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Uniforms & History

Way back in 1970, Dr. Francis A. Lord wrote a book titled Uniforms of the Civil War. We were friends, and I was honored to have several of my drawings grace the pages of Frank’s landmark volume.

“There were more uniformed Zouave regiments in the Grand Review of 1865 than had been in Washington in 1861.”

However, Frank, like most authors then, had a mistaken idea about Zouaves, and wrote that, “of those regiments that did wear a Zouave outfit, almost all soon discarded the distinctive uniform for the regular blue.” In 1970 there was a lot of research to be done and photographs yet to be discovered.

At the risk of severely repeating myself, let it be restated that there were more uniformed Zouave regiments in the Grand Review of 1865 than had been in Washington in 1861. What disappeared were the Zouave uniforms of those singular companies within regularly uniformed regiments. As we should all know by now, an entire brigade of Zouaves was created within the Fifth Corps in 1863 to replace the “Duryée’s Zouaves” regiment, leaving the field of battle at the expiration of its time of service in May 1863. Moreover, a number of new Zouave regiments or older regiments chose to wear Zouave uniforms after 1863.

One of those late Zouave regiments was the 164th New York Volunteer Infantry that had mustered into service late in 1862, as a regiment of Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran’s Irish Brigade. It was authorized to wear a distinctive uniform as early as Nov. 21, 1862, but in January 1863 the regiment’s lieutenant colonel wrote that they had never received a full supply of uniforms, stating that “Some are in jackets and some in dress coats, about four companies have the light blue regulation pants well worn, the balance dark blue.” Then he reminded the quartermasters that they had been promised uniforms similar to those of the “Hawkins’ Zouaves.”

Men and officers of the 164th New York pose informally in their Zouave uniforms. This photograph is one in a series of images of the regiment in camp. Unmounted salt print. Author’s Collection.
Men and officers of the 164th New York pose informally in their Zouave uniforms. This photograph is one in a series of images of the regiment in camp. Unmounted salt print. Author’s Collection.

Eventually, those Zouave uniforms were received and worn into combat. They were of the Hawkins’ Zouave pattern, except for the fezzes, which, rather than being red with blue tassels, were blue with green tassels—appropriate for an Irish regiment. These uniforms are seen in the camp scene reproduced here, which pictures officers in trimmed short jackets engaged in various activities, including card games with prominent bottles of suspicious beverages.

The 164th saw hard service during Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. The regiment lost its colonel, James P. McMahon, while planting the regimental colors on the Confederate works at Cold Harbor, Va., outside Richmond. The 164th suffered still more casualties around Petersburg. Of the 928 men enrolled, 10 officers and 106 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded. Additionally, two officers and 84 men died as well prisoners of war. The 164th was honorably discharged and mustered out near Washington in July of 1865, still as “Corcoran’s Zouaves.”

Noted war artist Alfred R. Waud sketched this scene of the death of Col. James P. McMahon of the 164th New York Infantry during the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. Waud accurately depicted the men in Zouave uniforms, as evidenced by the wounded soldier lying spread eagle in the left foreground. Library of Congress.
Noted war artist Alfred R. Waud sketched this scene of the death of Col. James P. McMahon of the 164th New York Infantry during the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. Waud accurately depicted the men in Zouave uniforms, as evidenced by the wounded soldier lying spread eagle in the left foreground. Library of Congress.

MI Senior Editor and Advisory Board member Michael J. McAfee is a curator at the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy, and author of numerous books. He has curated major museum exhibitions, and has contributed images and authoritative knowledge to other volumes and projects.

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