By Norman V. Kelly
On April 21, 1898, America declared War on Spain following the sinking of the Battleship MAINE. Secretary of State John Hay called it a “Splendid Little War.” Historians tell us it was an important war, one that freed Cuba and ceded Guam and Puerto Rica to the United States. That war took the life of a Peoria sailor whose name was George H. Ellis. The historical fact is that he was the only sailor killed in the naval engagement and he was born and raised right here in Peoria, Illinois. He was born October 26, 1875, at a time when Peoria, Illinois was a bustling, busy town with a population of 26,000 citizens. He joined the U.S. Navy on February 26, 1892 at the ripe old age of seventeen and off he went to see the world.
On the morning of July 3, 1898, George held the rank of Chief Yeoman on board The U.S.S Brooklyn, the fleet’s flagship that took him into the thick of the naval battle just outside the Harbor of Santiago de 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. Let’s let the U.S. Navy records tell us what happened to our native son.
Yeoman Ellis was stationed to give the ranges shown by the stadimeter to the Captain of the USS Brooklyn who communicated them from time to time. During the battle, Yeoman Ellis went toward the side a second time to verify the range. He had advanced only a few feet when he was struck in the face by a large shell, he fell immediately dead. At the time of his death he was performing his duty, finding the range of the enemy, under a most galling fire, in a most heroic manner.
George Ellis was the only sailor killed in that historic battle that injured his friend, Fireman J. Blevin. George was buried in a temporary grave with full military honors at Camp McCalla, Guantanamo. On November 28, 1898 his body was taken to Brooklyn, New York, where it was re-buried in Evergreen Cemetery, again with full military honors. A small contingent of sailors, led by Peoria Mayor Lucas Butts attended the military funeral representing the people of Peoria, Illinois. Officials here in Peoria made an attempt to obtain the body of Yeoman Ellis for burial here, but the efforts proved futile. The United States Navy further recognized Yeoman George Ellis by naming a ship after him. THE USS ELLIS, referred to by the Navy as DD-154 proudly carried the fallen Peorian’s name through many years of distinguished service to America during WW II and beyond.
I purchased a photograph from naval records showing the ship in 1942. A United States Naval vessel named after a Peorian! What a distinct honor. There are 55 telephone numbers in our local book under the name of Ellis, and I was wondering if any of those folks are relatives of our fallen sailor. Seems to me a small plaque should be placed in George’s honor down by the river. You folks interested?
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