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Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837–1861)

Elmer E. Ellsworth was born in Malta, New York, on April 11, 1837. From an early age he had aspirations of becoming a professional soldier. Although his early education was meager and disqualified him from attending West Point, Ellsworth moved to Chicago and organized what became the U.S. Zouave Cadets. This volunteer militia unit went on tour in 1860 and won admiration for the precision of its close order drill and for its brightly colored Algerian inspired uniforms of short jackets, baggy pants, and gaiters.

Ellsworth became a friend of Abraham Lincoln during the fall campaign of 1860 and accompanied him to Washington for his inauguration. With the outbreak of hostilities, Ellsworth hurried to New York City and organized the 1st New York Fire Zouaves, which became the 11th New York Infantry. This regiment, composed of city firemen, was one of the first to arrive in Washington. The Zouaves proved to be expert at putting out city fires—they saved the Willard Hotel from burning—but they were rowdy soldiers. They sorely tested Ellsworth’s efforts to instill in them a sense of military discipline. Immediately after their commander’s death in Alexandria, the Zouaves threatened to burn the city in retaliation. Union authorities quickly removed them from town and set them to work digging earthworks for Fort Ellsworth, which overlooked the city.

Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–1883)
Albumen silver print, circa 1861
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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