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Friday, February 11, 2011

Col. Elmer Ellsworth (1837-1861)

The first hero of the Civil War was Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the Zouave Corps.

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.

By 1860, the Zouave Cadets were considered the finest militia in the Midwest, and role models for their high morals. In other words, they were Temperance men. Ellsworth promoted his Zouaves by challenging other state militias in drill competitions. The Zouaves handily beat their competitors (some conceded after watching them drill), and awed thousands of spectators, becoming known throughout the country for their "appearance of dashing ferocity."

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.

On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, U.S. troops were sent into Alexandria. Ellsworth's Zouaves went in to cut the city's telegraph lines, and in the process went past the Marshall House. Deciding to end that Rebel taunt, the Zouaves, led by their "gallant and idolized commander," stormed the hotel to retrieve the flag. On their way back down the stairs, the Zouaves were encountered by the innkeeper who fired a shotgun at Ellsworth, killing him instantly. Zouaves' Corporal Brownell then shot and stabbed the innkeeper with his bayonet.

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 Dunn Museum 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.

Ellsworth's Zouaves continued to make appearances, including one in Waukegan on July 4, 1862.

Zouave figurine, date unknown. (Dunn Museum 92.24.39)


Swamp Thing's Bog said...

Do you have any photos of the Chicago Militia/ local National Guard which came out to drill with the Zoaves when they came to town? As I remember it, they wore all White uniforms with White Bear Skin Tall Shakos ( similar to the Queen's Guard of Buckingham palace, but all white)... I saw the photo/ a photo years ago, but can't seem to find it now.

Diana Dretske said...

I do not recall seeing any photos of the Chicago Militia/local National Guard in the Dunn Museum's archival collections. I will double check when the museum re-opens, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading!

Diana Dretske said...

Hello Swamp Thing's Bog,

This article may help with your Chicago Militia research:

Turnbaugh, Roy. "Ethnicity, Civic Pride, and Commitment: The Evolution of the Chicago Militia." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 72, no. 2 (1979): 111-22.

I can email it to you. Please contact me at


Diana Dretske