Following the successful tour of the U.S. Zouave Cadets, Ellsworth spent the fall of 1860 campaigning for Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election. Ellsworth had known the candidate in Illinois, and they had become friends.
Following Lincoln’s election Ellsworth accompanied the president-elect on his famous train journey through northern cities to Washington, D.C. There were serious threats that Lincoln would be assassinated on the trip before ever being able to take the oath of office, and Ellsworth essentially served as an aide and bodyguard.
Ellsworth Recruited Soldiers From the New York City Fire Department
Following the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln put out a call on April 15, 1861 for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union Army.
Ellsworth immediately traveled to New York City, and within three days he placed notices in the city's newspapers calling for members of the Fire Department to volunteer for a new regiment. It was to be called the New York Firemen Zouave Regiment.
When asked why he was recruiting from among the city's firemen, Ellsworth answered: "I want the New York firemen for there are no more effective men in the country and none with whom I can do so much. Our friends at Washington are sleeping on a volcano and I want men who are ready at any moment to plunge into the thickest of the fight."
The firemen tended to be pretty rough characters, and there were serious doubts that Ellsworth could train city toughs to be soldiers. But the men were enthusiastic, and after an exuberant parade in New York City, they traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the war effort.
A newspaper article on May 3, 1861 noted that the new regiment, consisting of 1,100 men led by Col. Ellsworth, was being quartered in the United States Capitol, in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The New York Fire Zouaves Became Heroes in Washington
Not long after arriving in Washington, the Zouaves got a familiar call to action when a city landmark, Willard’s Hotel, caught fire on the morning of May 9, 1861.
A Washington newspaper, The National Republican, published a glowing article the next day describing the action.
Headlined “Heroic Conduct of the New York Fire Zouaves,” the article detailed how the “conflagration” broke out and the call for help reached the New Yorkers. Racing to the scene, dozens of the Fire Zouaves manned engines, climbed through windows, and managed to put out the flames.
The article also described how Col. Ellsworth had addressed the Fire Zouaves, alluding to their reputation as New York City brawlers: “I trust that, in defiance of the opinion so generally entertained of the Zouave Firemen, you will make it clear to all that you can not only perform your duty when occasion requires, but when that duty is performed, be it as firemen or as soldiers, you can conduct yourselves as gentlemen, and quietly return to your homes.”