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The American Civil War, especially in its early stages, was notable for its diverse and often bizarre uniforms. New York militia units were especially likely to adopt ethnic uniforms, largely because of New York City’s already polyglot population. Examples included the 39th New York Volunteers (Garibaldi Guards), many of whom were Italian-born and whose uniforms resembled those of the Bersaglieri, and the 79th New York Volunteers, mainly Scots who sported Cameron tartan kilts and trews (trousers).

No units, however, were more distinctive than the Zouaves, with their outlandish North African uniforms and their almost gymnastic drill. About 50 such units existed, mainly in the Union Army of the 1860s.

How did this “Zouave craze” occur, and what were its origins? In the 1830s, the French invaded North Africa (Algeria). During operations there, native auxiliaries were recruited, many from the Zouazoua tribe, who were clothed in a uniform based on their native costume: a combination of a short, collarless bolero-style jacket heavily decorated with false pockets (tombeax), a sleeveless vest (gilet), voluminous red trousers (serouel), a 12-footlong sash (ceinture), white canvas gaiters (guetres) and leather greaves (jambeaux). Headgear comprised a red fez (chechia) with a white turban (cheche).

After the revolution of 1848, when the Orleanist monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the Second Republic, the new French president, Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, himself later to become Emperor Napoleon III), reorganized the Zouaves into three regular army regiments made up of Frenchmen who retained their North African uniform. In 1855 the emperor created a Zouave regiment for the newly re-created Imperial Guard.

During the Crimean War (1854-55) the Zouaves acquired a worldwide fighting reputation at the Battles of the Alma, Inkerman and Balaclava, and the Siege of Sevastopol. The seizure of the Mamelon Vert and particularly the taking of the Malakoff, the linchpin of the Russian defenses, by the 1st Regiment led personally by French commander in chief Marshal Marie Edmé Patrice de MacMahon were highlights. During this war, an American observer, Captain George B. McClellan, described the Zouaves as “the finest light infantry that Europe can produce, the beau ideal of a soldier.”

In Italy during the 1859 war between Piedmont/Sardinia and Austria for control of northern Italy, French Zouaves played a key role. At Magenta 10 Légions d’Honneur and 50 Médailles Militaires were awarded to the Zouaves of the Imperial Guard. One of the latter was awarded to a Madame Rossini, the vivandière or cantinière of the regiment, the first such award to a woman. The eagle of the 2nd Zouaves was decorated with the emperor’s own Légion d’Honneur. The Zouaves went on to distinguish themselves in the French intervention in Mexico in the 1860s, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and later in World War I.

It is unlikely that the exotic and ferocious Zouaves would have figured in the American Civil War if not for the efforts of one individual: Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, the son of an impoverished family from Mechanicsville, N.Y., with a pipe dream of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Having moved to Illinois after failing in business, he rose to prominence in the state militia. After a brief period as a law clerk in the Springfield office of Abraham Lincoln, who became a lifelong friend, Ellsworth studied the intricacies of French light infantry drill. Returning to Chicago, he transformed a somewhat lackluster militia unit into the U.S. Zouave Cadets, which soon became known as the best-drilled militia unit in the Midwest. Using a variation of French light infantry drill and outfitted in an adaptation of the French Zouave uniform, the cadets embarked on a six-week tour, challenging militia units in the Midwest and Eastern states to drill competitions. In New York City thousands watched their displays, and Ellsworth became a national celebrity. Almost immediately Zouave companies sprang up, all clothed in varying, often fanciful versions of the French Zouave uniform— the “Zou Zous” were born. The craze was such that women and children often dressed as Zouaves.

A bored Ellsworth greeted the outbreak of war in April 1861 as a blessed release from the study of the law. At 24, after visiting his friend and former boss, President Lincoln, he hastened to New York City to raise a Zouave regiment for the Union. He hit upon the Manhattan Volunteer Firemen, and thus was born the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry (Ellsworth’s Zouaves, otherwise known as the Fire Zouaves). The regiment was clothed in a gray variation of the French Zouave uniform designed by Ellsworth himself.

Departing New York for Washington on April 29, the Fire Zouaves, described by presidential secretary John Hay as a “jolly, gay set of blackguards,” paraded down Broadway to the rapturous applause of a large crowd. Lincoln himself welcomed them. Hay’s description was borne out by their wild antics while billeted in the Capitol.

On May 24, Federal troops including the Fire Zouaves crossed the Potomac and occupied Alexandria, Va. Seeing a Confederate flag flying from Marshall House, a local tavern, Ellsworth called out, “Boys, we must have that flag!” then rushed upstairs and tore it down. Upon descending the stairs, he was accosted by the publican, James Jackson, who shot him dead. Jackson was then dispatched by one of Ellsworth’s men, Corporal Francis Brownell. Ellsworth became a martyr, and “Avenge Ellsworth!” became a Northern battle cry. His death also spurred recruiting of Zouave units, notably the 5th New York Volunteers (Ellsworth’s Avengers), which went on to become one of the most famous Union regiments.

At the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), the Fire Zouaves performed as most Union troops did—in the main they broke and ran. However, Company K of the 69th New York Volunteers (the Fighting Irish), a regiment formed in the 1850s by Irish immigrants, with some of the Fire Zouaves, put up a stout fight, capturing a Confederate flag while attacking Henry House. Even a Southern paper, the Memphis Argus, acclaimed them with the words “No southerner but feels that the Sixty Ninth maintained the old reputation of Irish valor.”

In all, more than 50 Zouave units existed in the Union Army, ranging in size from companies to whole regiments. Most were from the Eastern states, 25 from New York alone. Some, however, came from Illinois—where Ellsworth’s original Zouave cadets were raised—Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Exact numbers are hard to tally, and some Zouave units did not last long. The Zouave uniform, practical perhaps in the North African desert and mountains, did not stand up well to the rain, mud and underbrush of American terrain, and a year so into the war many Zouave units had exchanged their threadbare uniforms for the ubiquitous dark-blue sack coats, light-blue trousers and kepis or bummer’s caps. Some units, such as the 72nd Pennsylvania, evolved uniforms that combined elements of the Zouave uniform with standard, more practical Union Army garb. Others put their Zouave uniforms in store for special occasions, though some kept wearing their distinctive dress throughout the war, notably the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’ Zouaves), which was selected by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade as his Headquarters Guard.

Later in the war, at least three Union regiments, the 146th New York in June 1863, and the 140th New York and the 155th Pennsylvania in 1864, received Zouave dress. That was done as a reward for proficiency at drill and to maintain the Zouave legacy.

Zouave units existed in the Confederate Army to a lesser extent. Many were local companies formed as a result of the Zouave craze. Most were absorbed into state infantry regiments and soon lost their distinctive identity. Two Zouave units gained notoriety in Confederate service: the 1st Special Battalion, Louisiana Infantry (Wheat’s Tigers or the Louisiana Tigers), and the 1st Battalion, Louisiana Zouaves.

The 1st Special Battalion was raised in New Orleans by Roberdeau Wheat, a colorful soldier of fortune and Mexican War veteran. From its inception in 1861, it acquired an infamous reputation, as much for the wild, rowdy behavior and poor discipline of its troops as for its fighting spirit. On at least one occasion an execution was needed to keep them in line. On July 21, however, they held the Confederate left at First Manassas against six times their number, although Wheat was seriously wounded in the fight. The Tigers were still in the thick of it until their last great battle at Gaines’ Mill in June 1862, when Wheat was killed. Robbed of their charismatic leader, the Tigers’ broken remnants were drafted into other units.

The 1st Battalion, Louisiana (or Confederate) Zouaves, commonly known as Coppens’ Zouaves, was well nigh unique in the Confederate Army in the manner of its raising. In the Confederate Army all units of the “fighting arms”—cavalry, artillery and infantry—were raised under the authority of their individual states. Only specialist supporting units, such as engineers, signals, quartermasters, etc., were raised under the authority of the central government. But George Auguste Gaston de Coppens’ authority to form his Zouaves came directly from the Confederate adjutant general, Samuel Cooper.

Like Wheat, Coppens was a colorful character, a New Orleans socialite from a noble French family and a noted duelist. His battalion was very much a family affair, with his elder brother, Baron Auguste de Coppens, serving as quartermaster, another brother as a company commander and yet another as a sergeant. The battalion was made up of some 20 percent Swiss immigrants, along with French, German, Italian, Irish and English volunteers, and a minority of native-born Americans. Several of the officers had prior service in the French army. Like Wheat’s Tigers, Coppens’ men were noted for their lack of discipline, but proved to be superb fighting men. At the Battles of Seven Pines and Gaines’ Mill they were decimated. At Second Manassas they along with the rest of the 2nd Louisiana Brigade ran out of ammunition and resorted to throwing rocks at the Blue Bellies. At Antietam the battalion was reduced to a shadow of its former self and, though reorganized, saw no further serious combat.

Several state militia units retained Zouave dress after April 1865, but by the end of the century the distinctive Zouave uniform was preserved only by some veterans groups. Thus passed from the scene a group of “soldiers with attitude” who added a broad stroke of color to the canvas of American military history.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here