By Ron Field
During the summer of 1860, the United States Zouave Cadets toured 19 major cities and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Led by law student Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, the small militia company left a big impression. Its 47 members, aged 18 to 21, wowed audiences with acrobatic drills and flashy attire.
By the time the Cadets wrapped up their tour, they changed the face of the military landscape of the nation, and sparked a mania for Zouave-style uniforms that continued throughout the Civil War years and beyond.
The company’s roots trace to Chicago. Three summers earlier, the National Guard Cadets likely became the first military organization in the country to adopt the French Zouave drill system. The instructor of this company was none other than Ellsworth.
Born April 11, 1837, in the village of Malta in Saratoga County, N.Y., Ellsworth was the son of a poor tailor. He developed an interest in the martial arts in boyhood, and during his teen years organized a juvenile military company called the Black Plumed Riflemen.
His greatest ambition, attending West Point, was never realized due to his impoverished background. Instead, Ellsworth embarked on his own adventure, bouncing back and forth between the East and Midwest. He left Malta for Michigan, where he lived briefly with the Ottawa people, and then headed back east and clerked in New York City.
Two early influences: a business partner and an authentic Zouave
Ellsworth left for Chicago in 1855 and went to work as a clerk in a patent-soliciting business. The owner, Arthur F. Devereux, was a year younger than Ellsworth and had attended West Point, but did not graduate. Ellsworth soon became a partner in the business and enjoyed prosperity for the first time in his life until the firm went bust during the Panic of 1857, which plunged him again into poverty.
Ellsworth maintained his interest in military matters despite the lack of funds to join a militia company. He organized a drill class, in which he and his “gymnasts” practiced various routines. In this setting that he met French fencing instructor Charles A. De Villiere, who had served as a surgeon in the French Army in Algiers and in a French Zouave regiment during the Crimean War.
De Villiere played an important mentoring role in Ellsworth’s life. Under his tutorship, Ellsworth rose to become Chicago’s best fencer. He also introduced Ellsworth to the unique Zouave drill system and colorful uniforms.
Ellsworth mastered De Villiere’s techniques. He adapted them into a uniquely American routine, the “lightning drill,” and instructed his gymnasts in the novel form.
Ellsworth’s efforts caught the attention of local militiamen and led to an invitation to be the drillmaster with the National Guard Cadets, organized in 1856 as an outgrowth of the National Guard Battalion of Chicago. The offer, however, came with a condition: Ellsworth would have to agree to receive instruction from the adjutant of the Illinois militia—his business associate, Arthur Devereux. Ellsworth accepted the terms. The two young men spent Sunday afternoons in the back of their office, Devereux teaching enthusiastic Ellsworth the finer points of drilling. And Ellsworth absorbed it all like a sponge to water.
By 1857, Ellsworth had gained the respect of the establishment Chicago militia and caught the attention of Brig. Gen. Richard K. Swift of the Illinois State Militia. Swift appointed him a staff aide with the rank of major.
Ellsworth impresses with the Rockford Greys
On the heels of this honor came the invitation to drill the National Guard Cadets—a move Ellsworth interpreted as a stepping stone to being elected company commander. When the Cadets cast their votes, Stephen W. Stryker, a year older than Ellsworth, won election. Ellsworth’s loss may have been the result of Cadets who viewed the 20-year-old phenom as a martinet.
Disappointed but determined, Ellsworth found a company that would elect him: the Rockford City Greys in nearby Rockford, Ill. He instructed the men, bringing them to such a state of proficiency that, as a special attraction, he published a notice prior to an encampment that the Greys would go through “the entire Zouave drill of the French Army.”
The four-day encampment, from Sept. 22-25, 1858, occurred at “Camp Sinnissippi,” which took its name from Indians who once lived in the area. The camp was located at the Rockford Fair Grounds.
Ellsworth’s drill contained more than 500 movements and required three and a half hours to perform. A striking feature was the division of companies into squads of four men called “Comrades in Battle.” These groups formed to defend themselves or resist cavalry charges. Facing four directions and fighting back-to-back, they required more solid individual instruction. Of particular importance was the use of the bayonet, and the ability to load and fire their muskets with rapidity while marching, running, kneeling or lying down, and “in every other possible manner and position.”
The complex drill performed at Camp Sinnissippi was observed by companies from nearby Elgin and Chicago, including the National Guard Cadets, who were impressed. One wonders if its membership may have had second thoughts about not electing Ellsworth as commander.
After the encampment, Ellsworth ended his association with the Greys. Some of its members went on to form the Rockford Zouaves, which became Company D of the 11th Illinois Infantry in April 1861 for three months’ service.
Meanwhile, Ellsworth spent the autumn and early winter in Madison, Wis., where he drilled a new company, the Governor’s Guard.
Return to the Cadets and a Zouave transformation
Ellsworth returned to Chicago in early 1859, and received a letter from the National Guard Cadets. The company had a change of heart and invited him to take command. Ellsworth at first refused, but then accepted.
On April 29, 1859, a notice to “the Citizens of Chicago” appeared in the press recording the minutes of a meeting that reorganized the National Guard Cadets along stricter lines as the Cadets of the 60th Regiment, Illinois State Militia. Moreover, Ellsworth sought quality members who possessed unique qualities of “temperance, a strong, healthy body, will power, mortal stamina, persistence.”
Ellsworth also changed the uniform and tinkered with it over time. His constant experimentation illustrates his restless mind when it came to design. The Zouave Cadets’ dress, which included four significant iterations, makes the case.
It was his early intention that the men should wear a Zouave uniform, but this ambition was not realized immediately. When the Cadets paraded in public for the first time since he took charge, on Independence Day 1859, they did so in a new full-dress uniform. It consisted of a dark blue frock coat, mid-blue or gray pants, and a dark blue high-crowned cap, all of which were embellished with buff facings trimmed with red. The cap bore a small tricolored pompon. Both cap and coat collar featured an insignia described as an “Engineer’s Turreted Castle.” Their knapsacks, and whitened buff leather waist and shoulder belts, were based on those of the elite 7th Regiment, New York State Militia.
Regarding arms, the Zouave Cadets initially used Model 1842 smoothbore muskets loaned by the Springfield Rifle Greys, of Springfield, Ill. During December 1859, Ellsworth visited the U.S. Arsenal at Springfield, accompanied by 1st Lt. Joseph R. Scott and 2nd Lt. H. Dwight Laflin. According to a Chicago Tribune report, they acquired “50 new Minnie rifles with sabre bayonets,” or Model 1855 rifle-muskets.
Earlier, on Aug. 9, 1859, the Cadets performed a public drill display in a magnificent carpeted hall. This time they wore another new uniform—the Zouave style Ellsworth had championed. Word of the company’s new look had leaked, and curious crowds packed the hill to get a glimpse of the latest military fashion.
The best eyewitness description of the uniform was made by one of its own, Cadet George Harris Fergus. He noted that it consisted of a “bright red chasseur cap with gold braid; light blue vest with moiré antique facings; dark blue jacket with orange and red trimmings; brass bell buttons, placed as close together as possible; a red sash and loose red trousers; russet leather leggings, buttoned over the trousers, reaching from ankle halfway to knee.”
Fergus omitted pertinent details. The kepi had a black or dark blue lower band. The front of the jacket was embellished with a small embroidered pattern of dark blue in the style of the trefoil-shaped tombeau of the French Zouaves. Its extended cuffs were faced with red cloth and decorated with five yellow inverted chevrons. The trousers had a thin gold cord over a blue stripe on each outer seam. The light blue vest was trimmed with orange braid, but the exact style of the “moiré antique facing” on it is not known beyond that revealed by photographic evidence.
A third uniform adopted the chasseur style, using the full-dress coat but with a scarlet waist sash; scarlet cap and pants; and a wide black leather belt, which was likely the pattern-1855 rifle belt, replacing the white cross belts.
A fourth uniform is believed to have been worn for fatigue purposes, which was a variation of their Zouave dress, and consisted of a “scarlet jacket, loose scarlet pants, high gaiters and leggings, and a red cap.”
Judged best in Illinois by McClellan and Burnside —and national ambitions
On Sept. 15, 1859, former U.S. army officers George B. McClellan, chief engineer and vice-president of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Ambrose Burnside, treasurer of the railroad company, joined other judges to select the best drilled militia company in Illinois. The competition took place at the Seventh Annual Fair organized by the National Agricultural Society at Chicago. The top prize consisted of a stand of colors composed of the “Champion Flag” and what were presumably marker flags valued at $450 (about $16,000 today).
Two companies entered the competition: Ellsworth’s Cadets, dressed to the hilt and drilled to perfection, and Chicago’s Highland Guard. McClellan, Burnside and the other officials awarded the prize to Ellsworth, and his cadets proudly paraded with their new flags, thereafter known as the Championship Colors.
After winning the State title, Ellsworth set his sights on the national stage. He revised the company’s manual of arms and further sharpened the drill. He also renamed it the United States Zouave Cadets. The name change occurred by Sept. 27, 1859, and was first officially recognized on Jan. 23, 1860, when William H. Bissell, commander-in-chief of the Illinois State Militia, appointed the company as the honorary Governor’s Guard of Illinois.
Ellsworth anticipated that national recognition would also include scrutiny of its members, and he established a code of conduct. On March 9, 1860, the Cadets unanimously adopted “The Golden Resolution” by which they vowed not to enter saloons or houses of ill fame, or play billiards as that led to drinking. They also undertook to complete the chess and reading rooms in their armory in order to concentrate their minds on worthwhile pursuits. Furthermore, each company member agreed to acquire a badge consisting of “a gold star shield with tiger’s head in the center,” which was to be worn with citizen’s clothing — a constant visual reminder of their association with the company.
Response to criticism: The Drill Tour of 1860
Ellsworth had one more hurdle to clear before he achieved his goal to become best in the U.S. Some observed that his Cadets had insufficient competition when they won the Championship Colors. Ellsworth went on the offense to quell this perception. On Sept. 20, 1859, between the end of the competition and name change, Ellsworth challenged any military company — militia or Regular Army in the U.S. or Canada — to come to Chicago before June 20, 1860, and out-drill his Zouave Cadets.
The underlying ethos of this challenge was likely that of the medieval tournament, born of Ellsworth’s knowledge and appetite for Arthurian romance he discovered when reading Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott.
None picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Ellsworth. Determined to “carry war into the enemy’s country,” he plotted his next move. On May 3, 1860, he began planning the Drill Tour of 1860. Heralded by the press as the most extensive excursion ever undertaken by a military organization in the U.S., the six-week tour cost about $10,000 ($326,700 today).
In June, just days before the tour was set to begin, one of Ellsworth’s Cadets fell ill with typhoid fever — his younger brother, Charley. His sickness delayed the start. Charley died on June 16, two days shy of his 20th birthday. Ellsworth traveled with his brother’s body to Mechanicsville, N.Y., for burial, quarantined in a New York City hotel until confident he had not also contracted the disease, and then rushed back to Chicago. On July 2, he finally embarked on the Drill Tour with his Cadets, accompanied by the Chicago Light Guard Band.
During the following weeks, the Zouave Cadets visited 19 cities, plus the United States Military Academy. The young men competed against more than 29 militia companies, none of which were adjudged to have been capable of carrying away the Champion Colors. Numerous colorful descriptions appeared in the press during the tour, which illustrated the enthusiasm for the Cadets and the Zouave mania they engendered.
After the visit to Cleveland, the Morning Leader commented: “The most of the company are small and boyish in stature, but muscular and compact. Their arms and knapsacks are heavy, and no puny frame could perform all or half of their arduous drill. Col. Ellsworth is a mere boy in size, but if ever there was a man who was every inch a soldier, he is one. He has a voice that rings out the word of command like the report of a pistol, and an eye that a refractory member would not care to encounter.”
On the day the Zouave Cadets reached New York City, the Daily Herald reported, “The appearance of the celebrated company while drawn up in front of the Astor House was hailed with genuine enthusiasm. An immense crowd of people filled the side walks, and the stoop, windows and roof of the hotel presented the usual spectacle observed on all occasions of a public parade. Repeated shouts of applause greeted the strangers at every step, and their singular and rather fantastic costumes attracted considerable attention.”
Of their first drill display given in New York City, The Sun, of Baltimore, recorded, “An expansive sea of spectators covered the Park and every available point in sight … The Zouaves were then put through a course of the most vigorous drill in the manual; loading and firing and company movements, in common, quick and double quick time; skirmish drill or disposition against cavalry and deployments, that for three hours commanded the wrapt attention not only of the curious crowd but of the thousands of military men present.”
Upon their reaching Boston, the Daily Courier reported: “The uniforms of the Zouaves look as if they had experienced hard times, — the red pantaloons being damaged about the knees, and the coats decidedly the worse for wear. The process of rolling over and over on the ground, or stage of a theatre, is not of course an improving one to any garments. The men, however, seem in excellent condition. They are tough, wiry little fellows, with lots of muscle and no superfluous flesh. They participate in all the excitements of town life with great gusto.”
At the end of an exhausting but historic tour, the word Zouave was on everyone’s lips. The Cadets were warmly received back in their home city on August 14 with a one-hundred gun salute by local militia artillery. People turned out en masse to welcome their “Champions” home. The streets were “as light as day; bonfires blazed at every corner, and all the houses and stores … were illuminated.”
Post tour legacy
Ellsworth, now a national celebrity, resigned his command of the U.S. Zouave Cadets shortly after his return. He entered the law office of Abraham Lincoln, with whom he had become acquainted in the winter of 1859. Ellsworth played a supporting role as Lincoln blazed his own trail from statewide recognition to the national stage.
Meanwhile, the Zouave Cadets maintained their organization for a time after Ellsworth’s departure and elected new officers. But its numbers dwindled. In October 1860 they disbanded. Four months later, in February 1861 and with civil war looming, 36 members of the old company attempted to form the First Regiment of Light Infantry, Illinois State Militia. It failed.
Ellsworth became one of the first Northern officers killed in the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, the proprietor of the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, Va., shot him after he hauled down a conspicuous secessionist flag from the rooftop. At the time, Ellsworth commanded the 11th New York Infantry, also known as the First New York Fire Zouaves, a regiment he had organized.
Though his life had been extinguished, the Zouave flame he lit burned like phosphorus in a ship’s wake. New companies and entire regiments of Zouaves sprang up in all 19 cities where the Zouave Cadets performed and carried the Champion Flag, and in many other Northern and Southern communities across the nation.
Special thanks to Megan Klintworth, Iconographer, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Springfield. Ill.; Colleen Layton, Rights & Reproductions Coordinator, Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Ill.; Daniel J. Miller, Jeffrey Kraus, and Richard Warren.
References: Ingraham, Elmer Ellsworth and the Zouaves of ’61; Miller, American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History; Chicago Tribune; Daily Herald, New York City; Morning Leader, Cleveland, Ohio; The Sun, Baltimore, Md.; Daily Courier, Boston, Mass.
Ron Field is a MI Senior Editor.
SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.
LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.
VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.