The 11th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers

Indy Eleven's Tom Dunmore details the history of the group of Civil War soldiers from which the team is proud to draw its name from. "Boys, then, will you ever desert the banners that have been...
Published May 3, 2013

Indy Eleven's Tom Dunmore details the history of the group of Civil War soldiers from which the team is proud to draw its name from.

"Boys, then, will you ever desert the banners that have been presented to us today?" Colonel Lew Wallace asked his men.

"Never! Never!" The cry returned in unison from the 11th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, soon to be known as the Indiana Zouaves.

The Indiana War Memorial website describes this moment in the spring of 1861 as "one of the most dramatic scenes ever witnessed on the Statehouse Square," explaining that "the Colonel ordered his men to their knees to swear they would never desert the flag of their country or their regimental colors."

Colonel Wallace had sworn his men to defend their colors at a critical moment in the Civil War. The 11th Regiment had been one of the first six raised in the state in the spring of 1861. In fact, even though Wallace's infantry unit was known as the 11th, according to the history "Indiana in the Civil War," it was actually the very first to form and represent Indiana in the Union Army (numbering of the regiments began at six, with one to five left empty in honor of the Hoosier regiments that had served in the Mexican-American War).

"The Eleventh, whose members called themselves the Indiana Zouaves, was, in reality, the first regiment to be organized and the first to march," the book says. "Made up for the most part of private military companies who had organized and starting drilling before the war, it was one of the most colorful of the Indiana regiments."

The formation of the 11th on April 25, 1861 in Indianapolis, along with the musterings of other early volunteer regiments in Indiana, immediately quieted speculation that the Hoosier State would not support the Union. Instead, Wallace's recruitment set an example that saw Indiana provide recruits for the Union on a scale almost unmatched by any other state: around 200,000 Hoosiers, or 75% of eligible males from Indiana, served in the war.

This volunteerism was critical for the survival of the Union. Nine days before the 11th mustered, President Abraham Lincoln had called for 75,000 troops to rise and crush the rebellion strengthened by the formation of the Confederate States of America and the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wallace and Indiana were unusually well-prepared for that call. A veteran of the Mexican War and a renowned attorney from Crawfordsville, Wallace already had recruits in camp and organized the first six regiments as the state's Adjutant General. He then took charge of the 11th itself as Indiana joined the defense of the Union in April 1861.

Read: How the 11th Regiment came to inspire the identity of Indy Eleven

Who were the men of the 11th? In the book "Three Years With Wallace's Zouaves: The Civil War Memoirs of Thomas Wise Durham," the 11th's volunteers are described as coming from the towns and rural areas of central and west-central Indiana, primarily students, farmers and shopkeepers. Many had already prepared for combat in pre-war militia units including the City Greys, Independent Zouaves of Indianapolis, Vigo Guards and Harrison Guards of Terre Haute and the Ladoga Blues of Montgomery County.

Wallace drilled his men intensely. In camp, a bugle call awoke the men of the 11th at 5am, followed by an intense training schedule throughout each day that led state librarian David Stevenson to write that "the discipline adopted in the 11th regiment was more systematic and rigidly adhered to than in any regiment that ever left the state."

Wallace also ensured the 11th stood out from its fellow regiments with a distinctive uniform, based off - though modified from - French-Algerian Zouave style. It included red and blue short jackets and a kepi hat, which Wallace described as "a visor cap, French pattern, its top of red cloth." The clothing served to make the regiment look from a distance like a "smoky ribbon long drawn off," as Wallace himself put it (the 11th later switched to a primarily blue uniform (pictured) to distinguish themselves better from Confederate forces).

The 11th's first taste of combat in June 1861 was a distinct success. Wallace learned that hundreds of Confederate troops were stationed at Romney, West Virginia. The Colonel decided to take the offensive: taking a back-route through a difficult mountainous pass, the 11th stormed into Romney and burst through an artillery battery to take the town from the retreating Confederate forces. The maneuver even earned praise from President Lincoln himself, who commended the "splendid dash on Romney."

In August 1861, the Indiana Zouaves returned to Indianapolis at the end of their three-month service. However, the 11th was soon mustered again, this time for a three-year stint as the Union Army took on a permanent form.

The 11th again made a name for itself nationally, quickly earning a reputation as one of the best drilled regiments in the Union army as they prepared for combat at camp in Paducah. By the time they fought again in early 1862, Wallace had been made a Brigadier General and George McGinnis rode in command of the 11th, taking the unit to even more esteemed heights than Wallace had.

"They were sensationally successful," Life magazine wrote of the 11th in a 1959 retrospective. "In one engagement after another in the early months of the war - notably at Fort Donelson, the first major Union victory - they fought with extraordinary skill and courage."

Wallace, meanwhile, was promoted to become the youngest Major General in the army, a tenure forever marked by the debate over his controversial actions at Shiloh (for a great and balanced account, read this recent Slate piece). He would later be nationally known for writing the best-selling book of the nineteenth century, Ben Hur.

McGinnis' 11th served proudly in the west in Shiloh and Vicksburg, and in the east in Opequon and Cedar Creek.

Most notably, in 1863, the 11th joined in Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg Campaign on the Mississippi river, helping to defeat the Confederate forces led by John C. Pemberton.

Grant said his men "deserved the highest honors their country can award."

The veteran Zouaves mustered out on July 26, 1865. The regiment's original 1,059 recruits had risen by 855 further volunteers through the course of service, losing through death 245 men.