"A Jolly, Gay set of Blackguards" 1


How a Hero's Uniform Can Change the World

In the early 1830's, France occupied North Africa as a colonial extension. In Algiers, a band of native fighters offered their services to the newly appointed king as a fighting unit for France. Under Lois Philippe, these Zouaoua, known as Zouave in French, were given a French commander, General La Moriciere, and ample opportunity to prove their worth as small battles raged throughout Europe and North Africa. This native battalion was known for several things: the arduous drilling performance, the bravery with which they went into battle (derived from extensive drilling), their prowess of hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, but most notably for the uniforms that they wore.

While officers' uniform of Europe could be called ostentatious when compared to their troops, the uniform of the Zouave might be considered bawdy to a typical European soldier. Being North African, the Zouaves wore more traditional dress of their homeland: "A short, collarless jacket; a sleeveless vest (gilet) ; voluminous trousers (serouel) ; 12-foot long woolen sash (ceinture); white canvas leggings (guetres) ; leather greaves (jambieres) ; and of course the tasseled fez (chechia) and turban (cheche) .2 These new soldiers of France proved their worth and captured the attention of their king. The effect of royal attention, though, meant the replacement of the original Berber troops with Frenchmen. This transition was gradual but when Napoleon declares himself emperor in 1852 there were three Zouave companies, all French and regulars in the French army. Though the faces and status of the militia changed, the uniforms became such a part of the company that they remained almost unchanged.

The Zouaves became favorite troops for Napoleon to use throughout his campaigns. The three companies of Zouaves were distinguished by the colors of the French flag used on their jackets: 1st company was red; the second, white; the third, blue. Napoleon even commissioned a fourth company as imperial guards that used blue jacket colors but with gold trim. The Zouaves were used in all but one battle of the Crimean War. The spectacle of the men's formation as they marched into battle was rivaled by the ferocity and skill by which they fought. The "alien" uniform that these men used proved to be useful in close-quarter combat. The fact that they were skilled warriors with bayonets was only aided by the freedom of movement that the loose-fitting uniform allowed in contrast to the more restrictive uniforms of either their allies or foes. Zouave troops were even at hand when the English Light Brigade made its famous charge, thus securing a impression upon the entire Western world.

In December of 1859, the following description of a new fashion appeared in Godey's Lady's Book, an American publication that included plates depicting the newest fashions:

Morning-dress for young ladies, of plain merino or cashmere;
the skirt trimmed by an inserting of velvet, several
shades darker than the dress, with a row of buttons passing
through it, and bordered by a rich braid pattern, known as
the Greek. The Zouave jacket, which we have before spoken of,
forms the waist. It is modelled from the Greek jacket, and has a
close vest, with two points; the jacket, itself, rounding over
the hips, and fitting easily to the figure. A Gabrielle ruff,
and neck-tis finish it.

and that same month in a rival publication Chitchat Upon New York and Philadelphia Fashions:

The Zouave jackets may be made in black cloth or velvet, for home wear, with skirts whose waists have "outlived their usefulness." They are especially suitable with dark silks, and a waist of this kind with a black silk skirt will do any amount of street service. Black silks are trimmed with a combination of black and crimson, black and purple, etc. when intended for dress occasions.4

These two fashion commentaries show that in the course of only a few years, the style of the now famous Zouaves was incorporated into the fashion of the day. In fact, what was once solely a military uniform became a style for ladies of fashion in a variety of colors and accessories. Because she was seen to wear one often, credit is given to Eugenie, Empress of France, for cementing the jacket as fashionable in the early 1860's.

But the influence of the Zouave uniform did not stop with the women of the U.S. In 1857, a young militiaman in Chicago managed to catch the spectacle of a French Zouave company during drilling exercises. He was so impressed, that he adopted the drill regiment of the French infantry. He even went so far as to design a uniform for his regiment based on what he saw of the French uniform. Within three years, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth had turned a backwater militia into the best in the Midwest. He even challenged militias of other states to a drilling competition, all of which he beat hands down. So impressed were many of the other commanders that other U.S. Zouave companies began to form. Uniforms of many colors could be found amongst the Union blue with the establishment of companies like the 5th NY Volunteer, 55th NY reg., 9th NY reg and many others scattered throughout the Union. Ellsworth remained in New York hoping to repeat his success. He took a rag-tag bunch of ruffians (actually Manhattan's Volunteer Firemen) and whipped them into the best shape he could in a short period of time. When war broke out in 1861, Ellsworth's "Fire Zouaves" had so impressed a good friend of his, newly-elected Abraham Lincoln, that his company was ordered to join the invasion of the Secessionists at Alexandria. Unfortunately, Ellsworth was killed while performing an act of heroic patriotism. His death in the line of duty, however, increased the fervor of his men and the respect for the Zouave fighter in the Civil War. Many companies of the North were known to issue two uniforms to its troops: one was the standard blue, the other a Zouave uniform of colors that the company had selected to represent it. The influence of the Zouave even reached into the South where some companies formed, especially in Louisiana where French immigrants familiar with the original Zouaves formed their own militias. A good example of a US Zouave uniform can be found here.

The influence of the Zouave was to outlive any established regiment. In 1858, Queen Victoria sanctioned the use of the Zouave uniform for forces in occupied Barbados. They were not used officially, however, until 1948, a full thirty-three years after the deregulation of the French uniform. In 1979, the Zouave Regiment Band formed as part of the regular forces in Barbados. It serves as a parade company, performing at many state and civil functions. Here are some excellent images by Corrie Scott depicting the band. What's even more interesting is that not only is the art work on display to preserve the history of the band but reprints of the artwork is sold to help finance the band's continuity.

Even closer to home, the spirit of the Zouave soldiers fights on for the spirit of this great country. Don Troiani is an artist internationally renowned for his paintings depicting historical battle scenes. His work sells for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Troiani is originally from New York, so he was deeply impacted by the tragedy of Sept. 11. In memoriam to the brave firemen of New York who lost their lives and to help raise money for the families they left behind, Troiani painted a scene especially for them. Troiani's scene depicts Ellsworth's "Fire Zouaves" (enlisted volunteer firefighters from New York) fighting alongside the 69th New York State Militia at the first battle at Bull Run. His painting commemorates not only the bravery of New York firefighters but also the bravery of all New York citizens. Troiani donated 25 prints to the Fire Dept of New York to be auctioned off, the money going to support the families of the men that were lost

9th New York or "Hawkins Zouaves" at the reenactment of the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam


1. http://www.zouave.org/craze.html
2. http://www.zouave.org/origins.html
3. http://www.uvm.edu/%7Ehag/godey/images/zouave.html
4. ibid

Other sites used:

GREAT SITE FOR LINKS ON ZOUAVES: http://shaung.tripod.com/zlinks.html