"The members of the corps, with one exception, are all young men of extraordinary muscular power, and there is not one member who is not a gentleman as well as a soldier. The drill is most arduous, but; notwithstanding, every movement, no matter how complex, is executed to perfection."
The New York Times reporting on the United States Zouave Cadets' exhibition in New York City in July 1860
Elmer Ellsworth was credited with transforming the moribund National Guard Cadets of Chicago into the United States Zouave Cadets.
The Zouaves (French pronunciation: [zwav]) were a class of light infantry regiments of the French Army that began serving in 1830. It was initially intended in 1830 that the zouaves be a regiment of Berber volunteers from the Zwawa group of tribes in Algeria—thus the French term zouave—who had gained a martial reputation fighting for local rulers under the Ottoman Empire. In the 1860s, new units in several other countries called themselves "Zouaves". The distinctive uniforms of zouave units tended to include short open-fronted jackets, baggy trousers (serouel), sashes and oriental head gear.
Formation and early history
The National Guard Cadets of Chicago was formed as a volunteer militia company on March 19, 1856, under commanding officer Captain Joseph R. Scott. Within three years, however, its size had dwindled to just 15 personnel.
While commanding officer of the Rockford Greys militia company, Elmer Ellsworth introduced his men to drills inspired by those used by French zouave units. Ellsworth himself had been introduced to zouave military customs by Charles A. DeVilliers, a French physician, immigrant, and veteran of a zouave outfit during the Crimean War. In 1859, soldiers of the National Guard Cadets of Chicago saw the Rockford Greys performing zouave-inspired drills and offered Ellsworth command of their unit. Ellsworth accepted the offer, transforming the National Guard Cadets of Chicago into the United States Zouave Cadets.
On July 4, 1859, the United States Zouave Cadets – now 46 members strong – first publicly appeared in their new zouave uniforms and executed the unique Franco-Algerian zouave drill in front of Chicago's Tremont Hall. With a training schedule of three evenings per week, the United States Zouave Cadets established a reputation for parade ground excellence called by one observer as "unsurpassed this side of West Point". The United States Zouave Cadets saw their biggest audience, estimated to be 70,000 in number, the following September during the seventh annual United States Agricultural Society Fair which was hosted by Chicago.
In July of 1860, the unit undertook a tour of the United States, appearing in parades and performing exhibition drills in Adrian, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York, Rochester, New York; Utica, New York; Troy, New York; Albany, New York; New York, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts. Their tour closed with exhibition drills for General Winfield Scott at West Point, for President of the United States James Buchanan at the White House, and in one final public appearance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The United States Zouave Cadets effectively ceased to exist with the outbreak of the American Civil War with most of its personnel scattering to other units. Ellsworth himself took command of the 11th New York Infantry, a zouave regiment raised in New York City in May 1861, and was killed in action capturing a Confederate States flag in Alexandria, Virginia. In April of 1861, officers of the United States Zouave Cadets formed three separate zouave companies each comprising between 80 and 89 men, which were integrated into the 19th Illinois Infantry Regiment.
Charles De Villiers, the French physician and veteran of Crimea who had originally inspired Ellsworth's interest in zouaves, was later employed as an informal inspector of the Camp Dennison recruiting post. He was described in one account by a Camp Dennison soldier as "a dapper little gentleman of very dark complexion". The 11th Ohio Infantry later elected De Villiers its commander and he was commissioned a colonel. He was captured by Confederate forces during a skirmish at Gauley Bridge in Virginia in 1861.