johnston’s troops as they gathered at the ridge’s crest, but Johnston’s men could not miss the Yankees.  Advancing up the slope, the 950 or so Northerners were a colorful lot.  Sporting dark blue waistcoats accented in red and gold trim, bright red blouses, flowing crimson bloomers with blue piping and white spats, all capped off by a red fez, these warriors were the height of mid-nineteenth-century military haute couture.

Double Yoi.  I’d tell you what Rutkow’s source for this description is, but he neglected to note it.

I know, I go on and on about the uniform of the 11th NY Fire Zouaves at Bull Run, including herehere, here, and here.  To recap, despite numerous, even eyewitness accounts to the contrary, the regiment’s enlisted men did not wear red pants during the battle.  In fact, at no time were red pants ever a part of their uniform, though officers wore red pants of the chasseur pattern.  But don’t take my word for it:

Above is a photo of the 11th NY Zouave uniform of Private Francis E. Brownell of Company A, on display at Manassas National Battlefield (thanks to Jim Burgess at the park).  Notice the color (gray-blue), the name of Brownell’s New York fire company on his belt, and his red fireman’s jersey.  This is the same uniform Brownell was wearing on May 24th, 1861, when he accompanied his colonel Elmer Ellsworth into Alexandria’s Marshall House hotel to pull down a secession banner flying from the building and visible through a glass from the White House.  As Ellsworth descended the stairs with the flag he was killed by a shotgun blast fired by the hotel’s proprietor, James Jackson.  Brownell, who was with Ellsworth, quickly shot Jackson in the face, then drove his saber bayonet through his body.

Ellsworth became a dead hero in the North, mourned by his friend Abraham Lincoln.  Jackson received similar posthumous honors in the south.  Brownell became a living celebrity, whose photo, complete with Ellsworth’s blood stained banner, became a popular item.

Brownell left the unit before First Bull Run, accepting a commission in the 11th US Infantry, and in 1877 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action at the Marshall House.  You’ll find his death notice here.

As you can read on this great website on the 11th, the regiment’s worn-out, gray-blue Zouave uniforms were grudgingly exchanged for standard union blue jackets and pants before First Manassas.  Many men continued to wear their distinctive red firemen’s shirts, and some may have worn red fezes, though the official uniform headgear as seen with Brownell was a kepi with company insignia and “1Z” for First Zouaves.  I think this image of the regiment fighting alongside the 69th New York Militia probably gives a good idea of what they looked like on the field at First Bull Run.

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