In the late antebellum period, volunteer militia companies provided a popular venue for public entertainment. Martial music, beating drums, colorful uniforms, flashing muskets and bayonets, men moving flawlessly from one formation to another at a shouted commands of their captain -- all this should sound familiar. Combine all the above with community spirit and patriotism and we have a winning combination.
No respectable American city or town would be without at least one and often several volunteer companies. These met for public parades on 4th of July and other occasions. Sometimes companies from distant towns would agree to meet for competitive exercises. Ladies would come out to the parade ground to observe, be awed and applaud the efforts of these gallant men and their leaders. Companies excelling in individual competitions would be awarded prizes and receive public commendation of civic leaders.
Having seen them drill in Chicago, Abraham Lincoln was so impressed with Ellsworth and his Zouaves that he resolved to have the young officer associated with his law office in Springfield IL. For particulars of this arrangement, see A. C. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, one of the more interesting recent books about this ill-fated president.