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All Glory and No Gore: Elmer Ellsworth’s 1860 militia tour helped prepare the North for war

Elmer Ellsworth. Library of Congress.Before the grisly reality of four years of war hit home, before lengthy casualty lists brought grief to families nationwide, young men sought recrea­tion and companionship by serving in militia companies, and spectators thronged to see their dramatic drills. Nothing better epitomized those hal­cyon days than Elmer Ellsworth’s 1860 tour of the Northern states with his Zouave drill team.

Ellsworth, a law clerk in Rockford, Ill., had little interest in his day job and much preferred the soldier’s life. As a dashing major commanding the Rockford City Greys, Ellsworth became well known throughout the region. In the spring of 1859, members of a bankrupt and dispirited militia company, the National Guard Cadets of Chicago, saw his Greys perform a new system of drill that combined movements prescribed in the manuals of American officers Winfield Scott and William Hardee with the athleticism and flamboyance of the Algerian Zouaves, colonial units of the French Army. An eyewitness recalled: “They would fall to the ground, load their guns, fire, turn over on their backs, fire again, jump up, run a few steps, fall, then crawl on their hands and feet as silent and quick as cats, climb high stone walls by stepping on each other’s shoulders, making a hu­man ladder.” The drill was an instant hit with the militiamen and civilian spectators alike.

The Cadets decided to offer command of their company to Ellsworth in hopes of saving the unit. What the Chicagoans didn’t know was that Ellsworth’s career plans were up in the air. He had become en­gaged to Carrie Spafford, eldest daughter of Rockford businessman Charles Spafford. Worried that Ellsworth would not be able to provide for her, Spafford suggested he return to Chicago and study law. To appease him, Ellsworth at first declined the National Guard Cadets’ offer—but later relented and accepted.

In a May 9, 1859, letter to Carrie he explained: “I have changed my mind and have taken command of the Cadets for a limited time. I did not do so for the mere pleasure of commanding them, but I have an object in view which would justify me even in laying aside my studies entirely until after the 4th of July. It was no idle move on my part I assure you and it throws a great additional labor upon me.”

His first goal was to have the group perfectly execute his Zouave drill—maneuvers Ellsworth had originally heard of through Charles DeVilliers, a French physician and expert swordsman who had served in the Crimean with the French Chasseurs d’Afrique. Ells­worth also insisted his men must be held to a high moral standard and demanded they limit the time they spent in taverns and billiard halls.

From the wreckage of the old National Guard Cadets arose a new company, the United States Zouave Cadets. Their numbers increased, and they quickly developed loyalty to their new leader’s strict discipline and work ethic. A Chicago newspaper commented: “even their most sanguine friends were surprised at the wonderful precision, rapidity, and difficulty of their drill….Major Ellsworth has done nobly and received well-merited applause.”

On July 4, 1859, the Cadets staged a parade and performed before the Tremont House for the mayor and city council. Ellsworth described their reception: “The Chicago Tribune and Press…after giving the company a long but flattering notice concluded by saying, ‘We express the opinion of all who saw the drill yesterday morning when we say the company cannot be surpassed this side of West Point. The regulation in regard to no liquor was rigidly enforced.’”

In September 1859, Chicago hosted the Seventh Annual United States Agricultural Fair, during which all American militias were invited to compete for a national championship, with the win­ner to be awarded a stand of colors worth $500. The Zouave Cadets drilled every night from 7 p.m. to midnight for weeks before the competition. Only one other group, the Highland Guards of Chicago, showed up to compete—but the contest was witnessed by a crowd of more than 70,000 on the parade ground. At its end Ellsworth and his men were awarded the colors and the title of National Champions.

The success of an upstart prairie militia proved controversial. Companies from the Northeast and South took offense because they felt the Agricultural Society didn’t represent the entire Union, and also because the Zouave Cadets had only competed against one other company. Ells­worth responded by issuing an open challenge to all militia companies to complete for the title and colors. In May 1860, the Zouave Cadets amended their original challenge to state that they would pay all expenses for any group willing to come to Chicago to compete against them. They had no takers.

Ellsworth and the Zouaves had already resolved to drill against other militias during a 20-city tour of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The Zouaves agreed that “no efforts in the way of hard and continuous drill, and strictest and most exacting discipline, should be spared to carry out their resolve to defend their colors and save them from capture.” Their membership requirements already far exceeded the regulations for the majority of militias, but new rules drawn up and published by Ellsworth in the Chicago papers in February 1860 underscored their strict code. They had to take a temperance pledge and stay out of barrooms, gambling salons, billiard halls and houses of ill fame.

Ellsworth had anticipated that the regulations, time commitment and physical toll would reduce the company’s numbers. As it turned out, 12 men were dismissed for drinking, with others weeded out by the drill’s difficult nature or because maneu­vers had to be performed while wearing packed knapsacks weighing 25 pounds. In the end, 50 men would set out on the tour.

By the anticipated departure date, June 20, 1860, Ellsworth had raised thousands of dollars from Chicago citizens for the trip. But then tragedy struck. Ellsworth’s younger brother Charles, who had moved west from New York to train with his brother’s Zouave unit, died of smallpox on June 16. The militia leader buried his brother in New York, then returned in time to leave Chicago with the group on July 2.

The Zouave Cadets received a tremendous send-off when they left, accompanied by the 18-piece Light Guard Band. The Chicago Herald reported: “Upwards of ten thousand persons, old and young, thronged the streets between the armory of the Zouaves and the depot of the Michigan Southern Railroad, while the jam at the latter place was indescribable. Along the line of march the house tops and the doors and windows were alive with the fluttering of white handkerchiefs. At eight o’clock the train moved off, receiving a parting benediction in the shape of three times three lusty cheers and a salvo of artillery.”

They arrived at Adrian, Mich., on July 3 and the following day joined seven other companies in a Fourth of July display. The next day they moved on to Detroit, escorted by the Detroit Light Guard. After touring the city they drilled on a cricket ground for 1½ hours, reportedly going through “thirty different evolutions amid the ap­plause of the spectators, of whom there were about 5000 present.” Shortly after that one cadet was sent home for disciplinary reasons. A member re­called: “A cheap suit of citizen’s clothing was bought for him and a railroad ticket provided. He was the only one.”

Crowds in Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Troy and Albany were captivated by the group’s precision and athleticism. Western New York militia companies that had protested their title of National Champions now celebrated their impressive performance. Cheering crowds lined up at train depots and along streets.

The Zouave Cadets inspired other militia groups to new heights. After an exhibition in Albany on July 13, a group of young men sought an audience with the state’s adjutant general, General Frederick Townsend, and asked him to train them in Zouave fashion. Townsend himself was no fan of the Zouaves, dismissing their drill as “circus maneuvers.” He told the delegation: “You’ve got to be put into condition. I’ll make you Zouaves, but you’ll have the most horrible drills you have ever contemplated—but you’ve simply got to have them.” Thus were born the Albany Zouave Cadets. Similar units formed in New York City, Salem, Mass., and Springfield, Ill.

On July 9, as the Zouaves were traveling through upstate New York, The New York Times reported that “a tremendous crowd” had witnessed their exhibition in Utica. They arrived in New York City on July 14 aboard the ship Isaac Newton, attracting large crowds at exhibitions in parks and Brooklyn’s Fort Greene.

The Cadets also opted to perform one exhibition indoors, at the New York Academy of Music—the first time an admission fee was charged during the tour. Ellsworth was initially against the idea, but other members of the company convinced him otherwise, reportedly forcing him “to yield to the demands of their empty stomachs.” Their drill there proved a great success, providing the Zouaves with sorely needed funds.

Ellsworth issued rapid orders during the program, which the men executed expertly. The Cadets marched and formed different shapes: crosses, parallelograms, circles and squares. During a skirmish drill, they demonstrated a “fire in advance,” in which two lines formed. The front line fired their weapons, then opened ranks, and the rear lines charged forward with bayonets affixed to loaded muskets. The new front line fired their weapons while the rear line reloaded. This was repeated several times.

They also showed their expertise with the bayonet and broadsword, parrying and thrusting against unseen en­emies—all while staying in a squadron of four, back to back. During a Tap Drill, all the exercises of the manual of arms were executed to the tap of a drum instead of verbal commands. The finale was marked by an all-out charge to the edge of the stage, resulting in “uncontrollable and long prolonged cheering, shouting, whistling, and huzzahing” from the crowd.

After several shows in Boston, the Zouave Cadets traveled by special request to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where they put on an exhibition for Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, Commandant of Cadets Wil­liam Hardee and others. Hardee was quoted as saying their drill was “showy and not at all practical.” Hearing that, Ellsworth had his men perform a drill in strict adherence to the manuals written by Hardee and Scott, which was warmly received by both officers. Some West Point cadets expressed surprise that a civilian militia corps could have attained such proficiency.

On August 5, the Zouaves received an invitation from President James Buchanan to drill at the White House. Buchanan later commented, “The people in this country must be prepared, themselves, to defend their own rights and liberties, and their own firesides and their altars; and whatever tends to induce a military spirit among the people, and render them capable of standing erect against a world in arms—that is surely patriotic—that is surely beneficial to the nation, to the whole country.”

The U.S. Zouave Cadets then headed back west. After they drilled at Pittsburgh’s fairgrounds, Captain R.B. Roberts of the Duquesne Grays presented Ells­worth with an engraved sword. The New York Times noted that while they were in St. Louis the Cadets gave an exhibition “to the immense gratification of the spectators, many of whom were ladies.”

A huge crowd greeted them on their return to Chicago. According to one account: “When the train came into sight, salutes were fired, cannons boomed, bands played, torches were waved by both the ‘Wide-Awakes’ and the ‘Ever-Readies,’ as in this event the party spirit of the great political campaign, then in progress, was laid aside. Everybody welcomed Our Boys.’”

They proceeded to the Wigwam Building, packed with 10,000 fans. Mayor John Wentworth said: “You have given a fresh impetus to the volunteer militia system, and touched a chord in the hearts of our citizen soldiers which will never cease to vibrate so long as freedom shrieks for volunteers and tyranny fortifies itself with regulars. You have demonstrated what a citizen soldiery is capable of becoming, and that no large standing army is necessary to repel invasions or suppress in insurrections.” The last public appearance by the Zouave Cadets was a benefit for the Home of the Friendless in Chicago, on August 19, 1860. That October the group disbanded.

The tour certainly put to rest any notion that the Cadets’ title had been unfairly awarded. But their tour also affected the way many other American militias trained. Zouave regiments sprouted up in many spots after the Cadets visited. Volunteers made it their goal to become even more proficient at the Zouave system than their Chicago counterparts. Colonel Pinckney of the 6th New York Militia predicted that the Chicago company would be the means of revolutionizing the whole country’s military system.

Thanks to their temperance pledge, the Zouave Cadets also served as role models for a younger generation. As Mayor Wentworth noted, “That a company of our Chicago young men should travel the distance you have, amid so many exposures, without once partaking of the intoxi­cating cup, is a source of greater pleasure to us, your fellow citizens, than the unexampled honors you have received or your perfection in the military arts.”

The 1860 tour effectively motivated thousands of men who would be marching off to war the following year. Their highly practiced routines reminded Americans of the importance of military preparedness, particularly in a nation that shied away from relying on a large standing army and depended on volunteers. The Chicago militiamen provided an ideal for these amateur soldiers to strive for, both in moral conduct and drill proficiency.

Forty-seven of the 50 Zouave Cadets who went on the tour served in the Union Army, while two joined the CSA. Many became leaders within their regiments or trained recruits using skills they had learned in the militia. While some Cadets would serve together in companies and regiments, the unit would never reunite.

As for Elmer Ellsworth, he went back to Springfield, Ill., in the fall of 1860 to campaign for Abraham Lincoln. In February 1861, he accompanied Lincoln to Washington, D.C. After Fort Sumter fell, Ellsworth became a colonel in the 11th New York. He was shot and killed on May 24, 1861, as he pulled down a secessionist flag flown at a ho­tel in Alexandria, Va.—the first Union officer killed in the war. His body was brought back to the White House, where he was mourned by his friends and comrades.

Doug Dammann is curator and site coordinator of the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wis. This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times.