#ThrowbackThursday: Union’s Zouaves


Following the initial attack upon Union-held Fort Sumter in April of 1861, men across America rallied around the flag to restore the nation and suppress the “little rebellion.”

Boys in their early teens and men well past their prime flocked to enlist in the army.

The boys of Union College caught the war fever as well.

On April 30, just a few weeks after Fort Sumter fell to the Confederacy, students met in the South Colonnade and agreed to form their own Union College regiment.

The boys elected Elias Peissner, Professor of German, Latin and Political Economy, as their captain.

Peissner, with his “picturesque figure,” trained students into warriors with strict discipline and tough drills.

This drilling was done in very elaborate uniforms that were quite different from the typical Union blue.

The students of Union College decided to be a Zouave company.

Their uniforms consisted of bright blue short jackets, big, baggy red flannel pants and caps to match.

Armed with their vintage 1812 muskets, the Union Zouaves drilled every night with hikes to the Mohawk River and small practice skirmishes, which often attracted a large crowd.

During the first summer of the war, Peissner’s wife gave birth to a healthy son. The Union Company adopted the young boy and presented him a silver cup.

As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, Peissner and the Union Zouaves were forced to quit their drilling until the spring of 1862.

All in all, about 50 soldiers from the Union College Zouaves received regular commissions in the Army, including Captain Peissner.

In July of 1862, Peissner was commissioned a colonel of the 119th N.Y. under Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz.

Along with his brother Francis, 500 Americans and 500 Germans, the 119th mustered in on Sept. 3, 1862.

Many of the men, including Peissner, were eager to see battle. Their wishes were granted on May 1, 1863, at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

On the first day of battle, Peissner and the 119th were able to repel numerous charges and push back several Confederate batteries.

On May 2, 1863, battle at Chancellorsville raged on. Peissner and his men were located behind the boys of Col. William Logie and were assured they would be protected behind the “veteran troops.”

When the Confederates charged, chaos broke loose.

Logie’s “veteran” line quickly succumbed to the pressure of the rebel charge and made its way directly for Piessner and the 119th.

Peissner’s raw troops quickly panicked, but Peissner held firm on his right and tried desperately to rally his troops.

Peissner rose high in his saddle and with a face filled with rage shouted, “See, see, the vet-e-rans.”

As he pointed his men forward, a bullet fatally struck him. He died on the second day of battle, May 2, 1862.


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