May 9, 1861: Zouaves in Washington

Fire Zouaves saving Willard's Hotel
Fire Zouaves saving Willard’s Hotel

Among the many troops suddenly descending on Washington D.C. were the colorfully uniformed “Fire Zouaves” of New York. Recruited by Elmer Ellsworth from New York City firemen and clad in bright red pants, they were a striking and somewhat unruly sight in the capital. As reported recently in Daily Observations from the Civil War, diarist Horation Nelson Taft mentions them as a “hard looking set”. Ellsworth was soon having to make apologies for their actions, as we see in this item from the New York Times dated May 4, 1861:

The Fire Zouaves are continuing their pranks, and expounding to the terrified people of this city their very free and easy ideas about property. Yesterday a squad went into a boot-store, cast off their old leathers, selected the best and walked off, telling the tradesman that the Government would make it all right. To-day they have been ransacking the Capitol like so many rats, breaking open doors, ripping cushions, and tearing up carpets, knocking down the guards, and chasing imaginary Secessionists through the streets — jumping on coaches, and going it. pell-mell. One fellow came across a pig near the White House, when I was up there this morning; he incontinently seized his porcine majesty, ripped out his bowie-knife and cut his throat, swearing that pigs had no business in Washington.

Col. ELLSWORTH is out with a card, disavowing the acts of his Zouaves, asserting that the majority are law-abiding, and that he will ship the rest when they take the oath next week. Those I have conversed with say they came for a fight, and are determined to have it. They had better be sent to South Carolina at once, to be pitted against those Palmettoans who say that “the North dare not meet them.”


However, the Fire Zouaves redeemed themselves a few days later, according to these items about the events of May 9, 1861 — but I seem to detect a note of relief in the correspondent’s report that they were about to leave town and go into camp:

There was much excitement during the night, owing to the unhappy occurrences of the previous evening, which culminated this morning in a fire, which broke out in the small hotel adjoining Willard’s, raging furiously, and threatening the destruction of Willard’s. Col. ELLSWORTH ordered one hundred Zouaves to assist in extinguishing it. The order was followed by nearly the whole Regiment jumping from the windows of the Capitol and scaling the fences. They could not enter the engine houses, and broke down the, doors, taking out the machines, and reached the spot before the city firemen were awake. They worked like heroes, performing wonderful feats of agility and bravery. They formed pyramids on each other’s shoulders, climbing into windows, scaling lightning-rods, and succeeded in two hours in saving the whole structure. WILLARD treated them handsomely, and says that without them everything would have been lost. This has made the regiment very popular among the citizens They destroyed nothing unnecessarily, and nothing is missing of all the great mass of property moved into the streets, which they guarded. For want of a ladder, two Zouaves held another down from, the eaves, while he, with his head down, played water into the burning building.


The Zouaves have been, by permission, exercising with the fire engines nearly all day. They have had much amusement in ringing the bells and getting up false alarms; then racing with the engines up and down the avenue. This is their last day in the city. They go into camp to-morrow, where the regulations, exercises, drills, etc., will be very strict. The Adjutant arrived this evening from New-York. He is a West Point Cadet. The camp is to be called “Camp Lincoln.”

Col. ELLSWORTH’s Zouaves will to-morrow encamp on the Government Insane Asylum Heights, overlooking the Potomac.

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