Preparing for War
Sarah-Eva E. Carlson
Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was an important man in the late 1850s. His hard work in organizing local militias made Illinois a key state in the Civil War. Even before war seemed probable, Ellsworth trained and drilled some of the North's future soldiers.
Ellsworth memorized the existing manual of drills, and he had created some of his own. Only five feet six inches tall, Lincoln once said of him, "He is the greatest little man I ever knew."
Ellsworth arrived in Rockford, Illinois, from Mechanicsville, New York, between 1854 and 1855. He worked for a patent agency, which later failed. In December 1857 Ellsworth attended a banquet given by the Rockford Greys, the local militia. At the banquet, the captain asked him to be the Rockford Greys drillmaster. The twenty-one-year-old Ellsworth readily accepted this challenge and drilled the Rockford Greys nightly in a South Main Street armory. They encamped at the fairgrounds.
Ellsworth at this time also studied fencing with Dr. Charles A. Devilliers in Chicago. It was from him that Ellsworth first learned of the Zouaves. They were mountain tribesmen in Algeria. They wore oriental clothing, including wide trousers and loose jackets. They were known as fierce fighters. What struck Ellsworth most was the discipline they practiced. They ate uncooked food and could go for a long period of time without sleep.
On July 4, 1859, the forty-six United States Zouave Cadets performed their military drills in front of the Tremont House in Chicago. By August this "unique and dazzling Company of athletes" achieved almost complete perfection. The next month, they competed for the national championship before a crowd of seventy thousand at the Seventh Annual Fair of the National Agricultural Society and easily won the five-hundred-dollar prize.
When word reached the East and South of their victory, there was protest. Some called the Zouave Cadets unknown "prairie boys." Others pointed out that they had only competed against one other company. How could this be a national contest? Ellsworth replied that any militia could have entered the contest. In the summer of 1860 he announced that the Zouave cadets would tour the East to defend their championship. The tour was a success.
When Ellsworth and the Zouaves returned to Chicago, they were met by a cheering crowd, fireworks, and a torchlight parade. John Hay, Lincoln's future secretary, called Ellsworth "the most talked of man in the country." When Ellsworth had his picture taken, a friend wrote, "His picture sold like wild fire. Schoolgirls dream over the graceful wave of his curls." After one last exhibition of the Zouaves,
Ellsworth helped prepare the people of Illinois for the Civil War. When Lincoln issued the call for volunteers, the Rockford Greys quickly departed, requiring no training. He introduced the Zouave system to the United States; his system of disciplined training played an important role in the early part of the war. Hundreds of men were already trained because of his enthusiasm for the Zouave movement. He taught discipline and loyalty, and woke America to the reality around it.—[From "Ellsworth," Nuggets of History, vol. 12; Stuart K. Golding, "Monument to a Hero," Nuggets of History, XIII; "Lincoln's Letter Deploring Death of Col. E. E. Ells-worth;" John W. Lundin, Rockford; Rockford Daily News, Ap. 19, 1859; Rockford Morning Star, Aug. 16, 1859; Aug. 7, 1860; Rockford Register, May 25, June 1, 6, 1861; Martha Swain, "It Was Fun to Be a Soldier —Until the Shooting Started," American Heritage (Aug. 1856).]