“Effervescent Courage”: The Fire Zouaves and the American Civil War

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:50 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Lesley Gordon, University of Alabama
In the spring of 1861, before any real fighting began, the 11th New York Volunteers were already famous. Consisting primarily of New York City firemen, they were commanded by twenty-four year old Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth spent the summer of 1860 touring the country with his Chicago Zouaves, impressing spectators with their French Algerian inspired uniforms and gymnastic-centered drill. When civil war began, Ellsworth singled out these firemen for a new unit, insisting that none were “more effective.” He declared: “I want men who can go into a fight now.”

Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves represented a unique combination of the masculine and the feminine to 19th century Americans. These were firemen after all—undeniably manly and daring, yet they wore dapper uniforms with short trimmed gray coats and denim trousers, scarlet red undershirts, and colorful sashes and firefighter badges. Many also donned fez-styled hats and gaiters. Most were Irish Catholic and working-class, which challenged a more staid and reserved white middle-class Protestant Northern conception of masculinity; but this tension seemed to heighten their potential for aggressiveness and violence. As firemen appropriating the garb of African Muslims, they further disrupted traditional American military conventions.

Just a few short weeks after their formation, however, the 11th New York tragically lost their young colonel. Ellsworth was assassinated while trying to remove a rebel flag from an Alexandria boarding house. The Zouaves went on to participate in the Battle of 1st Bull Run; but there they faltered and failed, suffering stinging public accusations of cowardice. One commander disdainfully dismissed their “evanescent courage.” The 11th New York never recovered and soon disbanded.

This paper traces the dramatic rise and rapid fall of the Fire Zouves and how that experience reflected and affected Americans expectations of the realities of war.