Also in 1859, young Elmer Ellsworth became captain of a moribund militia company, the National Guard Cadets of Chicago, Illinois. Ellsworth had developed a statewide reputation as a drillmaster, and agreed to take on the challenge of rebuilding this group of men in his adopted home town. He renamed them the United States Zouave Cadets. With them, he created the country’s first Zouave unit. They adopted a version of the French Zouave uniform, wore moustaches and goatees, and performed the complicated Zouave drill, a type of drill not seen in America before. The members came from many walks of life in the Chicago area. Background was not as important as a willingness to attend Ellsworth’s punishing drill schedule and abide by his strict code of conduct, which included no drinking, gambling, swearing or billiards while in uniform.
The Zouave Cadets created a sensation wherever they went, with their flamboyant style and handsome young drill master. In the summer of 1860, “Colonel” Ellsworth took his militia cadets on a twenty-city drill tour of northeastern America. The effect of the tour was sensational. In each city, Ellsworth challenged local militias to compete against the Cadets in a drill, but few went up against the scintillating display of athletic artistry of the Chicago men. Crowds grew as the tour progressed, and Ellsworth’s friend (and one of Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries), John Hay, wrote that, in the wake of the U. S. Zouave Cadet performances, “Zouave corps, brilliant in crimson and gold, sprang up, phosphorescently . . . making bright the track of his journey.”
By the time they reached West Point, in upstate New York, the Cadets had achieved national fame. No less than Lieutenant Colonel William Hardee himself, West Point Commandant of Cadets, challenged the skill of the unit. Hardee claimed the Zouave drill was too showy to be practical. Taking about fifteen minutes to regroup, Ellsworth led his men back to the drill grounds, whereupon they performed Hardee’s own version of the drill manual, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen, popularly known as Hardee’s Tactics. Won over, Hardee proclaimed to all in hearing distance that the feat of the U. S. Zouave Cadets was, “most wonderful.” Triumph followed triumph. The Cadets continued their tour, even performing in Washington, D. C. for President Buchanan. By the time the tour ended and the militia returned to Chicago, John Hay claimed Ellsworth, “the most talked of man in the country.”
Seeking a way to build upon this success, Ellsworth turned his now-famous militia over to
the state of Illinois, to be the first body of troops volunteered for the defense of the Union in the Civil War. The Zouave Cadets set both tone and style for new militia companies, and improved the performance of older ones. All but two of the men who were members of the original U. S. Zouaves answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the firing of Fort Sumter. They provided the entire junior officer corps of Ellsworth’s new company, the 11th New York Fire Zouaves. Others served as junior officers for a variety of Chicago volunteer militias. After Ellsworth’s death, and the Union loss at First Bull Run, many of these same men continued to serve in the Federal Army, bringing their both their experience and their spirit of military accomplishment with them wherever they went.
It is true that many volunteer militia groups did little to contribute to their cause, North or South. Many entered the army poorly drilled, with little experience handling real firearms. The joking caricatures of inept militias and their officers applied to many, but not all.
In the South, the elite members of the Black Horse Cavalry joined the Confederate Army as a complete unit. They respected discipline and knew how to work within a chain of command. They honored their officers with both respect and obedience, and each took his oath to both the state of Virginia and the newly emerged Confederacy seriously. As a model of cavalry élan, J. E. B. Stuart used the Black Horse to his advantage for the duration of the conflict. This former volunteer militia unit continued to serve until Appomattox, and left behind a proud record of Confederate patriotism.
In the North, the U. S. Zouave Cadets, a group of ordinary young workingmen from offices and storefronts in Chicago, toured the Northeast to raise awareness of the coming need for groups of volunteer militia thoroughly prepared to go to war, if needed. Although the Cadets did not join the Federal Army as a single unit, their members could be found in almost every volunteer militia unit sent from Illinois. Ellsworth himself used his former Cadets to create a corps of junior officers for the New York Fire Zouaves within the Army of the Potomac. The skill and discipline a former Cadet brought to any militia unit served the members well. With such men as examples, a respect for authority, an understanding of the chain of command within a military group, and a sense of pride comingled with obedience went a long way toward preparing a green group of volunteers for service. U. S. Zouave Cadet members continued to serve in a variety of capacities until Appomattox, and left behind a proud record of Federal service and Union patriotism.
Mismatching uniforms, unfamiliar flags, a lack of respect for officers, little understanding of the need for military regulations and a lack of unit cohesion–these problems affected both sides in the American Civil War. Volunteer militias companies often suffered as scapegoats for these issues, and not given much respect. Poorly led, poorly trained militia companies performed poorly, but this was not always the case. Both Virginia’s Black Horse Cavalry and Chicago’s U. S. Zouave Cadets are excellent examples of the successful militia ideal developed in the antebellum period, and deserve further study.