by Lesley J. Gordon, Guest Contributor
When the American Civil War began, and heady martialism swept the nation, twenty-four year old Elmer Ellsworth sought to raise a regiment of Zouaves. Based on French Algerian troops, Zouaves were trained in precision drill and distinctive in their colorful uniforms. Ellsworth, a former law clerk and close friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, had already been promised “the best position in the military which can be given you.”[i] Determined and restless, Ellsworth, who rejected desk appointments in the War Department, wanted a field commission. He was selective, too, about who was suitable to serve under him: “I want the New York Firemen for there are no more effective men in the country, and none with whom I can do so much. They are sleeping on a volcano at Washington and I want men who can go into a fight now.”[ii]
Indeed, volunteer firemen seemed the quintessential definition of idealized “martial manhood” in mid-19th century American society. As historian Amy Greenberg explains, these firemen “identified themselves as manly men, first and foremost, and vied their membership as a masculine brotherhood, where strength, appearance and bravery determined the ultimate value of an individual.”[iii] Even for an urbanizing metropolis like New York, firemen, many of them Irish immigrants and working class, seemed the ideal counter to white southern slaveholders’ claims of martial superiority. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves, with their unconventional training and conspicuous dress, appeared perfectly scripted to spearhead the North’s war effort. Harpers Weekly agreed, declaring: “Our firemen brave as steel, would be restive under the stiff restraints of light infantry tactics, whereas the comparative freedom and dash of the Zouave drill suit them exactly.”[iv] Lincoln’s secretary John Hay described them as “a jolly gay set of blackguards.” “They were,” he judged, “in a pretty complete state of dont care a damn, modified by an affectionate and respectful defense of the Colonel.”[v] Hays marveled after watching them drill: “They are the largest sturdiest and physically the most magnificent men I ever saw collected together.”[vi]
However, the very traits that defined the Fire Zouaves, their brash, rabble-rousing
behavior, would prove disastrous. Col. Ellsworth, impatient to prove his men’s fighting prowess, left the state on his own accord. New York’s governor repeatedly urged Ellsworth to wait, that his regiment was too large and unwieldy and not ready for the front. By early May, the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, or Fire Zouaves, arrived in Washington, D.C.
Not only did New York City firemen make good copy, but the Zouaves’ brazen behavior only drew more attention. While quartered in the U.S. Capitol, members held raucous mock sessions and swung from ropes suspended in the unfinished rotunda. Residents of the district accused the firemen of deliberately setting fires so they could put them out. At one point, their unruliness led to a direct reprimand from Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of the Department of Washington, warning Ellsworth that he was “entitled to fuel,” but that he would have to be “careful not to burn fences, as some have already been burnt.”[vii] When a fire broke out in the middle of the night near the famed Willard Hotel, it was the Fire Zouaves who triumphantly doused the flames.
Then on May 24, 1861, tragedy struck the regiment. Soon after their arrival in Alexandria, Virginia, Ellsworth impulsively rushed to remove a rebel flag flying conspicuously atop an inn. Shot at point blank range by the defiant innkeeper, Ellsworth died immediately. But the regiment Ellsworth had so proudly raised was in disarray.
Two months later, the Fire Zouaves fought in the Battle of Bull Run. As one historian of the battle states, they were “the most famous volunteer regiment in the Union army, and many people expected big things from them.”[viii] Ordered, along with other units, to support an artillery battery on Henry House Hill, the Zouaves faltered and panicked. Some regrouped and continued to fight, several valiantly so; but most joined the general Union
rout. The Battle of Bull Run was a humiliating Union defeat.
When they took stock of their casualties for the day, they were high: nearly 200 lost in killed, wounded, missing or captured. Within days of the battle, serious charges began to circulate. Col. Andrew Porter reported: “The evanescent courage of the zouaves prompted them to fire perhaps a hundred shots, when they broke and fled, leaving the batteries open to a charge of the enemy’s cavalry, which took place immediately.”[ix] Later testimony pointed to their performance on Henry House Hill as the pivotal moment when the entire battle shifted against the Union. Captain Charles Griffin, most tellingly, blasted the New Yorkers’ “moral courage to fight,” and “disorganized state.”[x]
The Fire Zouaves never recovered. Survivors were reorganized and returned to New York City, where they angrily protested what they believed were unfair charges. A present-day blog claims that the Battle of Bull Run haunted and undermined the Zouaves with a “dismayed public” “looking for people to blame.”[xi] By June 1862, the unit was formally disbanded.
What few recognized, at least at the time, was that the onslaught of civil war caused societal expectations and assumptions about bravery and cowardice to change. Many Americans, even firemen, heralded as heroes in peacetime, found their worlds and sense of self changing just as quickly.
Lesley J. Gordon is Professor of History at the University of Akron and former editor of Civil War History (2010-2015). Her publications include General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), and A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014). She is presently at work on a book manuscript entitled Battlefield Cowardice: Violence, and Memory in the American Civil War.
[i] Abraham Lincoln to Elmer Ellsworth, April 15, 1861 in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, 1953), Vol. IV: 333.
[ii] Quoted in Charles A. Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth and the Zouaves of ’61 (Chicago, 1925), 127.
[iii] Amy Greenberg, Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1998), 8.
[iv] Harper’s Weekly, May 11, 1861.
[v] John Hay, Diary Entry, May 2, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay. Michael Burlingame and John R. Ettinger, eds.(Carbondale, 1997), 17.
[vi] Hay, Diary Entry, May 7, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 20.
[vii] Joseph K. Mansfield to Elmer Ellsworth, May 9, 1861, quoted in Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth, 136.
[viii] David Detzer, Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run (Orlando, 2004), 402.
[ix] Report of Col. Andrew Porter, Sixteenth U. S. Infantry, Commanding 2nd Division, 1st Brigade, July 25, 1861, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols.(Washington, DC: 1880-1901, series 1, vol. 2, 385.
[x] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in Three Parts (Washington, D.C, 1863), 174.