George Henry Ellis to receive recognition in birthplace of Peoria

PEORIA, Ill. — Nearly 120 years after his death in the Spanish-American War, a Peorian cut down in the thick of battle will be honored in his hometown.

George Henry Ellis spent only a short time in the city after being born, by all accounts and historical records. Yet when he became the only American casualty in the naval battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3, 1898, Peorians noticed and mourned.

In the aftermath of combat, Ellis was hastily buried in Cuba, then later reburied amid great pomp in New York where his family resided, and his connection to central Illinois slipped away into history.

But in recent months, a local historian and some civic leaders have been working to resurrect his memory here and have a memorial plaque to Ellis placed at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the Peoria County Courthouse.

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Of his early life, little is known, other than that he spent some of it in Peoria before moving to New York City.

Ellis was no stranger to the Navy when the Spanish American War began. He’d already served a four-year stint on the high seas from 1892-96. When his tour of duty ended, he moved back to New York City, where he married and fathered a son, born Dec. 10, 1897, while working for a book editing business.

During that time he also re-enlisted, and with his experience soon earned a promotion to chief yeoman just months before the breakout of the war that’s remembered primarily for the fact that it involved America flexing its muscle as a player on the world stage and picking up territory and colonies outside the U.S. mainland, from Puerto Rico and Cuba to the Philippines.

Sparked by the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor — and some newspaper headlines that whipped the populace into a frenzy — combat was a brief affair, lasting just over three months in 1898.

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Ellis was at the vanguard in the Caribbean theater of combat, serving aboard the USS Brooklyn when it served as flagship of a fleet confronting Spanish forces on the southeast end of Cuba.

“Our forces had the Spanish armada trapped within the harbor, and when they attempted to escape to sea, all hell broke loose. The ensuing battle gave the United States Navy a devastating victory over the Spanish navy,” local historian Norm Kelly, one of those pushing for a memorial here, writes.

For Ellis, that battle was also the moment of his demise.

His job during battle was to operate a stadimeter, a range-finding device used to help gunners determine their distances for firing and to aid in navigation.

In the midst of verifying a range, he was struck in the head by an enemy shell and was killed instantly.

“I have never in my life served with a braver, better or worthier crew than that of the Brooklyn,” wrote Commodore W.S. Schley after the battle. “During the combat, lasting from 9:35 [a.m.] until 1:15 p.m., much of the time under fire, they never flagged for a moment, and were apparently undisturbed by the storm of projectiles passing ahead, astern, and over the ship.”

Schley forbade the crew from throwing Ellis’ remains overboard — an informal, in-the-moment burial at sea not uncommon in the heat of battle — insisting that he be given Christian burial rites ashore near Guantanamo in Cuba.

Months later, he was exhumed and then reburied in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn, with full military honors.

“A small contingent of sailors, led by Peoria Mayor Lucas Butts, attended the military funeral representing the people of Peoria,” Kelly writes.

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In 1900, Congress authorized a grave memorial for him on the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy, who, according to committee records, wrote: “His record for qualifications and conduct during his entire service in the Navy is of a very high order, and indicates that he was a seaman of whom the United States Navy has every reason to be proud.”

Another example of that pride came a few decades later, shortly after World War I ended. The Navy commissioned a destroyer in his honor.

The USS Ellis ferried famine relief crews to eastern Europe on its early missions, and in the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt twice boarded the ship during his vacation to a family property in Canada. During World War II, the Peorian’s namesake vessel served on convoy escort duty in the Atlantic.

Ellis’ son, also named George, was just seven months old when his father was killed in battle. He lived into his 90s and had three daughters. One died, but finding the whereabouts of the others — or their children — has stymied locals, who hoped to at least make contact with Ellis’ descendants and invite them to the ceremony.

Still, a memorial there will be — to be placed sometime next year.

Members of a Peoria County Board committee gave their assent earlier this fall to adding a plaque provided by Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, who has worked with Kelly and Peoria County Clerk Steve Sonnemaker on the effort.

“How [the plaque] came to be probably isn’t as important as what his story is,” Ardis says. “In areas like this, where we have opportunities to posthumously honor someone who gave the ultimate sacrifice, I think it’s very significant.”

Chris Kaergard is a reporter for the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star.