- Historic Sites
It Was Fun Soldier
— until the shooting started
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
The original Zouaves were mountain tribesmen in Algeria. They dressed in oriental costume—wide trousers, fez, and loose jacket—and were noted for the ferocity of their lighting. In the 1830’s the French Army formed a Zouave regiment, patterned after the Algerians in tactics and uniform. Later, in the Crimean and Austro-Italian wars, these colorful French troops distinguished themselves in battle, particularly with the bayonet, a weapon with which they were said to be unsurpassed. But the thing that undoubtedly made the greatest impression on Ellsworth was the Zouaves’ discipline, a strict regimen which included living on uncooked food and going without sleep for extended periods.
Ellsworth wrote to France for books on the Zouave system, learned French so he could read them, and studied what foreign military news he could lay his hands on. From this, and from what he picked up from DeVilliers, he formulated his ideas. Then, in April of 1859, he seized an opportunity to revive the National Guard Cadets of Chicago. The Cadets had organized in 1856, but three years later the company was practically defunct, with only fifteen members and $300 in debts.
Ellsworth was determined, by introducing the French system, to “place the company in a position second to none in the United States,” and to “improve the men morally as well as physically.”
That Colonel Ellsworth’s enthusiasm and ideas caught fire was demonstrated little more than two months later when, on July 4, 1859, 46 men dressed in exotic, loose-fitting uniforms of red and gold, and blue and orange, marched out in front of Tremont House in Chicago and performed military drills which amazed all the holiday onlookers. This was the first public performance of what Ellsworth called the United States Zouave Cadets, and they were hailed at once as “unsurpassed this side of West Point.” It was not long before newspapers began to comment favorably on the strict code of discipline and morals which were such a direct rellection of Ellsworth’s personal beliefs. No Zouave allowed himself to drink, gamble, enter “houses of vulgar resort,” or even play billiards in public. Restrictions against such temptations were all included in the rules for the company, and the penalty for breaking them was immediate dismissal.
The drill itself must have been a wondrous thing to behold. The Cadets had mastered the French Zouave system, which was unknown in the United States until that time, and added to it a modified form of the Hardee manual, then in common use by the militia. All in all, it was a weird collection of movements, and there were over 500 of them. A complete drill, in fact, took four and a hall hours to perform!
Three evenings a week the Zouaves practiced for lour or five hours with 23-pound knapsacks, and by August of 1859 the “unique and dazzling Company of athletes” had attained a degree of perfection that satisfied their colonel.
In September the corps competed for the “national championship” before a crowd of 70,000 at the Seventh Annual Fair of the National Agricultural Society in Chicago, and easily took the prize—a 8500 “stand of Champion Colors.” When word of this triumph reached the East and South, however, it was hotly protested. Since only one other company had competed, this hardly constituted a national contest, and few volunteer units deemed Ellsworth’s unknown “prairie boys” worthy of the title. This brought a quick challenge from Ellsworth: any company of militia in the United States or Canada was welcome to the Champion Colors “if they can win them in a fair contest.” And shortly afterward he announced that the Zouaves would tour the East in the summer of 1860 for the express purpose of defending the championship.
Before leaving Chicago, Ellsworth warned his men that discipline would be in no way relaxed, and that the rules prohibiting drinking and visiting “questionable resorts” would be vigorously en forced. “By the Eternal,” he promised, “the first man who violates his pledge shall be stripped of his uniform and sent bark to Chicago in disgrace, so help me God!” The first (and only) infraction occurred in Detroit, and the of-lender was summarily given a suit of civvies and a ticket to Chicago.
The tour was a complete success from the start. Huge crowds turned out to see them in all the cities they visited, and no one really doubted that these were the champions. Kenjamin Perley Poore watched them in the nation’s capital and left a description of their performance:
“Washington was enlivened during the recess of Congress by a visit from the ‘Chicago Zouaves, a volunteer organization … trained … in a novel drill based on the quick movements of the Moors. The staid old military organizations were magnetized by the rapid, theatrical manner in which the Zouaves executed the manual and several gymnastic company movements.