At the beginning of the Civil War, Army 1st Lt. Francis Edwin Brownell avenged the death of his unit’s colonel by taking out his killer.
Those actions made Brownell a hero to the Union and were the first of the war to merit the newly created Medal of Honor.
Brownell was born at some point in 1840 in Troy, N.Y. His parents, Charles and Lucy, had eight children, with Francis being the oldest.
Prior to the Civil War, Brownell was a clerk at a law office, according to historian and collector Steven Raab. When the war began in April 1861, Brownell joined Company A of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They were called the Fire Zouaves, a nickname derived from decorated French soldiers from North Africa who wore exotic uniforms and did elaborate drills.
On May 23, 1861, Virginia’s voters officially ratified the state’s secession from the union. Brownell and his regiment were in Washington, D.C., at the time.
The following day, Union troops began to move into Alexandria, Va., to attempt to force the Confederates to surrender or withdraw. Brownell’s regiment was tasked with crossing the Potomac River in a steamboat as part of this force.
The regiment was led by Union Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth. When the 11th arrived on the Alexandria side of the river, Ellsworth had some of his soldiers occupy the railroad depot, while he and a few other men, including Brownell, ventured to the telegraph office.
On the way, the small group noticed a large Confederate flag hanging from inside the Marshall House Inn. Apparently, the flag was large enough to be seen from the White House. Ellsworth was not happy about it, so he decided to cut it down.
The group quickly entered the inn, went up the stairs and cut down the flag. However, on their way back down, they ran into the inn’s proprietor, James W. Jackson. According to newspapers of the time, Brownell was in the lead going down the stairs, and he was the first to see Jackson coming toward them with a double-barrel shotgun. Brownell leapt toward Jackson to stop him, but he wasn’t fast enough, and Jackson managed to get a shot off.
According to an 1894 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Brownell then lunged at Jackson and bayonetted him. Those actions likely saved his own life.
“That [lunging] act inclined Brownell’s head and body forward and, at the same time, elevated the muzzle of Jackson’s gun over Brownell’s head,” the Post-Dispatch article explained. “Jackson discharged his second barrel just as he received his own death wounds, and the bayoneting saved Brownell’s life.”
However, it was too late for Ellsworth. Jackson’s initial shot instantly killed him, making him the first Union casualty of the war.
Ellsworth had studied in President Abraham Lincoln’s law office before his presidency, so the two were friends. His death was the subject of wide public mourning in the North and quickly made the colonel a martyr for the Union. Raab said the incident also made Brownell a national hero.
Brownell was rewarded with a commission in the Regular Army, where he served as an officer for two years, according to the Army and Navy Club, for which Brownell was a member. He retired in November 1863.
Brownell lived briefly, during 1864, in St. Louis, where he acted as the assistant provost marshal, according to Brownell’s obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Two of his brothers also lived there.
Records show he married a woman named Cornelia in May of 1865. It’s unclear if they had any children. Brownell then worked for several years in what was known as the Pension Office in Washington.
Brownell’s request to receive the Medal of Honor was denied twice, but after getting help from his congressman, his third request was granted. In 1877, 16 years after the Civil War ended, Brownell received the nation’s highest honor for his actions at the Marshall House Inn — actions that were the first of the war to merit the medal.
Brownell died on March 15, 1894, after a short illness. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Brownell’s Medal of Honor can be found at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
After the incident that earned him the medal, Brownell took possession of the Confederate flag that caused the incident, according to Raab, who said a piece of that flag can also be found at the Smithsonian. Other institutions and some private collectors also have pieces of it; however, the full flag was given to Mary Lincoln after her husband’s assassination. That flag is now in the New York State Military Museum.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.