The historical origin of the Zouave uniform

 

 

Although the uniform obviously has heavy North African influence, the Zouaves’ origin is French.  Here is how it started and came to America:

 

Remember that in the 1800s France had the reputation of being the center of military expertise, because Napoleon Bonaparte was the best known master of the military art.

But the French monarchy was restored in 1815.  One of the royal priorities was suppressing republican, Jacobin and radical influences.   Among these tainted ideas was the skirmishing technique which the French revolutionary armies had used well. In 1830 France invaded North Africa and proceeded to take Morocco and Algeria.  In doing so they fought an enemy whose infantry only skirmished, and who had excellent light cavalry.  That combination was hard on French troops who only fought in close order.  Their lack of a skirmishing capability was repaired by a native tribe who joined the French and whose name was something like “Zouave”.   

 

The Zouaves were so valuable that a general who was a member of the French royal family decided to raise French Zouave battalions.  With royal sponsorship the Jacobin taint was taken off of skirmishing tactics.  The French Zouave battalions became an elite, and NCOs from other units would take a reduction to private to be part of the glamorous and expert Zouaves.  Among other things, the Zouaves were the first units to train using the obstacle course, which is a modern military standard.  The French Zouave battalions retained the North African style of dress, standardized to a uniform with blue jacket, red square-cut pants (really a square bag with leg holes), and the fez ( brimless hat named after the city of Fez) and a turban wrapped around the fez.

 

The French Zouaves’ reputation was known in the United States.  They received world-wide publicity in the Crimean War (1853-1856).   In the U.S., the uniform and the drill were popularized in the late 1850s by Elmer Ellsworth, who was the captain of a militia company in Illinois.  Ellsworth drilled his company so well that it won all drill competitions, and went on a nation wide tour just before the Civil War.  Militia companies were social clubs, and this one must have been expensive to join because it had several uniforms.  The most exotic and flashy was the Zouave uniform.  The impression that North African costumes were exotic and desirable is not too strange, since it persisted into the 20th century, as is demonstrated by the Shriners and their fezzes.

 

When the war started, many people raising regiments both North and South, raised Zouave regiments because they wanted to be elite and exotic, and the young troops were under the illusion that dressing like one will make you one.   Zouave uniforms were designed uniquely for each regiment, and some Western Federal Zouaves had rather plain uniforms.  On the Confederate side the famous Louisiana Tigers were Zouaves, with blue jackets but instead of red pants theirs were made of striped mattress ticking.   Some of the Zouave regiments actually were better drilled than most troops and practiced skirmishing, and taking the name did indicate a certain commitment to excel and high morale.  But American Zouave units turned out not to be unusually elite. 

 

Incidentally the Zouave uniforms did persist throughout the war, at least in the North, and new uniforms were supplied as needed.  We know this not only because of surviving orders referring to turbans and such unique items, but also because at the end of the war thousands of Zouave uniforms were sold as surplus.

 

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