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It Was Fun Soldier

July 2024
10min read

— until the shooting started

On the night of May 23, 1861, the First New York Fire Zouaves led the march across the Long Bridge, headed for Alexandria, Virginia. It was the very beginning of war, and the lovely moonlit scene, the steady tramp of boots, and the Hashing rows of bayonets made a lasting impression on the boys who were there. For each of them it was the beginning of a great adventure, and at this particular moment war was a splendid thing to be a part of, full of bright uniforms and waving banners, with the promise of quick victory and lasting glory. It was the kind of night to make men eager for all that was to come, and for none of them did the future seem to hold more promise than for their young colonel—Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth.

Only 24 years old and small of stature, Ellsworth was nevertheless a man whose flashing eyes and soldierly bearing lent a look o[ authority and power to handsome features. Already he had a reputation to uphold. President Lincoln was among the many admirers who thought this was a man to watch—a man whose abilities wotdd bring him honors on the field of battle.

At sunrise, when his troops reached Alexandria, Ellsworth swung into action immediately. He led a squad of men oil on the double to seize the telegraph office. On the way, passing the three-story Marshall House, Ellsworth looked up at the hated symbol of rebellion—the Confederate Stars and Bars—waving from an attic window. Here was a fine prize for the on-lookers across the Potomac, and he determined they should have it.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he detailed several men to come with him into the hotel. Up the stairs to the attic they went, where Ellsworth cut down the banner. As he and his men started downstairs, Corporal Francis E. Brownell caught sight of a man—James W. Jackson, proprietor of the hotel, as it turned out—aiming a gun at them from the foot of the steps. Brownell leaped at him just as Jackson’s gun went off, but he was too late, and the blast caught Ellsworth square in the chest as he stepped oft the landing. Falling heavily down the stairs, he landed in a heap just outside the door of a room once occupied by George Washington, and one of the first men to reach him noted that a medal he wore which bore the motto Non nobis, sed pro patria was “wet with his blood.” This observer saw, too, that Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, colonel of the First New York Eire Zouaves and a man whose future had seemed infinitely bright, was dead.

From the military standpoint, as pointed out by Major Charles West of New York’s Seventh Regiment, Ellsworth’s death was hardly justifiable; certainly it was a grandstand play for a colonel personally to rip down the Confederate flag. But this was the beginning of war, and Ellsworth, as the first Union officer killed, became a hero to the North.

At the time of his death. Elmer EHsworth was a personal symbol of that remarkable institution which nourished between the 1830’s and the Civil War—the volunteer militia company. And if his final act was Hamboyant, colorful, and not very military, so was the institution he did so much to popularize.

By the 1840’s, the nation’s military philosophy had undergone a number of changes—mostly for the worse. From earliest colonial times there had existed a “militia”—but within the broad meaning of this word there were actually two separate and completely différent types of units. The first may be called standing militia; the other was the uniformed volunteer company.

The standing militia consisted of civilians who were subject to call in time of emergency on the principle that every able-bodied man in a democratic society owes his country military service. The farmers who dropped their plows at Lexington, Concord, and the siege of Boston (the battles on which their fame rests) were militiamen of this type. Colonial tradition made every man a soldier and every soldier a working man, and after a battle was over the militiamen simply melted away, back to the farm. True, they assembled for occasional musters, but these consisted of sonic rather haphazard drilling, liberally interspersed with eyeing pretty girls and drinking.

And the trouble was that these soldiers were little better in time of war than in peace. During the Revolution the standing militia was numerous enough—probably 100,000 or more saw sonic kind of service—but of these no more than seven or eight thousand had actually been whipped into a real corps by war’s end. Washington called them his “broken stall,” and his judgment was borne out in full a few years later, in America’s worst-fought land war. Of 6,000,000 white males in the United States, the government never succeeded in getting more than 7,000 regulars and militia together for one battle during the War of 1812. On many occasions, the militiamen distinguished themselves only by the speed with which they left a battlefield, and during the invasion of Canada many New Yorkers refused to cross the border while their countrymen were being shot or captured on the other side. Between the annual musters and the poor performance of the standing militia under fire, many young men became so disgusted that they joined or formed independent volunteer companies, and between 1840 and 1850 most New England states in effect did away entirely with the standing militia.

Quite a different breed were the uniformed volunteer companies, whose members were actually amateur soldiers and the direct antecedents of our National Guard. The volunteer was, and is, a man who enjoys soldiering and who does so at some personal sacrifice. Probably the first company of volunteers was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company formed in Boston in 1638 (and still in existence), and by 1750 volunteer units were part of the social life of every colonial city. Elite companies like the New Jersey Blues. Haslet’s Delaware Battalion, Smallwood’s Marylanders. and others formed the backbone of the Continental Army during most of its early campaigns and led Washington to recommend to the new government of the United States that it rely for defense on such “well-regulated” militia, which had served him so well.

During the war with Mexico, the only militia outfits present were these energetic volunteer companies and as the Civil War approached, people on both sides began to realize that except for them there was literally no military force among the civilians from which to create an army. There was something quite remarkable about the volunteers’ tenacity. Under a government which was less than encouraging, they applied for charters, elected officers, adopted and purchased distinctive uniforms, established weekly drills, and performed animal tours of duty—all at their own expense. If any group may be said to have established a respect for the citizen soldier in the United States, the volunteer company deserves much of the credit.

This is not to say that members did not enjoy themselves—a fact attested by the number of companies which existed during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars. One authority. Colonel Frederick P. Todd, writes that the country was “teeming with companies of uniformed volunteers. There was one or more in every town while the larger cities counted hundreds, often with sufficient tradition and stability to permit grouping into regiments.” These companies paraded on almost any pretext, and a keen rivalry existed between them, especially in a place like Koston where it was often increased by political and racial ties. That city had the Ri(Ie Rangers, who were Republicans, the Winslow Klues (Democrats), the Montgomery Guards (Irishmen), the Highland Guards (Scotsmen), and others of a partisan cast.

With little government help or interest, most volunteer companies were primarily social clubs. Young men had to pay a good deal for the privilege of belonging, although it was possible to rent some of the magnificence seen in the old prints. Glitter and polish were hallmarks of the volunteer uniform, and many an outfit tried to outdo the next in brilliance of costume. Company names—Greys, Blues, Greens, Hussars, Fencibles, and the like—hardly give a clue to some of the more spectacular uniforms, which were scarlet, black with silver trimmings, dark blue with orange lacings, and an endless variety of other combinations topped in many instances with high shakos. If any institution lived up to George Washington’s statement that some men have “a natural londness for Military parade,” it was the volunteer militia company. Small arms and other accoutrements were olten borrowed lrom state arsenals for the parades which were such an important aspect of volunteer activities, horses were borrowed or hired, and there are instances of beards being rented for use. Colonel Todd describes how some companies “habitually marched preceded by their plated ware sinnig on poles flanked by mascots and friends, and followed by negro servants equipped with buckets of champagne and ice.”

There were, of course, many positive accomplishments. Since the companies were composed of volunteers, they accepted discipline willingly. And many men caught enough enthusiasm to go on and educate themselves to be accomplished officers. Above all, however, the volunteer companies acquired die priceless ingredient of esprit de corps . This is nowhere better illustrated than by the extraordinary thing the New York Seventh did when ordered to Washington in 1864. Completely undaunted by the discovery that the route through Baltimore was obstructed by rioters, the regiment chartered a steamer and purchased supplies “with its own money and credit” and sailed for Annapolis. Today such an occurrence would be unbelievable, but it was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the volunteer company 100 years ago.

In 1859 Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth appeared on the scene. With a consuming interest in all things military, by the time he was 24 he had memorized the existing manuals of drill and developed some ideas of his own for improving the national militia organization. Sometime in 1858, while taking fencing lessons from Dr. Charles A. DeVilliers in Chicago, he heard about the Zouaves.

The original Zouaves were mountain tribesmen in Algeria. They dressed in oriental costume—wide trousers, fez, and loose jacket—and were noted for the ferocity of their lighting. In the 1830’s the French Army formed a Zouave regiment, patterned after the Algerians in tactics and uniform. Later, in the Crimean and Austro-Italian wars, these colorful French troops distinguished themselves in battle, particularly with the bayonet, a weapon with which they were said to be unsurpassed. But the thing that undoubtedly made the greatest impression on Ellsworth was the Zouaves’ discipline, a strict regimen which included living on uncooked food and going without sleep for extended periods.

Ellsworth wrote to France for books on the Zouave system, learned French so he could read them, and studied what foreign military news he could lay his hands on. From this, and from what he picked up from DeVilliers, he formulated his ideas. Then, in April of 1859, he seized an opportunity to revive the National Guard Cadets of Chicago. The Cadets had organized in 1856, but three years later the company was practically defunct, with only fifteen members and $300 in debts.

Ellsworth was determined, by introducing the French system, to “place the company in a position second to none in the United States,” and to “improve the men morally as well as physically.”

That Colonel Ellsworth’s enthusiasm and ideas caught fire was demonstrated little more than two months later when, on July 4, 1859, 46 men dressed in exotic, loose-fitting uniforms of red and gold, and blue and orange, marched out in front of Tremont House in Chicago and performed military drills which amazed all the holiday onlookers. This was the first public performance of what Ellsworth called the United States Zouave Cadets, and they were hailed at once as “unsurpassed this side of West Point.” It was not long before newspapers began to comment favorably on the strict code of discipline and morals which were such a direct rellection of Ellsworth’s personal beliefs. No Zouave allowed himself to drink, gamble, enter “houses of vulgar resort,” or even play billiards in public. Restrictions against such temptations were all included in the rules for the company, and the penalty for breaking them was immediate dismissal.

The drill itself must have been a wondrous thing to behold. The Cadets had mastered the French Zouave system, which was unknown in the United States until that time, and added to it a modified form of the Hardee manual, then in common use by the militia. All in all, it was a weird collection of movements, and there were over 500 of them. A complete drill, in fact, took four and a hall hours to perform!

Three evenings a week the Zouaves practiced for lour or five hours with 23-pound knapsacks, and by August of 1859 the “unique and dazzling Company of athletes” had attained a degree of perfection that satisfied their colonel.

In September the corps competed for the “national championship” before a crowd of 70,000 at the Seventh Annual Fair of the National Agricultural Society in Chicago, and easily took the prize—a 8500 “stand of Champion Colors.” When word of this triumph reached the East and South, however, it was hotly protested. Since only one other company had competed, this hardly constituted a national contest, and few volunteer units deemed Ellsworth’s unknown “prairie boys” worthy of the title. This brought a quick challenge from Ellsworth: any company of militia in the United States or Canada was welcome to the Champion Colors “if they can win them in a fair contest.” And shortly afterward he announced that the Zouaves would tour the East in the summer of 1860 for the express purpose of defending the championship.

Before leaving Chicago, Ellsworth warned his men that discipline would be in no way relaxed, and that the rules prohibiting drinking and visiting “questionable resorts” would be vigorously en forced. “By the Eternal,” he promised, “the first man who violates his pledge shall be stripped of his uniform and sent bark to Chicago in disgrace, so help me God!” The first (and only) infraction occurred in Detroit, and the of-lender was summarily given a suit of civvies and a ticket to Chicago.

The tour was a complete success from the start. Huge crowds turned out to see them in all the cities they visited, and no one really doubted that these were the champions. Kenjamin Perley Poore watched them in the nation’s capital and left a description of their performance:

“Washington was enlivened during the recess of Congress by a visit from the ‘Chicago Zouaves, a volunteer organization … trained … in a novel drill based on the quick movements of the Moors. The staid old military organizations were magnetized by the rapid, theatrical manner in which the Zouaves executed the manual and several gymnastic company movements.

“Their uniform was loose scarlet trousers, gaiter bootS, and buff-leather leggings, a blue jacket trimmed with orange-colored braid, and a red cap with orange trimmings; their scarlet blankets were rolled on the top of their knapsacks. They drilled as light infantry, and moved like electric clocks. … The step of the Zouaves was in itself a peculiarity and strongly suggestive of thorough pedestrian and gymnastic: preparation. The diminutive stature of the men [Ellsworth was five feet six inches and most of his men were about the same] and their precision in accomplishing the allotted length of the step, gave to it something of a steady loping movement, but yet so firm and springy that its elfect was most animated.”

When they returned to Chicago, the Zouaves were greeted with fireworks and a torchlight parade, and treated like conquering heroes. They gave one last exhibition in Chicago, and then Ellsworth resigned and disbanded the company.

When Lincoln called for 75,000 troops on April 15, Ellsworth determined to raise the first regiment and decided to recruit from the firemen of New York. In less than four days his 1,100-man regiment was full—the First New York Fire Zouaves—and he and ten officers from his original Zouaves drilled them intensively. On May 7, in the presence of the President, they were mustered into service in Washington, and little more than two weeks later, they began their night march over the Long Bridge to Alexandria.

Despite the obvious disadvantages of the uniform in wartime, the Zouave craze begun by Ellsworth persisted for some time alter his own death.

Not until the Peninsula campaign did the men with the gay red pants, yellow sashes, and Turkish-style yellow sashes begin to realize that their costume was not only very hard to keep neat, but extremely conspicuous, and undoubtedly this led to the eventual abandonment of the colorful outfits. But while they lasted, they were a striking addition to a war whose beginning reflected the ardor of the men who wore them. And years afterward veterans still recalled the brilliant picture of a Zouave outfit swinging down the road anil singing their own little song:

Oh we belong to the Zoo-Zoo-Zoo Don’t you think we oughter? We’re going down to Washing-town To fight for Abraham’s daughter.

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