When John Hay and George Nicolay drove their rented buggy over to Camp Lincoln to say hello to their friend Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, they found him wearing his “blouzy red shirt” and enjoying that New York favorite: Base Ball. Most New York firefighters played the game, and among those involved was Ellsworth’s aide-de-camp, Captain John “Jack” Wildey.
Wildey played ball before he became a Fire Zouave. He played for the New York Mutuals, named for his own Mutual Hook and Ladder Company Number 1. The Mutuals were formed in 1857 and played amateur ball at the Hoboken Grounds, their home field. Many firefighters and city employees played in a variety of New York teams, but the Mutuals were reckoned the best. It was perfectly normal for a handmade ball, a bit larger and softer than today’s baseball, to be found in the knapsack of an 11th New York Fire Zouave.
Captain Wildey was the person with Colonel Ellsworth the night before he was shot in Alexandria. Colonel Ellsworth asked Captain Wildey to come to his tent after 1:00 AM to help him dress for his first mission as a commanding officer. Ellsworth had laid his uniform out on the camp bed. He stood quietly as if thinking over his choices, and then said to Captain Wildey, “I was thinking in what clothes I shall die.” Wildey laughed and tried to cheer him up with a few joking words, but Ellsworth just shook his head, saying nothing for a moment. Then, smiling, he went to his trunk and opened it. He withdrew an entirely new uniform, tagged and packaged from the tailor. “If I am to be shot tomorrow, and I have a presentment that my blood is immediately required by the country–it is in this suit that I shall die.” Wildey helped him put on the new uniform, and within moments Ellsworth was his normal confident self. Wildey wound the red silk officers’ sash around Ellsworth’s narrow waist. And as discussed, this was the uniform in which Ellsworth died early on the morning of May 24.
Unit cohesion was difficult after losing Ellsworth, but leaders like (acting) Lt. Col. Noah Farnham, Major Charles Loeser, and Capt. Jack Wildey kept the Fire Zouaves together long enough to make it to the battleground of First Bull Run. The reputation of “Ellsworth’s Zouaves” was initially tarnished by regular Army officers testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It remained thus until recently, as historians such as Lesley J. Gordon (A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War and “I Never was a Coward” pamphlet), and Harry Smeltzer (Bull Runnings blog) have gone back to primary sources to look for another, truer, interpretation. Ellsworth said before he went to New York City that he wanted the New York firemen because they were men who could go into a fight immediately. This would prove especially true for Captain Jack Wildey.
July 21, 2861 is the date that the Battle of First Bull Run was fought. There is much to the battle, but the Fire Zouaves were only involved in the afternoon attempt to defend Union batteries on Henry House Hill. Control of the field around Henry House Hill changed hands several times, but ultimately the South held sway. There was some small fighting in which the guns changed hands a couple of times, but because the horses that had pulled them lay dead in their traces, it was impossible for anyone to remove the captured pieces from the field. Finally, by 3:15 PM, after just over an hour of combat, the Confederate forces took possession of the Union guns and the 11th New York, among others was dispersed in retreat. The 11th did not “run like little girls or scared rabbits,” but they did not stay in retreat either. Many of them looked around the battlefield, identified another unit that was still fighting, and rushed to join in. Wildey joined in with the men of the 69th New York, who were having a bad time of it. Their leader, Colonel Michael Corcoran was taken prisoner and the Henry House Hill batteries had been taken. Still, they fought on. During this last encounter with the Confederates, the beautiful green flag that was held so proudly over Irish heads was taken. Who got it back?
At the fight at Bull Run, when the flag of the glorious Sixty-ninth Regiment was wrested from them by a superior force of the enemy, Jack Wildey rushed forward at the head of his brave men, and after a bloody contest, in which he killed two men,–one a rebel officer, whose sword he took from him as a trophy,–recaptured the flag, and after marching four miles he restored it to the gallant corps from whom it had been taken.
New York Herald, July 27, 1861
Nevertheless, the Federal troops had been demoralizingly routed and, to make things worse, many ninety-day northern militia enlistments were about to expire. Some heroes were immediately needed. As Wildey’s fame spread northward he became a hero, especially in New York. The gallant Captain Wildey was called home to New York City, ostensibly to recruit more soldiers. However, Tammany Hall leader William Magear “Boss” Tweed had other ideas. He needed Wildey to represent Tammany in an upcoming city election.
To be continued . . .