This poster for the Watch City Festival this weekend in Waltham, a very happening city to the west of us, caught my eye not only because of its fetching image but also because of its reference to the Salem Zouaves, a reference I’ve seen quite a few times in these past few months. Who or what are the Salem Zouaves, you may ask, a question I’ve been asking myself. I think I’m going to use this post to try to figure them out.
It’s not too difficult to figure out who the Salem Zouaves are here in the present: a reenactment group who “recreate the exotic, flashy drill and uniforms of the original Salem Zouaves, including our signature bayonet and sabre fencing.” But who were the original exotic Salem Zouaves? Apparently they were a Civil War incarnation of the Salem Light Infantry, and among the first responders to President Lincoln’s call for volunteer militias to defend the capital after hostilities broke out in April of 1861. They were attached to the 8th Massachusetts Regiment, and spent several months guarding Old Ironsides in Baltimore Harbor before returning home. I doubt that their sabres or bayonets left their sides. This is hardly heroic service deserving of reenactment 150 years later: what’s the rest of the story?
I suspect the secret of the Zouaves’ appeal, then and now, lies more in their exuberance than their service. They looked and acted in a dramatic, romantic, even theatrical fashion, and thus captured the imagination of those who wanted to believe that war was glorious. The mid-19th century Zouave craze was inspired by the dashing exploits of French soldiers in north Africa who adapted the native attire for their own uniforms before and after the Crimean War (1853-56), which was the first war to be documented extensively by “foreign correspondents” for the major western newspapers, along with photographers like Roger Fenton, who had himself photographed as a Zouave on the front. The majority of his striking Crimean photographs, including his famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” can be accessed through the Library of Congress.
Roger Fenton in the Crimea, 1855 (Library of Congress) and a mid-nineteenth-century print of French Zouaves (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).
Roger Fenton did not want to offend early Victorian sensibilities by showing pictures of the dead and wounded, so the contemporary image of the Crimean War that emerged was one of dashing exploits in an exotic locale, symbolized succinctly by the Zouaves. In America, several voluntary militia companies–still very much in existence after their colonial foundation–transformed themselves into Zouave regiments. The key figure in the transformation of Salem’s Light Infantry into the Salem Zouaves was clearly Arthur Forrester Devereux, the son of a prosperous Salem family who became commander of the Infantry in 1859. In his early career, Devereux lived in Chicago, where he became a close associate of the founder of the American Zouave movement, Elmer Ellsworth, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln who would also be the first casualty/martyr of the Civil War (in the process of taking down a confederate flag in Alexandria, Virginia spied from the White House). Devereux seems to have been more fascinated by the precision drill tactics of the Zouaves than their uniforms, but his company was well-outfitted just the same. Pictorial envelopes of the era, one of my very favorite visual sources for the Civil War, emphasize both Zouave distinctions: they stand out among other regional regiments on the first postcard (the Salem Zouaves are #6, at right), and are able to deftly jump confederate cannonballs in one minute and form a human hanging post in the next!
I’m having a hard time reconciling these printed exploits with the reality of the war; the very existence of the dashing Zouaves seems to point to a clash between war expectations and experience. Harem pants just don’t seem to fit into my perception of the Civil War! And we have seen that the Salem Zouaves did not last long nor did they see any real action: though Arthur Devereux certainly did, commanding the 19th Massachusetts Regiment at Gettysburg. Perhaps the Salem company is not representative: there were regiments like the 114th Pennsylvania and the famous 5th New York Volunteer Infantry of Abram Duryée that were thoroughly, and heroically engaged.
The 114th Pennsylvania at Brandy Station, Pennsylvania, in April, 1864 (Library of Congress); the 5th New York Voluntary Infantry in Virginia in the winter of 1862-63 as drawn by wartime illustrator Edwin Forbes (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).
Despite the service of the brave men in these companies, it’s still difficult for me to see the American Zouave movement as much more than fashionable , a perception that is reinforced by contemporary images such as those below: a page from Godey’s Lady Book (of all places!!!) illustrating the new Zouave jacket in 1860, and Thomas Nast’s 1862 painting The Young Zouave. But I could be wrong.