- Historic Sites
It Was Fun Soldier
— until the shooting started
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Quite a different breed were the uniformed volunteer companies, whose members were actually amateur soldiers and the direct antecedents of our National Guard. The volunteer was, and is, a man who enjoys soldiering and who does so at some personal sacrifice. Probably the first company of volunteers was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company formed in Boston in 1638 (and still in existence), and by 1750 volunteer units were part of the social life of every colonial city. Elite companies like the New Jersey Blues. Haslet’s Delaware Battalion, Smallwood’s Marylanders. and others formed the backbone of the Continental Army during most of its early campaigns and led Washington to recommend to the new government of the United States that it rely for defense on such “well-regulated” militia, which had served him so well.
During the war with Mexico, the only militia outfits present were these energetic volunteer companies and as the Civil War approached, people on both sides began to realize that except for them there was literally no military force among the civilians from which to create an army. There was something quite remarkable about the volunteers’ tenacity. Under a government which was less than encouraging, they applied for charters, elected officers, adopted and purchased distinctive uniforms, established weekly drills, and performed animal tours of duty—all at their own expense. If any group may be said to have established a respect for the citizen soldier in the United States, the volunteer company deserves much of the credit.
This is not to say that members did not enjoy themselves—a fact attested by the number of companies which existed during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars. One authority. Colonel Frederick P. Todd, writes that the country was “teeming with companies of uniformed volunteers. There was one or more in every town while the larger cities counted hundreds, often with sufficient tradition and stability to permit grouping into regiments.” These companies paraded on almost any pretext, and a keen rivalry existed between them, especially in a place like Koston where it was often increased by political and racial ties. That city had the Ri(Ie Rangers, who were Republicans, the Winslow Klues (Democrats), the Montgomery Guards (Irishmen), the Highland Guards (Scotsmen), and others of a partisan cast.
With little government help or interest, most volunteer companies were primarily social clubs. Young men had to pay a good deal for the privilege of belonging, although it was possible to rent some of the magnificence seen in the old prints. Glitter and polish were hallmarks of the volunteer uniform, and many an outfit tried to outdo the next in brilliance of costume. Company names—Greys, Blues, Greens, Hussars, Fencibles, and the like—hardly give a clue to some of the more spectacular uniforms, which were scarlet, black with silver trimmings, dark blue with orange lacings, and an endless variety of other combinations topped in many instances with high shakos. If any institution lived up to George Washington’s statement that some men have “a natural londness for Military parade,” it was the volunteer militia company. Small arms and other accoutrements were olten borrowed lrom state arsenals for the parades which were such an important aspect of volunteer activities, horses were borrowed or hired, and there are instances of beards being rented for use. Colonel Todd describes how some companies “habitually marched preceded by their plated ware sinnig on poles flanked by mascots and friends, and followed by negro servants equipped with buckets of champagne and ice.”
There were, of course, many positive accomplishments. Since the companies were composed of volunteers, they accepted discipline willingly. And many men caught enough enthusiasm to go on and educate themselves to be accomplished officers. Above all, however, the volunteer companies acquired die priceless ingredient of esprit de corps . This is nowhere better illustrated than by the extraordinary thing the New York Seventh did when ordered to Washington in 1864. Completely undaunted by the discovery that the route through Baltimore was obstructed by rioters, the regiment chartered a steamer and purchased supplies “with its own money and credit” and sailed for Annapolis. Today such an occurrence would be unbelievable, but it was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the volunteer company 100 years ago.
In 1859 Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth appeared on the scene. With a consuming interest in all things military, by the time he was 24 he had memorized the existing manuals of drill and developed some ideas of his own for improving the national militia organization. Sometime in 1858, while taking fencing lessons from Dr. Charles A. DeVilliers in Chicago, he heard about the Zouaves.