Volunteer militias became popular in all areas of the country, but only two will be considered here: the Black Horse Cavalry from Fauquier County, Virginia, and the U. S. Zouave Cadets, from Chicago, Illinois. These militia companies each had a very high degree of public identity prior to the American Civil War, and were represented in their respective armies at the beginning, fighting in the Battle of First Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Their reputations, although different, have survived for over one hundred fifty years. Each group represented the area from which it came, and the causes for which its members fought.
In 1859, the tiny, rich, horse-breeding county of Fauquier, Virginia became home to the Black Horse Cavalry. It was an independent volunteer cavalry company–a mounted militia. According to founding member John Scott, the members of the Black Horse were, “all young gentlemen of the first respectability, and were either themselves planters or the sons of planters. The rank and file were composed of young men of the same social material with the officers.” They met in the Fauquier Bar, a Warrenton, Virginia hotbed of bourbon and disunionist sentiment. In this bar, the Black Horse Cavalry as a volunteer militia was first discussed. If not related by blood, all these men were friends and neighbors, and the threads of their lives wove an organic part of their community.
They became nationally famous as the mounted volunteers who escorted John Brown to
the gallows in December, 1859. The Black Horse had barely been formed at the time Brown and his group failed in their attempt to take over the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. To protect Brown and his followers from southern outrage, Virginia Governor Henry Wise called up a number of local militia companies. The Black Horse, joined by Turner Ashby’s Mountain Rangers, escorted Brown to his execution in Charleston Virginia.
Upon their return to Warrenton, local citizens, at the urging of the women of the county, gave what was to become known as the “famous” Black Horse Ball. Although the particulars of the gala evening are lost, the men greatly appreciated the effort to demonstrate support of the community for its premier militia organization.
One would think that the Black Horse got its name because all riders rode black horses, but this was not the case. The men of Fauquier ardently championed the pro-slavery position. According to William “Billy” Payne, a founding member of the troop who eventually became a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army:
The purposes of the organization were well understood and the question was to give it a proper name. I well remember the conversations between Major Scott and myself. The first idea was that we were descendants of cavaliers. The company was to be a cavalry troop. I do remember that I called the Major’s attention to the fact that the first standard borne by our tribe, the Saxons, when they landed under Hengist and Horsa at Thanit, was the banner of the white horse. It was agreed therefore that a horse especially typical and representative of Virginia should be adopted. We were all extreme pro-slavery men, but the Major in addition, was in favor of opening the African slave trade and he suggested that the horse should be black, and hence the troop was named the Black Horse Troop.
With the semi-official secession of Virginia from the Union, the Black Horse Cavalry responded to the call into regular service. They agreed to serve, at the Governor’s request, from April 17, 1861 to April 25, 1861, “unless sooner discharged.” Lieutenant Robert Randolph mustered the Black Horse into the service of the Commonwealth of Virginia on May 7, 1861. Randolph himself went on to receive an English hunting rifle, awarded to the “bravest man in the Confederate Army,” by a British supporter of the Confederacy.
Although enrolled for only a year of service, the Black Horse Cavalry actually served for the entire war as Company H of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, from First Bull Run to Appomattox. The 4th Virginia included elite companies from Prince William, Chesterfield, Madison, Culpepper, Powhatan, Goochland, Hanover, Warren, and Buckingham counties–tidewater counties all, and wealthy enough to support these fine sons of Virginia in style. Assigned to General J. E. B. Stuart, the Black Horse performed both escort and battle duties with efficiency, skill, and courage.