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Preparing for War
Ellsworth, the Militias, and the Zouaves

Sarah-Eva E. Carlson
Heritage School, Rockford

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.

The French had started a Zouave regiment in the 1830s. Ellsworth wrote to France requesting books on the Zouave system. He learned French so that he could read the books. He also studied articles on foreign military news. While drilling the Rockford Greys, he also trained militias in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Once in Rockford, Ellsworth was a frequent guest in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Spafford. They had three children: Mary, Charles, and Caroline (Carrie). The latter was a student at the Rockford Female Seminary. In January 1859 sixteen-year-old Carrie became engaged to Ellsworth. Spafford demanded that his future son-in-law find a more suitable profession. Ellsworth went to Chicago to study law.

Yet, he continued directing military drills as a hobby. Ellsworth was determined to introduce the Zouave system in the United States. In April 1859 he took an opportunity to gain control of the National Guard Cadets of Chicago, a company formed in 1856. They were three hundred dollars in debt and had only fifteen members. He worked with them for a little over two months. He wanted to "place the company in a position second to none in the United States" and to "improve the men morally as well as physically," in the words of one historian. The renamed United States Zouave Cadets trained three evenings a week, with a twenty-three-pound knapsack on their backs. Soon they mastered the French Zouave system. His drilling gave the farmers, storekeepers, and boys of his regiment—some future soldiers of the North—strength and courage to face the battlefield without fear.

Colonel Ellsworth poses in his Zouave
Colonel Ellsworth


The Zouave Cadets were organized by Ellsworth in Chicago.
This picture of the Cadets was taken in 1859.

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 resigned and disbanded the company.

He then moved to Springfield, to study law in Lincoln's law office. He became a great friend of Lincoln. Ellsworth spoke in Lincoln's presidential campaign and accompanied the newly elected president and family east to Washington, D.C. Ellsworth planned to marry and settle in Washington, D.C. after completion of his law studies.

Ironically and tragically, Ellsworth, the man who had worked to prepare men of Illinois for war, was the first casualty of the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, Ellsworth, the recently appointed head of militias, led the New York Fire Zouaves to Alexandria. He saw a Confederate flag hanging above the Marshall House Hotel. Afraid that his men might grow excited at the sight of it, he and another man went up the stairs to remove the flag. While descending the stairs James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, appeared and shot Ellsworth. Elmer E. Ellsworth was twenty-four years old. Inside his coat was Carrie's last letter.

The whole Northern United States mourned Ellsworth's death. The Rockford Register editor wrote, "In Rockford Col. Ellsworth was well known and our citizens were cast into the deepest gloom when the telegraph brought the news of his death." Carrie was depressed for years.

When Lincoln heard of Ellsworth's death, he was shocked. He demanded that the body lie in state in the White House, until its return to Ellsworth's hometown in New York.

Pictured here are two Zouaves
from the neighboring state of Indiana.
The original Zouaves were Algerian
tribesmen; their style of fierce fighting
and their loose fitting uniforms were
copied, by Zouaves in the United States.

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).]


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