William T. Ellis, ex-member of Congress and a leading attorney of Owensboro, was born in Daviess County, July 24, 1845. He received a fine literary education in his native county considering that before he was sixteen years of age he enlisted in the First Regiment Kentucky Cavalry. He was mustered in October S, 1861, and “followed the varying fortunes of the Confederacy” till the close of the war, as a private and latterly as a non-commissioned officer in command of scouts.
He returned to his home after the surrender, and resumed his studies, working during vacation to obtain means to defray his expenses. For two years he taught school while still pursuing his studies and reading law. He received his license to practice law in the spring of 1869, and after this attended a course of lectures in the Harvard Law School.
Returning to his home in 1870, he was elected county attorney in August of the same year; served four years and was re-elected in 1874; in 1876 he was Democratic elector for his district on the Tilden and Hendricks ticket; in 1888 he was elected a member of the Fifty-first Congress; was re-elected to the Fifty-second and Fifty-third Congresses; declined further service in the National House of Representatives, and returned to the practice of law at the expiration of his third term, March, 1895. At the close of a brilliant career of six years in Congress he was still one of the younger members and had gained a reputation as one of the brightest and ablest members of the Kentucky delegation. His loyalty to the government and his idea of justice to those who fought to preserve the Union was clearly expressed in a speech made in committee of the whole May 5, 1894, from which the following extracts are taken:
“I do not believe, Mr. Chairman, that the matter of pensions is a political question, though the effort in this body since I have been here has constantly been to make it such. If it had been left to the men who fought the battles of the war on both sides, it never would have been a political question. The wonder to me has always been that Democrats have suffered our Republican friends as a political party to masquerade before the country as the only friend of the Union soldier.
“Why, Mr. Chairman, if the Republican party alone had been left to fight the battles of the war Richmond would never have fallen, and Sheridan’s cavalry would have halted long before it reached Appomattox.
“Speaking for myself and who as a boy followed the varying fortunes of the Confederacy from the opening to the close of the war, and correctly reflecting as I think the sentiments of every soldier who wore a Confederate uniform and honored it, I am in favor of a liberal pension for every Union soldier who is disabled, whether that disability results from wounds received in battle or from broken down or shattered health consequent upon the exposure and hardship to which he was subjected while engaged in the service of his country.
“I go further, Mr. Chairman, and say I am in favor of pensioning the dependent widows and children of the Union soldiers who fell in battle and whose silent gravestones mark every mile of the way from Shiloh to Gettysburg.
“The Republican party, as such, has no patent or trade mark entitling it to the exclusive confidence, esteem or votes of Federal soldiers, and the time has come when that fact should be thoroughly understood.
“If the Federal soldier owes the scars he wears, his halting step, his rude crutch and his empty coat sleeve to the punishment he received at the hands of his adversaries, he is entitled at least to know that those who fought him so fiercely in war are his friends in peace, and that they stand ready, not only to co-operate with him in defending the integrity of the national flag, but in securing for him a liberal pension for all the injuries they inflicted upon him. The attitude of the ex-Confederate and his section on this subject has been too long misunderstood and his sentiments too often misrepresented.
“Confederates believed when the armies of the South were disbanded that the war was over. Hungry, clad in rags, without money and without price, they followed with unfaltering trust the Confederacy’s altering star of hope, until it sank forever behind the bloody fields on which they won their fame. But when they could no longer contend against fearful odds they saluted the stars and stripes, struck hands with the visitors, and greeted them with the genuine salutation, ‘Henceforth, let us have one flag and one country.’
“The spirit of fairness and conservatism indicated in this speech is a fair index of Mr. Ellis’ public life. Possibly, however, Mr. Ellis’ speech in Congress in opposition to what was known as the Carlisle Bill gave him his widest reputation. Although a member of the Committee on Banking and Currency, which reported the Carlisle Bill, he assailed its provisions furiously. In opposing it he took advanced grounds and predicted that its passage would bring financial ruin upon the whole country. Affirming his allegiance to the Democratic party he assailed the Carlisle Bill as undemocratic and as an unwise and unpatriotic measure. In the course of this speech he denounced the financial policy of Mr. Cleveland’s administration and questioned the soundness of the chief executive’s democracy. The speech was widely quoted throughout the country.
As a lawyer he stands pre-eminently at the front of the Owensboro bar. He has been a close student of the science of law and with a natural aptitude for the discussion of legal questions, pleasing address, a ready flow of language and a graceful delivery he attracts and holds the attention of his hearers. While he manages his civil cases with excellent judgment and marked ability, it is said by his friends that he rather excels in the criminal practice where adroitness in the examination and cross-examination of witnesses and fine rhetoric are essential to success.
During Mr. Ellis’ absence in Congress his law business was conducted by his senior and junior law partners, Hon. W. N. Sweeney and J. J. Sweeney, and it was owing to the fact that the business of the firm had increased to such an extent as to require his whole time, that he declined to remain longer in public life.
William T. Ellis and Alice Coffey, daughter of Colonel C. R. Coffey of Owensboro, Kentucky, were married October 20, 1871. His wife died in 1872, and he was married again November 2, 1876, to Mattie B. Miller, daughter of Dr. W. F. Miller, an eminent physician of Louisville.
Mr. Ellis’ father, Luther R. Ellis, was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, November 18, 1818. He was married to Mary M. Kellum of Daviess County and died when he was less than thirty-seven years of age. He left two sons: William T. and Dr. J. W. Ellis.
The Ellis family were natives of Culpeper County, Virginia, and came to Kentucky in 1804. The grandfather of Mr. Ellis first located in Shelby County, but subsequently removed to Daviess County, where he was a large and prosperous farmer.
Source: Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. John M. Gresham Company, Chicago, Philadelphia, 1896.