In some of my other articles, you may have read a word I throw around a bit. Zouaves. Pronounced “Zoo-ah-v-s”. It’s one of those odd, foreign things that one might think is a typo. It’s not. It’s French, and completely correct within its context when I talk about the Civil War. It’s just one of those things they don’t teach you about in history class.
When I first saw their uniforms, I thought “I must have scrolled out of the Civil War era somewhere. This can’t be right!”. They wore red pants, little hats with tassels, and didn’t look at all like they belonged on a battlefield in America. But the more I saw them pop up in regimental histories and battle reports, I realized the Zouaves were definitely a thing.
To understand the role of the Zouave in the Civil War, we have to go all the way back to 1831 when troops were recruited from Algiers in North Africa. The word “Zouave” comes from the name of the tribe from which these troops were recruited. The French army pulled these soldiers primarily from the Zouaoua (or Zwāwa), a tribe of Berbers located in the mountains of the Jurjura Range. The ethnicity of these troops were varied. There would be a majority of Muslim and Arab people, as well as French and black volunteers. This changed as time went on and the ratio shifted to a French and European majority.
Terms of enlistment would last about two years for these Zouaves as they served in the Algerian wars, The Crimean war, and the Franco-Austrian war. The four main battalions within the French Army became something of an elite force, renowned for their flashy dress uniforms and their expertise in drilling and combat.
The European and French Zouaves would go on to serve in a military capacity all the way up to World War I and there are still some companies in existence today across the globe.
Across The Pond
How did a French military style come to America? How everything did back then. Word of mouth.
Elmer Ellsworth was an Illinois native who, while also studying law and working in a patent office, was a drillmaster of the “Rockford Greys”, the local militia company in Rockford Illinois in 1857. In his spare time, he studied military tactics and strategy. When he moved to Chicago, he became Colonel of Chicago’s National Guard Cadets.
In 1859, just before things began to heat up between the North and the South, Ellsworth, was talking with one of his French friends and fencing instructor, Charles De Villers, about serving as a surgeon for a company of Zouaves while in North Africa. He managed to get his hands on a drill manual and was impressed with their fighting quality. Here, he saw his opportunity to better his country’s military system.
He implemented these drill tactics with his own cadets, procured Zouave uniforms for them, and renamed the group the “Zouave Cadets”. His hard efforts paid off when his cadets won the national military drilling competition in Chicago. They then began touring the country, putting on drilling displays with theatrical additions to thrill the crowds. Because of their uniforms and efficiency in drilling, the Zouaves became well known throughout the north and south.
The Zouaves also caught the eye of President Abraham Lincoln, who was acquainted with Ellsworth through the legal circles of Illinois. Ellsworth had also helped to organize Lincoln’s campaign for presidency in 1860. So, when war was declared between the
states, Ellsworth was given command over the 11th New York Volunteers, who became known as the “Fire Zouaves”. The reason for this nickname comes from the fact that the troops Ellsworth recruited were directly from the firefighting units within New York. He said, “I want the New York Firemen, for there are no more effective men in the country, and none with whom I can do so much. They are sleeping on a volcano at Washington and I want men who can go into a fight now.”
The 11th New York was comprised of 1,100 men, and when the military failed to provide them with adequate supplies and their special uniforms, over $60,000 was raised for them from the public within a week.
This wasn’t the only Zouave regiment within the Union army, nor was it the only one out of the entire war.
While the 11th was the first regiment assembled, the 9th New York Volunteers were the first to enlist. Also called the “Hawkins’ Zouaves” or “New York Zouaves”, they were led by Colonel Chester A. Arthur. While the rest of the Union army was working on rounding up their volunteers, the 9th New York was officially mustered into United States service on May 4, 1861, at Castle Garden, making it the first Zouave regiment to join the cause.
The 5th New York Volunteer Infantry was arguably one of the most popular amongst the Union army. Commanded by Colonel Abram Duryée, these Zouaves were modeled after the same French elite force that Ellsworth emulated, with some exceptions to their uniforms. Alongside the 11th New York, the 5th New York would gain immense popularity and recognition throughout the war. When personally inspected by General George McClellan before the Peninsula Campaign, he said, “the Fifth is the best disciplined and soldierly regiment in the Army.”
On the Confederate side as well, the Zouave craze had spread. I can give you two guesses just where!
The 1st Special Battalion Louisiana Volunteers were assembled by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. Nicknamed “Wheat’s Special Battalion”, or the “Louisiana Tigers”, the regiment was comprised mostly of Irish and German immigrants, but due to the French influences of Louisiana, they also adopted the reputation of the Zouaves. Another factor played into their infamy, however, and one that somewhat taints the reputation of the Zouave name. It was said that the volunteers were more “street tough” and though they were loyal to Wheat, were notorious for bad behavior and lack of discipline. Their effectiveness, however, couldn’t be denied. Hence their nickname as “Tigers”, indicative of their fierceness and ferocity in battle. The “Tiger” theme carried on long after the Civil War and inundated much of Louisiana’s culture – particularly in the sports realm.
Another widely sited Confederate Zouave regiments is the “1st (Coppens’) Louisiana Zouave Battalion,” commanded by Georges Augustus Gaston De Coppens in 1861, who saw action at Petersburg.
Other regiments include the 10th New York Volunteers (McChesney Zouaves or National Guard Zouaves), 146th New York Volunteer Infantry (Halleck’s Infantry or Garrard’s Tigers), 62nd New York Volunteer Infantry (Anderson’s Zouaves), 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (American Zouaves – US), and the 11th Indiana Infantry (Wallace’s Zouaves).
The 140th New York and 155th Pennsylvania, while not originally Zouave recruits, were issued with Zouave uniforms to reward their proficiency in drill and battlefield performance.
The battle tactics of the Zouave troops was almost completely contrary to traditional military tactics of the time. While in most battles you see soldiers marching at a steady pace in battle lines, the Zouaves were charging forward at double-quick and spread out. There were no lines, no solid formation among them. This gave each man room to dodge, and reduced their chances of being mowed down by a volley of musket fire.
Also unique to the Zouaves is their method for reloading. They wouldn’t remain standing on the field, as most soldiers would, but dropped to the ground and lay prone on their backs while they rammed their next round into the barrel. They would then jump up onto a knee, fire, and continue on with their company. This, again, decreased their chances of being hit by a bullet while on the charge, because it minimized their amount of exposure.
Because the Zouave uniforms were so different from the military-issue uniforms of the day, many had to procure them privately, as Ellsworth did with his Fire Zouaves. And due to the difficult nature of obtaining the right materials and means to produce the uniforms, every regiment was slightly different than its fellow Zouave cousin regiment. Also, as the war progressed, designs changed to handle the demand and lack of resources.
Taking the 11th New York for example. The first design was based solely off of Ellsworth’s plans for the regiment. They consisted of light gray jackets of a chasseur style, with dark blue and red trim along with gray trousers of a jean cloth material with a blue stripe running down the seam, and tan leather leggings. Along with their gray uniforms, they wore red kepis with a blue band and also received a red fez with a blue tassel, military-issue shirt and/or overshirts. Many of these Zouaves went off to war wearing the fire badge of their respective fire company before they enlisted. The second uniform was issued when the first, not made of quality materials, fell apart on most men. This new one was not of the true Zouave style, but an American Zouave style that the government stepped up to issue. The new uniform had a dark blue Zouave jacket with red cuffs and red trimming with sky blue trimming inside the red. Blue fezzes with blue tassels were issued to provide greater flair to the uniform, as well as dark blue sashes, an issue of red overshirts (not firemen’s shirts), and dark blue trousers
The 146th New York altered their uniforms in response to the 5th New York, and made theirs to resemble something closer to the Turkos style. Their new uniforms consisted of a sky blue zouave jacket with yellow trimming, a red fez with a yellow tassel, sky blue zouave pantaloons, and a red sash.
Likewise, the 11th Indiana had differing uniforms in the early part of the war and later. The uniform consisted of a grey jacket with red trimming, a grey kepi with red braiding, a dark blue zouave vest, and grey pantaloons. Later they received a new uniform consisting of a black zouave jacket with skyblue trimming, a red kepi with a dark blue band, and sky blue pantaloons.
The Confederate “Tiger Rifles” were also outfitted with the traditional Zouave uniform. Dark blue wool Zouave jackets with red cotton trim (no sereoul), distinctive red fezzes with red tassels, red flannel band collar shirts with five white porcelain buttons, and outlandish “Wedgwood blue and cream” one-and-one-half-inch vertically striped cottonade ship pantaloons that would become their signature. They were also provided with blue and white horizontally striped stockings and white canvas leggings.
In almost any battle you read about in the Eastern or Western theater, you’ll find at least one Zouave regiment. Their unique dress and tactics make them one of those hidden Civil War gems that becomes more and more fascinating as you dive further into their history. Zouaves served from the first major battle at Manassas, and the last casualty on the Union side to be killed in Virginia was a Zouave of the 155th Pennsylvania, killed at Farmville, Virginia, on the morning of April 9, 1865.
I could go on and on for pages about the history of each Zouave regiment and the roles they play in major engagements like Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Instead, I refer you to history or the below resources to learn more. I’ll certainly be going over their significance in later blog posts as I explore more battles throughout the war.
What Happened To Ellsworth?
The man responsible for bringing the Zouave trend to America became the first officer to die in the American Civil War.
In Alexandria Virginia, an inn keeper by the name of James Jackson had hoisted a Confederate flag over his establishment and refused to take it down, “over his dead body”. This was just a month prior to the capture of Alexandria by the Union army. Before the crossing of the Potomac to take the town, Lincoln, as well as Ellsworth’s men saw this through spy glasses. A select few of the 11th New York volunteered to take it down.
On May 24, 1861 (the day after Virginia’s secession was ratified), they came to the Marshall House Inn and proceeded up the stairs to the roof without trouble from anyone inside the inn. Upon their descent, James Jackson stepped out from a shadowy corner and fired upon the men. He fired first at Ellsworth, who was carrying the rebel flag, and then upon Private Francis E. Brownell. His second shot missed, giving time for Brownell to fire into the face of the southern sympathizer and thrust his bayonet into his chest.
Both Ellsworth and Jackson died that day, martyrs for their respective sides. Ellsworth’s body was put on display in the East Wing of the White House, upon Lincoln’s request to honor his friend. Union supporters everywhere rallied behind his death and the 44th New York Volunteers even named themselves “Ellsworth’s Avengers”. Ellsworth was then buried in his hometown of Mechanicville, in the Hudson View Cemetery. James Jackson, likewise, was seen as a hero for raising the Confederate flag in the face of the “northern aggressors” and was commemorated by the Sons of the Confederacy with a plaque placed within a blind arch near a corner of a prominent hotel that stood on the former site of the Marshall House. Relics and artifacts from this incident are scattered across museums in Virginia and Washington.
In this newspaper drawing, you can see the scene unfold with Brownell wearing the valiant uniform of the Zouaves.