Monday, May 9, 2011


The more colorful, and strange, units to be raised by men of the North and South were the Zouaves [pronounced "Zwahvs"].  In the early days of the war Zouave units were the most popular because of their fancy and bright colored uniforms, modeled after the uniforms worn by French Algerian troops known as Zouaves. 

There were more Union Zouave units than Confederate Zouaves. In the Union Army there were: 17 regiments from New York, 11 from Pennsylvania, 8 from Wisconsin, 7 from Ohio, 3 from Massachusetts, 2 from Illinois, 2 from Indiana, 1 from Kentucky, 1 from Missouri, 1 from Michigan, 1 from Kansas, 1 from Maine, 1 from Rhode Island, 1 from the District of Columbia, and 2 from New Jersey [the 33rd and 35th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiments].  In New York, Company K of the 69th New York Infantry [New York's "Fighting Irish"] was also a Zouave unit, known as "The Irish Zouaves" or "Meagher's Zouaves."  There were many more Zouave units in states' militias, like the Belvidere Zouave Company of 1861.  

In the South, two better-known Zouave units were the Company B of 1st Special Battalion Louisiana Infantry and the Charleston Zouave Cadets Company of the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Rifles.  The Louisiana Zouaves were better known as the "Tiger Rifles" or the "Louisiana Tigers" or "Wheat's Tigers" [honoring their commander, Roberdeau Wheat].

The Zouave craze in the United States started with Elmer Ellsworth's United States Zouave Cadets.  The Zouave Cadets dressed in fancy French-style uniforms and combined gymnastics with military drill.  In 1860, Ellsworth took his Zouave Cadets on tour of 19 eastern cities, including New York City. Ellsworth challenged militia and regular army units to try to beat the Zouave Cadets in drilling, but no one tried. 

Journalists of the period as well as some historians in later years have noted Zouave units varied in the quality of their uniforms and in the quality of their men.  Some historians have noted Zouave units tended to attract "an unstable element of society." Billy Wilson's Zouaves [6th NY Vol. Infantry] had shoddy uniforms and a reputation of being "notoriously inefficient."  The Anderson Zouaves [62nd NY Vol. Infantry], also know as the "Advanced Zoos" or "Zou-Zous", were infamous for their shoddy uniforms and thievery.  However, Collis Zouaves [114th Penna. Vol. Infantry] wore uniforms of French material and were known for their imposing appearance and military efficiency.  The Halleck Infantry [146th NY Vol. Infantry] was also an excellent Zouave unit. 

On July 25, 1861, the Hackettstown Gazette & Warren Democrat published a satirical report of life among Ellsworth's Zouaves, written by someone calling himself "Q. K. Philander Doesticks, B.P."  The report was entitled, "The New Zouave Tactics." 

The report stated, "Now, the Zouaves are all very well; the fellows who join just to have the privilege of wearing red trousers and jackets with shiny buttons on, under the idea that this is all there is of a soldier's life, will most likely find themselves slightly mistaken.  We want nobody in our corps who isn't strong, well-built, and able-bodied; for we expect, when the fighting really does commence, that we shall have to do the most of it and the hardest of it -- so you fellows who have sent us word that you are coming may think better of it, and either stay at home, or get well up in your gymnastics before you show yourselves in Washington. Why you'd hardly believe it, but we had forty recruits offered last Saturday, and there were more than half of them couldn't lift a thousand pounds apiece, three of them couldn't jump but twenty-eight feet high, five of them couldn't throw the commonest double somersault without taking off their knapsacks and laying down their muskets, and one fellow presented himself who positively couldn't walk on his hands and carry his sword-bayonet between his toes. Such lamentable ignorance of the very first requirements of Zouave practice can hardly be believed.

"We are getting along pretty well in our drilling now, and we ought soon to be proficient; for we had twenty-one hours drill a day for the past three weeks.  We get along speedily in our peculiar tactics for the application of gymnastics to military purposes.

"Ellsworth has introduced some entirely new features into his system.  For instance, every man has now to carry, strapped to his knapsack, a small plate of boiler iron, about the size of an old fashioned dripping pan.  These plates are ball proof and are used in making what we call a 'Zouave Fort.' This ingenius structure is formed in this way: rows of men stand on the ground in the required outline of the fort; other fellows stand on their shoulders, and all , as they stand side-by-side, interlock their plates of boiler iron, so as to form a ball-proof surface toward the enemy.  Embrasures and loopholes are left at their proper intervals of course.  Columbiads and rifled cannon are at once mounted in the embrasures, and the rifle corps take their station at the loopholes, and in a few minutes we can pepper our enemy all to pieces.  [Columbiads, or Paixbams, were very large seige cannon.]

"Sometimes we mount a few barbette guns on the shoulders of the men in the top row; but we had rather not do this, as it exposes the gunners, and holding six rows of men with thir arms, ammunition, and fort-plates, with three heavy guns, is considered enough of a load for the lower row of men to carry, without the extra weight of the barbette guns.  As it is, some of the lower row of fellows have to hold a weight of two tons and a half, which they can do for five hours without flinching.  At the end of that time, however, the Colonel finds that he must give his fort a lunch, or else it begins to get weak in the lower story.

"You can see at once the tremendous advantage of having a fort that you can erect in four minutes in the very teeth of the enemy -- a fort that can't be stormed, and that can be taken down and set up in another place the very instant the enemy brings any heavy guns to bear on it.  We are training a set of men now  for the lower story, who shall be be able to run with the new fashioned edifice on their backs for the distance of a mile and a half.  Imagine the utter astonishment of an enemy at seeing a strong fort deliberately pick itself up, and with a hurrah, run over into the very heart of their lines, and there open its batteries on them at a yard-and-a-half distance.  Imagine the consternation of a storming party, on getting their scaling ladders all ready with a determined rush over the walls of a fort to see that fort suddenly drop all to pieces, and each particular stone transform itself into a stalwart soldier with a sword-bayonet in his hands, a pair of revolvers in his belt, and a long knife between his teeth.  And then imagine, if such a thing be possible, one regiment surrounded by a crowd of exulting enemies aforesaid to see the 'lambs' instantly make themselves into a fort, and announce themselves ready to hold out against a fortnight's seige.

"Very well, these are just the things we hope soon to do.  That your readers may have an idea of the style of drill we go through, I'll tell you.  We get up at two in the morning, and have somersault drills for two hours by squads, then by companies, and then we form into regimental line, and turn fourteen somersaults forward, and fourteen backward, to the tap of the drum, keeping exact time loading and firing revolving rifles at a target as we go forward, and firing at another target as we go back, with a revolver in each hand.  If any balls are found more than an inch and a half from center, the man is discovered and put on columbiad guard for the day; this means keeping guard with two ten-inch columbiads tied across his shoulders.

"After somersault drill, we have jumping and firing in the air by platoons for two hours.  At the word of command, the platoon jumps thirty feet straight up, firing at an object fifty yards in advance, the instant they reach the extreme altitude.  This sort of practice the Colonel thinks will be remarkably useful in firing at an enemy concealed behind breastworks.  Then we have breakfast.  Each man's breakfast is put in his haversack, and hung round his neck, and he has thirty mnutes allowed him to eat it in -- during that time he must run five miles and walk two miles and a half, jumping thirty-seven ditches, each forty-six feet, four inches wide.  The we have fort drill for six hours; then one hour for dinner, which is eaten while each man is standing on his head.  Then two hours of running, during which time each man is expected to accomplish from thirty to fifty miles, according to the weight he carries.  A man who runs light, with only his knapsack, rifle, ammunition, and his tent, must do his fifty miles; but the fellows who carry the ordnance are let off a few miles.  A man with a mountain howitzer must run forty-seven and a half miles. A fellow with a full-sized brass six pounder has to get over his thirty-nine miles, while the half dozen men who carry our six heavy columbiads are let off with thirty miles.

"Then we have a few hours of general gymnastics and feats of strength, the principle ones of which are 'pitching the howitzer' and 'putting up the columbiads.'  Some of our men can pitch an old six pounder, we have for that purpose, three quarters of a mile and a few rods over.  There is not a man in the regiment who can't put up a ten-inch columbiad in each hand like a pair of dumb bells.  After gymnastics, we have our new fort drill till midnight, when we are detailed for guard and 'gallows duty.'  This last is another new feature of the Ellsworth tactics.  It is an invention for the benefit of secessionists.  In case of a capture of spies or other vermin, seven men are detailed to form a gallows, which they do in the following manner: three fellows stand on each other's shoulders for one post; three other fellows stand on each other's shoulders for the other post; then one very tall Zouave lays himself across the shoulders of the top men for the beam; then they reeve a rope through the waistband of the beam's trousers, and hang the spy in the most approved style.  It is estimated that this kind of gallows will be very useful in a sandy country, where there are no trees to hang your prisoners to.

"By this slight account, you will perceive that if you are going to send any new Zouave recruits, they must be men of the right sort.  After one month from today, the Colonel won't take any man who can't lift two tons and a half, run twenty-seven miles without stopping for breath, jump over an ordinanry two-story house, and swim a mile under water.  It would be better, also, for him to have some preliminary practice in our new way of repelling a charge of cavalry, which is to disarm your dragoon, tie his legs under his horse's belly with a sword belt, and then take him, horse and all, under your arms and run to the rear with him.  If you've got any men of this sort, you may send them along early, for we have still, for such fellows, a few more places left.

"I got time to write this letter, having been excused from drill by the Colonel on account of Simpson's dropping the eleven-inch columbiad on my left big toe this morning.  Simpson always was a clumsy rascal.  Fiercely, Q. K. Philander Doesticks, B.P." 

Copyright 1999-2011: Jay C. Richards


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