During the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops both adopted exotic dress in the transgressive guise of the Zouave uniform.
Known most popularly today as a high-value Scrabble word, Zouave, the fashion—in contrast to the deception of camouflage—featured conspicuous style and often bright colors designed to romanticize recruiting, exalt the common soldier, and endow military units with distinctive identities.
The outlandish panache of the Zouaves offered a romantic view of military life, inspiring enlistments in more than 50 Zouave units in the Union and Confederate armies that fought in every campaign of the war from First Bull Run to Bentonville, N.C. The donning of Zouave uniforms mobilized the energies of tribal, African and Islamic cultural difference, as well as the successes of seasoned European troops who wore them, to rally Americans to support their respective causes in the Civil War.
The American Zouave vogue had its immediate source in the 1860 eastern tour of the United States Zouave Cadets, a well-disciplined Chicago-based volunteer military company under the command of Elmer E. Ellsworth, whose members, dressed in jackets and trousers, “calculated to take the eye, please the sense, and impress the scene indelibly on the mind of the beholder.”
Ellsworth’s Zouaves toured 20 cities, including West Point, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., and astonished audiences with their vigorous athleticism and picturesque costumes. The Confederates killed Ellsworth one day after Virginia seceded. In tribute to him, President Abraham Lincoln had his body laid in state in the White House. Ellsworth became widely celebrated as the most famous martyr of the Union cause between John Brown and Lincoln himself.
In fashioning his fraternal militia, Ellsworth had adapted the drill and dress of the Zouaves made famous by the exploits of the French Zouaves who fought in the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Austrian War (1859). At a time when military life and uniform were heavily regimented, the Zouave mystique offered soldiers a glamorous vision of the skill, adventure and community of war, and provided a democratic relief from the stuffy gentility of military officialdom epitomized by other “Redcoats.” “With his graceful dress, soldierly bearing, and vigilant attitude the Zouave at an outpost is the beau-ideal of a soldier,” wrote Gen. George B. McClellan in 1861. He also described the Zouave as the “most reckless, self-reliant, and complete infantry that Europe can produce.”
The Zouave spirit fostered a symbolic elite based more upon performance than on class status, one whose dress and skill blended a sporting combination of kinesthetic art, fraternal ritual, and public pageantry. In May 1861, as Jefferson Davis was installed in the Confederate White House in Richmond, well-known Crimean war correspondent William Howard Russell noted that “The Zouave mania is quite as rampant here as it is in New York, and the smallest children are thrust into baggy red breeches … and are sent out with flags and tin swords to impede the highways.” (Jesse Grant and Tad Lincoln, the sons of Union leaders Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, were both dressed in Zouave garb.) By exoticizing military fervor, the fad helped muster the spirit of enlistment, and embellish patriotic resolve in the divided nation as it launched into violent combat.
Dozens of marches and battle songs were composed to accentuate the appeal of these “gallant” and “gay” Zouaves, who paraded “with dashing, wild, insouciant air;/ With figures sinewy, lithe, and spare….” A version of “Abraham’s Daughter” declared, “I am tired of city life, and I will join the zou-zous; I’m going to try and make a hit, down among the Southern foo-foos.” “Hawkin’s Zouaves at Roanoke,” exhorted “Now’s the time for Zou-Zou sport!”
Although not as popular in the North, Confederate Zouave units formed, proving an effective recruiting tool in the early years of the war. A young southern belle praises her lover in a Confederate ditty: “His parents taught him to be a cavalier, but the life of a Zou-zu he much did prefer.” Zouaves were especially popular in the former French territory of Louisiana. One Louisiana battalion, known as Coppen’s Zouaves, was so closely modeled on the French system that all military orders were given in French. The New Orleans Picayune noted “the red flowing breeches … the fez, the pretty jacket and the leggins of the Zouaves have been a better bait than the bounty of five dollars offered to every white man who would enlist with the regulars.”
The flamboyant manner of the Zouaves symbolized warfare’s disruption of conventional morality in gendered, political and religious realms. The Zouave craze expressed the infidel social roles that citizens were required to assume when they were transformed into soldiers, enabling fighters to retain a fashionable sense of avant-garde allure at the very moment when both their bodies and agency were being conscripted by the state. The reputation of Zouaves as crack troops, known for their gallantry and prowess, may have helped to fortify soldiers’ sense of manly resolve in the face of violent combat.
The Zouave mystique rendered enlistees into a status something more than soldiers. They collectively bore a reputation for dashing ferocity and bold self-sufficiency. The Zouave spirit and prerogative for plunder led some to fear and condemn their presence. A Michigan soldier saw their licentious looting of a Louisiana parish as making them in “every way worthy of being thought true Turks.” A captured Confederate letter testified to the notoriety of Zouaves for lawlessness: “We have no fear of your New York, Troy, Vermont, or Massachusetts men, but I own that we do not want to meet those red-legged devils around our houses or hen-coops.”
Union nurse Katherine Prescott Wormeley similarly wrote, “I can’t endure them … It might be all very well, and in keeping, to get up a regiment of negroes en Turcos; for an American citizen to rig himself as an Arab is demoralizing.” However, she eventually became “a convert to them after a long struggle,” seeing them as “kind, nimble, tender.” She added, “Even their dress, which I once hated, seems to take them in some sort out of the usual manners and ways of men,” and as, “unexceptional human beings of no sex, with the virtues of both.”
The photographed portraits of Zouaves in Dan Miller’s collection (see page 31) depict the varied styles of their uniforms, but can only capture their color through hand tinting. Artist Winslow Homer was fascinated by the camaraderie of Zouaves, and transformed his sketches into two paintings featuring them in vibrant red skirts and tasseled caps, leisurely smoking and tossing horseshoes in camp.
The popular pageantry of the Zouave uniform that cut across Union and Confederate lines had wide political latitude to its historical and cultural genealogy. The transnational cross-dressing of Zouave troops in western militaries was integrally enmeshed with the dynamics of imperialism. The French military established the first corps of Zouave troops by decree in October of 1830, as a replacement for the Turkish soldiers expelled after the conquest of Algeria. The Arabic name was derived from a group of mountain Kabyles—Berbers who never submitted to Turkish hegemony. The adoption of the Algerian name and dress helped the French claim cultural control over resisting colonized populations. During the Crimean War, the donning of Islamic dress by the French Zouaves signaled their alliance with the Ottoman Empire in opposing the despotism of the Russian czar.
The romantic register of Zouave fashion was widely employed for the broader cultural work of fortifying authority in Europe and the Americas. French troops guarded the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico as Zouave units. When the Pope sought a military force to protect him from Italian nationalists, a unit of Papal Zouaves was raised, manned by Catholic soldiers from Canada and the United States. In 1856, Britain’s West India Regiment, originally recruited from slaves in the British Caribbean, adopted the Zouave style as their official clothing.
The African origin of the Zouaves rendered its model of militant power as a particularly powerful cultural inspiration for African Americans seeking to resist to the slave system. As the nation lurched toward war, The Anglo-African Magazine celebrated African Zouaves, known as Turcos, as exemplars of black power, calling them “the most wonderful specimens of humanity … who walk about with a cat-like step, as if the ground were too hot for them—the very impersonation of muscular strength.” The editor wondered whether “the wild Africans now being imported to our southern border are of materials such as could, in a certain event, be manufactured into a regiment of Turcos?”
The guise of the Zouave conscripted the bellicosity of Muslim jihad that had threatened and entranced the west since the times of the Crusades, as an integral element of the emblematic arsenal of western power. The romantic aura of the Zouaves, however, was progressively tarnished by a long, degrading war that seldom respected individual prowess or ceremonial flair.
The ostentatious display that offered such a show when on parade, relaxing in camp, or posing in a photographer’s studio was a liability on the battlefield. James Dabney McCabe, later to become a popular historian, acknowledged the “brilliant uniforms” of the Zouaves “made them a conspicuous mark, and being objects of special hatred to the Confederates, they had suffered fearfully.” Confederate Thomas Almond Ashby concurred. “Bright red coats, red turbans, and white leggings” were “soon discarded … for it was too showy and made good targets for our rebel bullets.” Perhaps one Union veteran retreating from a battle said it best when he admonished Zouave recruits marching to the front: “Wait till you get where we have been. You’ll get the slack taken out of your pantaloons and the swell out of your heads.”
The persistent drudgery of camp life and the trials of combat progressively blemished the brightness of their uniforms, making the Zouaves appear bedraggled, even ludicrous. One reporter laughed at the sad state of Duryee’s Zouaves, whose “discolored napkins tied round their heads” and “loose bags of red calico hanging from their loins” made them appear like “military scarecrows.”
The lively élan of the Zouave uniform turned to pathos with the horror of mass death on the battlefield. Writers noted the anomaly of the colorful uniforms amidst the carnage. Novelist A. F. Hill described the “brave zouaves” who “came limping from the field—their red pantaloons stained with their still brighter blood.” Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, at the Second Battle at Manassas in June 1862, noted the “singular appearance” of “dead and dying zouaves in their gay uniforms, amid the tall green grass.” The extinguished romance is noted perhaps most succinctly in a poem in Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces, where he noted, “grimed War here lay aside His Orient pomp.” The bloody horrors of Civil War battles eventually extinguished much of the romance of the Zouave craze.
The pomp of the Zouave spirit survived the war, however, in the nostalgia of veteran’s organizations whose camp reunions were not interrupted with violent death.
In the late 1860s, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional team in baseball—a sport that had become popular among soldiers in the Union army—adopted colorful uniforms whose pants and cut may have been influenced by Zouave dress. Beginning in the 1870s, a number of major fraternal organizations (such as the Shriners, the Order of Alhambra, and the Bagmen of Bagdad) established long-lasting recreational rites that Orientalized their dress, titles and oaths. For men who desired to stay home, the development of the smoking den as a male domestic space featured exotic implements of leisure, such as tasseled sofas, stitched slippers and smoking caps, revealing how extravagance was redeployed to expand the cosmopolitanism of democratic culture.
Recommended readingAccounts of American Zouaves that include photos and illustrations include Robin Smith, American Civil War Zouaves (London: Osprey, 1996) and Michael J. McAfee, Zouaves: The First and the Bravest (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1991).
ReferencesNew York Times, July 20, 1860; Meredith M. Dytch,“‘Remember Ellsworth!’: Chicago’s First Hero of the American Civil War,” Chicago History 11(1982):14-25; George B. McClellan, The Armies of Europe (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1861), 61; William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston: T. O. H. P. Burnham. 1863), 177; “The Zouaves,” The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O’Brien. Ed. William Winter (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1881), 80; Songs of the Civil War. Ed. Irwin Silber (New York: Dover, 1995), 103; Beadle’s Dime Union Song Book No. 3 (New York, 1862), 59; The Camp-Fire Songster (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862), 18-9; Lee A. Wallace, Jr. “Coppens’ Louisiana Zouaves,” Civil War History 8 (1962): 269-282; Quoted in Michael D Jones, “Jeff Davis’ Pet Wolves,” Civil War Times Illustrated 28:1 (1989): 28; Edward Bacon, Among the Cotton Thieves (Detroit: Free Press, 1867), 65; Joseph Bradford Carr, The Century War Series, Vol. 2: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, NY: Century Co., 1887), 145; Katherine Prescott Wormeley, The Other Side of War With the Army of the Potomac (Boston, MA: Ticknor & Co., 1889), 84, 126; “Zouaves and Turcos,” Anglo-African Magazine 1 (August 1859), 254-5; [Ethiop], “The Anglo-African and the African Slave Trade,” 1 (September 1859), 283-4; James Dabney McCabe, The Aid-de-Camp: A Romance of the War (Richmond, VA: W.A.J. Smith, 1863), 93; Thomas Almond Ashby, The Valley Campaigns (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1914), 145; “Memoir of Rufus Robinson Dawes,” Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Marietta, OH: E.R. Alderman & Sons, 1890), 69; William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1863), 416; A. F Hill, Our Boys (Philadelphia: J. E. Potter, 1864), 299; John Bell Hood, Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies (New Orleans: G.T. Beauregard, 1880), 36; Herman Melville, Published Poems (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press/Newberry Library, 2009), 44.
Timothy Marr is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research is focused on American engagements with global Muslims. He is co-editing a digital edition of Herman Melville’s Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, for the Melville Electronic Library (MEL). This article draws from earlier work in his The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge University Press, 2006).