Francis Edwin Brownell was born on July 18, 1840 in Troy, New York the son of Charles B. Brownell and Lucy Adams. On April 20, 1861 he enlisted as a private in Company A of the 11th New York Infantry Regiment, also known as the 1st Fire Zouaves. The regiment was recruited mostly from members of the New York City Fire Department by Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. Colonel Ellsworth was responsible for promoting Zouave dress and drill among militia companies in the United States in the years proceeding the Civil War.
On May 24, 1861 the Fire Zouaves occupied Alexandria, Virginia, which is directly across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. Ellsworth removed a Confederate flag, which was flying the Marshall House Hotel and while coming down the stairs was shot by the proprietor, James W. Jackson. It was Francis Brownell who shot and bayoneted James Jackson in turn. For the Union Colonel Ellsworth became a martyr and Brownell, a celebrity.
Francis Brownell was promoted to Sergeant on May 26, 1861 and was mustered out on July 4, 1861 to accept an officer's commission. In the meantime this old regiment fought at first battle of Manassas (Bull Run) where it was shattered and many of its men captured. In the meantime Brownell was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Regular Army's 11th Infantry Regiment to rank from May 14, 1861. He was promoted to first lieutenant on October 21, 1861 and retired from the army on November 4, 1863. On June 10, 1877 the Medal of Honor was conferred upon him for this deed on May 24, 1861. Although he did not receive his medal during the war, his became the earliest act recognized by the award of the medal during the war. After the war he secured a job in the pension office and died in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 1894.
Several photographs of Brownell exists both as a Zouave and officer in the Regular Army. This Zouave image is particular valuable because it is a good depiction of the dress of the 11th New York (First Fire Zouaves) in 1861. Brownell is wearing a chasseur's forage cap with the letter A above 1 and Z. This indicates he was in company A of the First (Fire) Zouaves. The cap was red with a lower blue cap band. His light gray jacket was trimmed in red with the lower cuffs and button closure in dark blue. On this chest are a series and ribbons and pins, which may be various patriotic pins or medals recognizing his deed. Fireman Zouaves often wore the badge of their prior fire companies on their uniforms. It is difficult to pick out specific badges in the jumble. On his arm is a mourning armband in memory of his late colonel. His pants were light gray and gaiters are worn over the shoes.
On his back is a knapsack, the strap of which runs across the upper chest. A tin cup attached to the knapsack can be seen above the mourning armband. Around his waist is a fireman's belt on which appears the word "Premier 1." This was a carry over from Premier Engine Company Number One of Troy, New York, which was Brownell's hometown. A sheath knife is stuck into the belt. Brownell holds a Model 1855 .58 caliber U.S. percussion rifle with saber bayonet. Oddly enough a second bayonet is in a bayonet sheath at his side. This begs the question whether or not the rifle and bayonet may have been a prop. At his feet is a Confederate flag.