GRAFTON, W.Va. -- Elmer E. Ellsworth, a Union Army colonel and a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln, was lionized as the North's first Civil War martyr after he removed a Confederate flag from the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Va., on May 24, 1861, and was promptly shot to death.
The flag could be seen from the White House, just across the Potomac River from Alexandria, and had been a steady source of irritation for Union loyalists since Virginia entered an alliance with the Confederate States of America several weeks earlier.
Although Ellsworth's death was dramatic and well publicized, he was not the first Union soldier to die in combat during the Civil War. Two days before the colonel's life came to an end in an Alexandria stairwell, a Taylor County private in the Grafton Guards fired on a small group of Confederate pickets at a roadblock on the outskirts of Grafton, and was gunned down by them.
While the dead colonel's body lay in state in the White House and cries of "Remember Ellsworth!" quickly became a Northern recruiting slogan, the body of Pvt. Thornsberry Bailey Brown was available for viewing for several hours in the lobby of the Grafton Hotel. Then, fellow members of the recently formed Grafton Guards departed for Wheeling, where on May 25, they were officially mustered into the Union Army.
Unlike Ellsworth, who was killed by a civilian, Brown was shot to death by a private in the Letcher Guards, a Confederate militia unit formed in the Grafton area and named in honor of secession-boosting Virginia Gov. John Letcher.
"There's an online exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery about Ellsworth, in which he's described as the first Union martyr," said Civil War author and historian Hunter Lesser of Elkins. "That's really unfair.
"Brown may not have been a friend of the president and he wasn't capturing a flag when he was killed, but his story is just as good as Ellsworth's, and he died earlier."
Several other Union soldiers died before Brown, but not at the hands of Confederate soldiers.
On April 14, 1861, during a 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag preceding the surrender of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., a spark from a Union cannon ignited an accumulation of live ordnance that exploded. Private Daniel Hough of New York was killed, and Pvt. Edward Galloway died the following day of injuries from the blast.
On April 19, Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore blocked and derailed a Union troop train, stranding several railcars. After soldiers occupying one of the cars decided to walk back to a rail station, they encountered a mob of civilians, some carrying Confederate banners, who threw rocks and bricks at them, and at one point, began to shoot at them. The troops eventually returned fire. Six federal troops from Pennsylvania and four from Massachusetts were killed by the mob, with a like number of civilians dying in the melee.
On May 22, 1861, the day of Brown's death, about 200 locally recruited members of the Letcher Guards led by Capt. John Robinson entered Grafton and attempted to tear down a large American flag displayed on Main Street. Grafton Guards Capt. George Latham, the lawyer and newspaper publisher who displayed the flag, also served as secretary at the First Wheeling Convention.
"Unionist sentiments were strong in Grafton because of the presence of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad," Lesser said. "Grafton was a key junction on the main rail route going into the capital, and a lot of railroad workers lived in and around Grafton."
Since the workers, many of them recent immigrants from Ireland, did not want to see their livelihoods disrupted, they tended to sympathize with the Union.
According to letters from participants Lesser researched in writing his book "Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided," townspeople jeered the Confederate unit as it entered the town.
After Robinson ordered two of his troops to tear down Latham's flag, a man in the crowd threw a chair at the Letcher Guards captain, knocking him off his horse. Members of the Grafton Guards were then seen on rooftops and in windows pointing weapons at the Confederates, who eventually withdrew to nearby Fetterman, where Robinson was a merchant.
"Fetterman, at the time, had a general store that doubled as a Confederate recruiting depot, a sawmill, a gristmill and a tobacco factory," said Grafton historian Walter Rohrbacher, who wrote his WVU master's thesis on the Letcher Guards.
At dusk that night, T. Bailey Brown and another Grafton Guards member, Daniel Wilson, were coming back to town through Fetterman after a recruiting mission at Pruntytown.