Ellsworth and the Fire Zouaves

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The name “Ellsworth” has cropped up a couple of times on my family tree as a middle or first name, and this made me wonder if we had a yet undiscovered Ellsworth line of ancestors. Consulting older family members, I found that it was not a family name for us, but had crept into use to honor Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth who organized a famous military drill team and who later became the first Union officer to die during the Civil War.

Col. Ellsworth came from upstate New York. As a young man, he moved to Illinois, studied law under Abraham Lincoln and worked on Lincoln’s 1860 campaign for president. He was also pursuing an interest in the military and had been impressed with the French colonial troops in Algeria called the Zouaves (pronounced Zwav.)

Zouaves started with the French in the 1830s and are credited with exemplary action during the conquest of Algeria. Initially they were supposed to be made up of Berbers from the Zwawa confederation of tribes, hence the name, a French transliteration of an Arabic word. But the regiment had to be filled out with Arabs, other Africans and Europeans.

Zouave regiments were known throughout Europe and America as fierce fighters performing great feats on the battlefield. They also wore distinctive uniforms put together from things like a fez or turban, baggy pants, a short jacket, vest, and trim of braid and brass buttons. The Zouave craze inspired Ellsworth to put together a drill team of “Chicago Zouave Cadets” which toured the United States challenging militia units to drill competitions. But as the Civil War was impending, Ellsworth decided to raise a real fighting Zouave regiment.

He drew his recruits from the ranks of New York’s volunteer firefighters. These men were inclined to be rowdy and pugilistic, but Ellsworth saw them as diamonds in the rough and set about recruiting and training them for warfare. Thus was born New York’s 11th regiment, the “Fire Zouaves.”

It was 1861, and the Fire Zouaves left New York as one of the first regiments to go to the aid of Washington D.C. which was being harassed by Confederates. The regiment was then sent to Alexandria, Virginia where, walking down the street, Ellsworth spotted a Confederate flag flying from a hotel. He charged up to the roof of the house and was carrying the flag back down, when the proprietor, without warning, fatally shot him in the chest with a shotgun.

The Zouaves, in their anger over the loss of their beloved leader, had to be restrained from committing destructive acts of revenge. Thousands of Union supporters rallied in support of Ellsworth’s cause, and the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment called itself the “Ellsworth Avengers.”

The cry of “Remember Ellsworth” became a patriotic slogan, and my ancestors evidently remembered him by using his name for two of their sons. 

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