At the start of the American Civil War, both the North and the South had to rely on individual states to supply the armed forces with men and supplies. In both cases, the federal government initially lacked the administrative skills necessary to fight the war. In the case of Ohio, Governor William Dennison turned to the Ohio militia to provide the federal government with necessary troops. Unfortunately for Dennison, the Ohio militia system had been in decline since the end of the War of 1812. With Great Britain’s defeat in this conflict and the declining threat from Native Americans, Ohio citizens and their government had felt no need to continue this system for the state’s defense.
In April 1861, following President Abraham Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand volunteers to end the South’s rebellion, Dennison dispatched George McClellan and Jacob Cox to the state arsenal to investigate the guns and other supplies that Ohio had on hand to help equip the militia units. The two men discovered a few crates of rusted smoothbore muskets, mildewed harness for horses, and some six-pound cannons that were incapable of firing. Despite the lack of equipment, Dennison encouraged Ohio communities to revive the militia system and to form units that they would send to Columbus, the state capital, for the governor’s use.
Fortunately for Dennison and the federal government, while the state militia system had deteriorated, numerous communities had maintained units. These units existed primarily to march in parades and to provide young men with extracurricular activities. Among these units were the Zouave Guards. This unit quickly traveled from Cincinnati to Columbus, answering the governor’s call. Consisting of eighty men, it became Company D of the Second Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit served as part of the first two Ohio infantry regiments organized for the war. Governor Dennison dispatched these regiments to Washington, DC, to protect the nation’s capital, on April 19, 1861, just four days after President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. The Zouave Guards, along with several other similar units, helped strengthen the United States military for the war that lay ahead.