In the years before the war, Ellsworth was considered "the most talked about man in America." Even more so than his friend, Abraham Lincoln.
When Ellsworth was 17, he moved to Chicago from New York State, and became prominent in the state militia.
In 1857, he met Charles DeVilliers, a French physician and expert swordsman who had served in the Crimean with the French Chasseurs d'Afrique - Zouaves.
According to "American Civil War Zouaves" by By Robin Smith & Bill Younghusband, the original Zouaves were natives of the Zouaoua tribe mixed with French settlers, who had served with the French Army during France’s North African campaigns in the 1830s. Their Native North African dress – baggy trousers, short jacket, and fez – became the basis of the famous Zouave uniform. The French originally raised two battalions of native Zouaves; but by the time of the Crimean War, three Zouave regiments had been created entirely of Frenchmen.
Meeting DeVilliers, prompted Ellsworth to learn more about French light infantry drill. After a brief period of studying law in Springfield, where Ellsworth became friends with Lincoln, he returned to Chicago and formed the United States Zouaves.
Ellsworth's militia spawned a national Zouave craze. Overnight it seemed, Zouave units sprang into existence. Even paper dolls were sold of the uniquely and colorfully dressed young militia men. He visited towns throughout the region training young men, including students at Lake Forest College (then known as Lind University) where they learned marching and how to handle Springfield rifles.
Ellsworth campaigned on behalf of Lincoln's bid for president, and after Lincoln's win was put in charge of security for the party going to Washington, D.C..
In D.C., Ellsworth formed a new Zouave unit from Manhattan's volunteer firemen called the Fire Zouaves. Signs of the approaching war were everywhere, including that of a Confederate flag flying defiantly on the rooftop of the Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia, all too visible from the White House.
The loss of Ellsworth was a national tragedy. Flags were lowered to half-mast in D.C., and President Lincoln ordered that Ellsworth's body lie in state in the White House.
Letter to Major Frank Peats of the 17th Illinois Infantry from George B. Swarthout, Peoria, Illinois, May 30, 1861. Swarthout writes: "We 'The Zouaves' had an invitation to attend the funeral reviews of Col. E.E. Ellsworth deceased which I accepted for the Co." (Frank Peats Collection LCDM 94.5.139).
"Avenge Ellsworth!" became the North's battle cry.
A memorial was held at Bryan Hall, a public auditorium on Clark Street in Chicago. Many mourned Ellsworth by enlisting, writing poems and editorials, and carrying carte-de-visite photographs of the war's first martyr.
Zouave figurine, date unknown. (LCDM 92.24.39)