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Col. Elmer Ellsworth Became a Legend and Martyr Early in the Civil War


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Elmer Ellsworth, Organizer of Zouave Militia Companies, Became a Martyr
Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth

Library of Congress

Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth rocketed to fame at a young age, befriended Abraham Lincoln, and became a very early casualty of the Civil War. His violent and newsworthy death only weeks into the conflict made him a martyr throughout the North.

Countless printed images of him, along with cries to "Avenge Ellsworth," helped to spur recruitment for volunteer regiments in the summer of 1861.

While not widely remembered today, Ellsworth received a funeral service in the East Room of the White House, and when his body was transported to New York City he was honored with a lavish tribute at the City Hall.

Early Life of Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth’s life began in obscurity, in 1837, in the village of Malta, New York. He received a minimal education, which thwarted his ambition to attend West Point and become an officer in the U.S. Army.

Educating himself, Ellsworth eventually became a law clerk in Illinois. At a time when American towns often had local militia companies, which were essentially drill teams that performed in parades, Ellsworth became the commander of a militia based in Chicago.

Learning what he could about military tactics and discipline, Ellsworth became fascinated with the French Zouaves, elite infantry soldiers who had fought in the Crimean War. The Zouaves wore elaborate and garish uniforms consisting of brightly colored baggy pants and short jackets. The distinctive uniforms had been adapted by the French from local fighters in Algeria in the 1830s.

Ellsworth reportedly ordered books from France so he could learn everything about Zouave regiments, uniforms, drills, and military tactics. He became convinced that the American military needed units of Zouaves.

Ellsworth Organized a Touring Troupe, The U.S. Zouave Cadets

Ellsworth turned his militia company into a precision drill team dressed as Zouaves. Billed as the "The U.S. Zouave Cadets" they toured 20 American cities in the summer of 1860.

The tour by the Zouave Cadets made Ellsworth a celebrity. With the threat of war hanging over the country, the public became fascinated by the showmanship of the 23-year-old Ellsworth and the dazzling military precision of the Zouaves.

A dispatch in the New York Tribune on August 6, 1860 noted that the Zouaves and Ellsworth had visited Washington's Tomb at Mount Vernon. And while visiting the White House, President Buchanan had invited the Zouaves to perform their precision drills on the south lawn.

By the autumn of 1860 Ellsworth had returned to Chicago, and newspapers were reporting that he was planning to organize other regiments of Zouaves. With war on the horizon, Ellsworth was trying to get the North ready.

And Ellsworth's fame was spreading. A New York Times article in November 1860 noted that Ellsworth had received hundreds of letters asking for information about Zouaves, and to accommodate his fans he had lithographs made detailing the elaborate uniforms.

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