Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Winter of 2001.
|Each Zouave unit used it’s own color
combination which was an American version of the original
Zouaves in the French Army. The 10th New York Zouave
regiment wore a uniform with bright reds and blues as in this
image of James E. Taylor. (Michael J. McAfee Collection)
A strange sight on a Civil War
battlefield was the Zouaves. In the Civil War, where a marksman
could drop a soldier from a 1000 yards away, the Zouaves were
dressed in gaudy reds and blues.
There were Zouave regiments in both
the Southern as well as the Northern Army. The famous units were the
5th New York, 114th Pennsylvania, 14th Brooklyn, and 1st Louisiana.
The 1st Louisiana “Wheat’s Tigers”
was the most famous Confederate Zouaves. “Wheat's Tigers” were
recruited from the docks of New Orleans by soldier of fortune
Roberdeau Wheat. This unit has been described as being full of
adventurous wharf rats, thieves, and cutthroats.
Who were the Zouaves and where did
they come from? The name comes from the Zouaouas, a fierce tribe
living in the rocky hills of Algeria and Morocco. In 1830, the tribe
tendered their services to the French Army and proved their valor in
dozens of bloody desert battles. Over time the Zouave units became
filled with native Frenchman but the uniforms did not change.
A young Army Captain George B.
McClellan observing the Zouaves in 1855, praised them, “as the
finest light infantry that Europe can produce; the beau-ideal of a
soldier.” American militia units soon began to adopt the baggy
trousers, braided jacket, and tasseled fez of Zouave uniform.
Most historians give Elmer
Ellsworth credit for the American Zouave craze. Ellsworth was the
first Union officer to die in the Civil War. He being a friend of
President Lincoln, his body was placed in state in the East Room of
the White House. “Avenge Ellsworth!” became the North’s cry.
Ellsworth toured the United States,
including Cleveland, in 1860 to show off his Chicago Zouaves as the
best drill team in the country. He outfitted his Cadets in a Zouave
uniform of his design and drilled them using tactics from French
In 1861, Ellsworth traveled to
Washington, D.C. to watch his friend Abraham Lincoln inaugurated as
President. He then traveled to New York City to raise a regiment of
Zouaves. He recruited from the City’s volunteer fire department. In
two weeks he formed the 11th New York Infantry.
After a parade down Broadway on
April 29, 1861, the New York 11th headed for Washington. The unit
received a personal welcome from President Lincoln. The President’s
Secretary John Hay described them as, “ a jolly, gay set of
In fact Ellsworth had his hands
full trying to control the hard drinking New York fireman. Because
of this contacts with Lincoln, he was able to get his unit to be
part of the raiding party to take Alexandria, Virginia across the
Potomac River from Washington.
In Alexandria he spotted a
Confederate flag flying from a local hotel. After taking down the
flag, Ellsworth was shot dead. The shooter, the hotel owner, was
quickly killed by Ellsworth’s troops but now the North had a martyr,
The connection with volunteer fire
departments spread and soon more New York and Philadelphia Zouave
units were formed. The most famous of these units was the New York
5th, mostly fireman, mostly Irish. “ Duryee’s Zouaves as they were
called were originally under the command of Colonel Abram Duryee.
The New York 5th fought at Big Bethal, Yorktown, Gaines Mill, Second
Manassas (where the unit took it’s highest causalities),
Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
Following Chancellorsville their
two year enlistment was up and they returned to New York with a
Parade down Broadway.
In general, the Zouaves in the
Civil War were good troops but not exceptional. These American
volunteers selected to be dressed in Zouave uniforms. In the French
Army soldiers were selected for the elite Zouave Units.
The Zouaves were part of the French
Army until World War I. The first charge of one Zouave unit in 1914
resulted in 80% causalities. By 1915, all French soldiers were in
helmets and uniforms of army green.
The Zouaves confronting machine
guns with chivalry, faded into history in 1914.