Friday, January 07, 2011
Zouaves & Other
POOEY. Ever heard about the first Union casualty of the Civil War? He was a New York Zouave, like the ones pictured above.
Elmer Ellsworth was a hero in the North even before the first shots of the Civil War. Born in Saratoga Springs, NY, Ellsworth moved to Chicago to study law. It was here that Ellsworth was introduced to the Zouaves - colorful military units outfitted in pantalooned uniforms based on those worn by French colonial troops in Algeria.
Pomp and Puffinstance
Ellsworth formed his own Zouave unit and molded it into a crack drill team.
In the summer of 1860, Ellsworth and his Zouaves toured the North performing precision drills before awed audiences in 20 cities. At the end of the summer, Ellsworth joined Abraham Lincoln's law practice in Springfield, IL as a law clerk. Impressed with his hard-working, enthusiastic clerk, Lincoln invited Ellsworth to join his campaign for president. Following his victory, Lincoln asked Ellsworth to join him in Washington.
As tensions between the North and South states intensified, Ellsworth moved to New York City. He formed a Zouave unit made up of volunteers from among the city's firemen - the New York Fire Zouaves - and became its colonel.
May 1861 found Ellsworth and his Zouaves stationed in Washington, DC. On the 23rd of that month the Virginia legislature voted to secede from the Union. Before the sun rose the next morning, Ellsworth, anxious to see some action, led his Zouaves across the Potomac River as part of an eleven-regiment Union invasion of Virginia. Ellsworth's objective was to secure the port of Alexandria.
The Zouave's landing at Alexandria was uncontested, and they quickly spread through the town securing important targets such as the telegraph office and rail station. As Ellsworth led his men through the streets his eye caught sight of a Confederate flag waving from the top of the Marshall House Inn. Followed by four of his men, Ellsworth rushed into the building, ran up its stairs and cut down the offensive symbol. Descending the stairs, Ellsworth was confronted by the inn's proprietor, James W. Jackson, armed with a double-barrel shotgun. Firing at point-blank range, the inn keeper ended the life of the twenty-four-year-old and conferred upon him the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the war. Almost instantaneously, Jackson was cut down by Ellsworth's men.
There are short, spectacular wars and long, dark, punishing wars. They both tend to begin the same way, with fanfare, lofty rhetoric, and grandiose symbolic gestures. Today, nobody remembers that there were Union troops who wore red pantaloons. Just as nobody remembers that the first battle of Manassas was treated as a picnic outing by Washington, DC, social elites who camped on a hillside to watch the ceremonial showdown between north and south, with plovers' eggs and fine wine as accoutrements. The subsequent rout of Union troops may have been the first indication to those elites that the unfolding war would be less strutting and cheers than stinking charnel house.
I was not inspired by the idea of reading the Constitution on the floor of the new congress. I understood the sentiment, but sentiment is, well, sentiment, not strategy. For me it highlighted the quandary of the new Republican majority: how do you transform a mix of hardened survivalist politicians and idealistic Tea Partiers into an effective political force?
Where all the mixed metaphors come into play. The remaining Democrats in the House of Representatives are clever, experienced politicians. Combat-proven veterans. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, chewing nails and plotting ambushes. The Republicans are a Pro-Am crowd. (Think of Pros vs Joes.) The Tea Partiers are definitely the Zouaves of the early days of the Civil War, all puffed up with pride in their red-white-and-blue pantaloons. They may be accomplished at constitutional drilling, but they're lambs to the slaughter in congressional trench warfare unless they learn very damn fast that their mission can't be accomplished with a few symbolic votes and an air of intransigent patriotic virtue.
There's still no sign of a Republican Ulysses Grant, let alone a Lincoln, and the best we can hope for right now is that John Boehner is, gulp, George McClellan, the general famous for refusing to fight who nevertheless succeeded in creating the modern, disciplined, professional military his country would need to win a very very long and very very very bloody war.
The Tea Party members of congress aren't going to roll back the Obama offensive on liberty any more than the Zouaves won an easy early victory in the War between the States. We will see plenty of them become quick casualties of the infantry slugfests in Washington.
Importantly, though, we can't lose heart. There will be many letdowns, defeats, and even some disasters to come. A Gettysburg may make us doubt our own will to continue. But we have to remember -- even those of us from the South -- that Sherman did march to the sea, Grant did take Richmond, and Lincoln did free the slaves. Preserving the union is not easy, and we will all be or know casualties before the war is won.
P.S. A quick thank you to 'DorkvsMaximvs,' whose quick response gently corrected an IP brain fart I wouldn't want to get in the way of the post. I'll document my error in a day or so.