Warriors from the Zouaoua Berbers who inhabited the coastal mountain Djurdjura region of North Africa had served the Dey (ruler) of Algeria for centuries. In 1830, the French army under command of Marshal Louis de Bourmont conquered Algiers. The latter recruited local Berber fighters for support in the conquest of the rest of the country.
These colonial troops were called Zouaves.
Wearing their traditional Berber uniform, they were sent into action throughout Algeria serving as crack units with a reputation for a fast moving and agile (guerrilla) style of action. The adoption of the Algerian name and dress helped the French claim cultural control over colonized populations. During the Crimean War, the Zouave outfit signaled their alliance with the Ottoman Empire in opposing Russian despotism.
In 1852 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the Second Republic and soon to be crowned Emperor, ordered the Zouaves to be restructured into three regiments of the regular French Army. From then on, North African Arabs and Berbers served in units of Algerian Riflemen. Zouave units continued to fight right up to the Armistice and again in the Second World War. The last of French Zouave formations was disbanded when Algeria won its independence in 1962.
The Zouave soldier personified the best of military attributes: nobility, bravery and esprit de corps. His appearance evoked the mystery of an “exotic” East. For his picturesque uniform and devil-may-care attitude in combat, he was a hero amongst a generation of Romantic authors and artists.
Both the outlandish panache and the audacity of the Zouaves reinforced a glorified view of military life. Napoleon had given war an “artistic” quality. He recruited writers and painters to memorialize his exploits (especially in Egypt). The General himself was greatly admired in creative circles in France and beyond. War was poetry in motion. The conflict between Romantics and Classicists was described in a jargon of combat in which the military metaphor dominated.
When in 1845 Scottish author and historian James Grant published his military novel The Romance of War, this former soldier initiated a genre that for a while would be wildly popular. The “cult” of the Zouave was an expression of this trend. It was in this context that the term “avant-garde” was borrowed from military strategists and introduced in the domain of aesthetics.
Equipped with light weapons, the Zouave acted in an advanced position with an emphasis on speed and mobility. The regiment of Papal Zouaves (Zuavi Pontifici) was created in January 1861. Its mission was the defense of the Papal State against Italian nationalists during that decade. In 1892, these Zouaves and their sympathizers founded a bimonthly journal which they named L’Avant-Garde.
The avant-garde artist identified with the vanguard soldier. In February 1888 Vincent van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles hoping to widen his horizon in the Provence region. That same year Paul-Eugène Milliet, Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Zouave Regiment, was temporarily stationed there. His regiment had just returned from Tonkin (then in what was known as French Indochina, now northern Vietnam) where he had contracted an illness from which he was recovering.
Having met Van Gogh, the two spent much time together until the soldier’s departure to Algeria. The artist was intrigued by his friend’s regiment. He not only painted Milliet’s portrait (in uniform with his commemorative Tonkin medal; the star and crescent moon was his regiment’s coat of arms), but he would depict a Zouave soldier in five other works.
The Zouaves were amongst the French Army’s most decorated units. Following participation in the Crimean War (1854) and the Second Italian War of Independence (1859), their fame spread beyond France. Similar elite units that wore the typical outfit of pantaloons, jacket and headgear were formed elsewhere. It did not take long for the “cult of the Zouave” to cross the Atlantic.
Army Captain George McClellan was stationed in Europe in 1855 as an official observer of the Crimean War. At the Siege of Sebastopol he witnessed the Zouaves in action against Russian troops.
McClellan, who would later command the Union Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, described the Zouaves as the “finest light infantry that Europe can produce; the beau-ideal of a soldier.” His high opinion was shared by others who had observed Zouave fighters in action.
Their admiration made an impact. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, Zouave units were formed all over the nation. By the early 1860s about a hundred volunteer regiments on both sides of the conflict were ready for battle (more than seventy for the Union and about twenty-five smaller units for the Confederacy). They adopted the French name and tactics.
Each of the Zouave regiments had an outfit which was colorful by military standards and consisted of bright red baggy trousers, short braided jacket and tasselled fez. Although American uniforms varied, they generally were similar to those of the French troops (depending on the availability and choice of fabrics).
On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was bombarded by the South Carolina militia forcing the surrender of the United States Army. It heralded the beginning of the Civil War. Eleven days later the 9th New York Infantry Regiment entered the fray. Known as Hawkins’ Zouaves and carrying the motto “Toujours Prêt” (Always Ready), the unit had been formed by the city of New York lawyer and Mexican War veteran Rush Christopher Hawkins.
In action throughout the war, its most memorable involvement took place on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, when the Zouaves took on a superior force of Confederate infantry and artillery. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in the nation’s military history when nearly 22,000 soldiers on both sides were killed. In memory of the regiment’s bravery, the State of New York raised an obelisk monument on the battlefield in 1897.
The first Zouave unit to capture national attention was formed in 1859 in Chicago with law clerk (and Saratoga County, NY native) named Elmer Ellsworth. Although fascinated by the military, he had failed to qualify for West Point’s Academy. The tales told by his French fencing instructor Charles DeVilliers, a former Zouave soldier who had served in the Crimean War, stirred his imagination.
The latter also instructed him on Zouave drill exercises. Elmer then took charge of a local cadet team to test his skills as a drillmaster. Soon after, he was offered command of Chicago’s National Guard Cadets. He transformed this obsolescent militia company into the United States Zouave Cadets, a disciplined team of young men in perfect physical health with high moral standards.
In 1859 Elmer’s men won the national military drilling competition in Chicago. His team then toured twenty cities performing light infantry drills with theatrical (acrobatic) additions. Their battle cries of “zou-zou-zou!” had men in the audience cheering and women swooning. The Zouave vogue was set in motion by Ellsworth and his colorful troupe. Abraham Lincoln praised Elmer’s qualities of leadership and organization.
Just before the outbreak of hostilities, Ellsworth returned to New York where he put together the 11th New York Infantry Regiment which became popularly known as the “Fire Zouaves” as most of its soldiers were recruited from the city’s volunteer fire departments. Its troopers wore red shirts and, like the French Zouaves, they shaved their heads.
Ellsworth brought this newly drilled regiment to Washington, DC, where it was sworn into federal service on May 7 at the Capitol in a ceremony attended by President Lincoln. Seventeen days later the Fire Zouaves became part of the first Union force to occupy Confederate territory when they captured the river port of Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington.
Ellsworth was killed in action. The death of his friend deeply distressed Lincoln. In tribute to him, the President had his body laid in state in the White House. From there the casket was taken to New York’s City Hall, where thousands came to pay their respects to the first man to die for the cause. He became a Union martyr.
The Zouave vogue during the Civil War made an impact on popular culture by setting a trend in fashion. The swirling embroidery and open cropped jacket in particular became popular. In the early 1860s, Zouave jackets were accessories for women to wear for many occasions. Small boys ran around in baggy red breeches. Tad Lincoln and Jesse Grant, sons of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, were both dressed in Zouave outfits.
The New York Zouave units were all composed of well-drilled and physically fit men who showed composure and discipline. Colonel Abram Duryee’s 5th New York Regiment was a typical example.
A professional grouping, it recruited only physically strong and educated individuals into its ranks. Duryee demanded that his troops would bring glory to the state of New York. Sent as a war artist by Harper’s Magazine to the front line, young Winslow Homer was spellbound by this unit, depicting a number of Zouave soldiers in paintings and sketches, either in battle scenes or camp life.
The contrast with the Louisiana Zouaves was sharp. These “wild” soldiers were known as an unruly and drunken lot with little regard for military discipline. Once in battle, however, they were fearless fighters, showing an almost reckless courage. They created a legacy of their own.
Having adopted the tactics of their French counterparts, American Zouave units (“Zou-zous”) took part in every major battle of the war, from First Bull Run to Antietam, and from Gettysburg to Appomattox, earning high honors in combat. They influenced the course of the Civil War.
With the end of the hostilities, the Zouave volunteer units quickly disbanded. This rapid disappearance signaled their limited impact on tactical battle theory as the nature of warfare itself changed. When details about the horrors of the Civil War became known, much of the Zouave romance started to wane.
The brutality of mechanized battle plans became evident in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, but the First World War was a real turning point. Modern weaponry included mortars, machine guns, flamethrowers and poison gas. The engineering of the tank ushered in a deadly era of warfare in which there was limited space for the heroism and “romance” of vanguard units such as the Zouave.
Illustrations, from above: Detail from Winslow Homer’s “The Brierwood Pipe,” 1864 (The Cleveland Museum of Art); The distinctive uniform of the French Zouave; Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Lieutenant Milliet,” September-October 1888 (Museum Kröller-Müller); Monument to the 9th New York Infantry (Hawkins’ Zouaves) in Sharpsburg, VA; Elmer Ellsworth (arms folded) and members of his drill team; A member of the 1st Louisiana Zouave Battalion (Coppen’s Zouaves), 1861.