The Fire Zouaves Arrive in Washington; Fort McHenry’s No Good

Thursday, May 2, 1861

Elmer Ellsworth studied law under Abraham Lincoln in the years before the election. When Lincoln came to Washington, Ellsworth escorted him as a guard. Though he was only 24, he had already made a name for himself three years earlier as the Colonel of the United States Zouave Cadets, a militia unit he personally transformed into an elite drill team based upon the French Zouaves of North Africa. They were complete with baggy red trousers, blue shell jackets with gold piping and jaunty red caps.

The Zouave Cadets traveled around the country, challenging other local militias to drill contests. Soon, other militias were copying the Zouave fashion, adapting the uniform to suit their personal tastes.

When Lincoln called for 75,000 troops, Ellsworth immediately left Washington for New York, promising to raise an entire regiment of Zouaves. To do this, he tapped into the New York volunteer fire brigades and, in five days easily raised enough troops to fill the ranks of the 11th New York, dubbed “The Fire Zouaves.”

Ellsworth’s regiment left New York in a parade down Broadway, had arrived at Annapolis by boat and then, on this date, arrived by rail at the Washington Depot. The Fire Zouaves kept the general idea of the uniform, but changed the red pants to light blue and the blue jacket to gray. They wore a red hat and a red fireman’s shirt. Often, the name of their fire company was worn on their belts. Though they were the 11th New York, they would also be known as the First Zouaves.

The First Zouaves detrained, fell into line and marched in grand style down Pennsylvania Avenue to the War Department. The troops, said Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, “were in a pretty complete state of don’t care a damn, modified by an affectionate and respectful deference to their Colonel.”

Upon reaching the War Department, the Fire Zouaves filed into the building and set up “camp” with 3,000 other troops recently arrived at the capital.1

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Meanwhile, in Baltimore Harbor, the commander of Fort McHenry, Major William Morris, wrote Washington about the situation at the fort. Morris found McHenry to be “inadequate to a successful defense against a night attack or escalade.” For instance, there were no ditches leading up to the walls, which themselves could easily be scaled by normal ladders.

The fort didn’t even have enough carriages upon which to mount the cannons. The guns that were mounted were only effective against a sea attack, as there was no grape-shot and very little cannister to repel a land attack from Baltimore.

Though McHenry had recently been reinforced, the troops were raw recruits “who have not been drilled sufficiently to be relied upon in a night attack.”

Morris requested that, if Washington was at all serious about defending the Baltimore fort, two companies of regular US Army Artillery soldiers and an ample supply of ammunition.2



  1. Mr. Lincoln Goes to War by William Marvel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. The John Hay quote comes from his diary. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p617. []
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The Fire Zouaves Arrive in Washington; Fort McHenry’s No Good by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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