Zouaves: Comparing Histories of a 19th-Century Military Style

AHA Session 155
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Jennifer Sessions, University of Iowa
Andre Fleche, Castleton University

Session Abstract

Zouaves: Comparing Histories of a Nineteenth-Century Military Style

In the 1850s and 60s, men going to war across Europe and in North and South America chose to outfit themselves as Zouaves in the striking bright colors, baggy trousers, and dramatic sashes that originated in France’s north African colonial forces. They claimed to bring forms of drill and combat allegedly typical of “primitive” tribesmen to the conduct of war in “advanced” societies. Zouaves were a transnational phenomenon that took hold in a wide variety of armies – institutions that were, ironically, central to emerging nation-states. This panel assembles scholars who focus on three instances of Zouaves in combat: Carol Harrison discusses Zouaves in their original context of the French army; Lesley Gordon examines the adoption of the Zouave model in the US Civil War; and Martin Simpson presents the volunteers who wore Zouave dress to defend the temporal sovereignty of the papacy and then returned to France to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. The three papers all address questions about gender and military masculinity: what does Zouave attire tell us about the era of the so-called “great masculine renunciation” and the rise of the black business suit? The authors also speak to the relationship between the military and popular culture: Zouave success depended as much on media-generated mythmaking as on battlefield success. Finally, the contributions reflect on the circulation of colonial ideas and tropes in the era immediately prior to the high-water mark of the New Imperialism. The Zouave was a figure who began on the imperial periphery but whose success propelled him not only to the metropole but also across imperial and national boundaries.

Our chair and commentator bring their own expertise to the subject of Zouaves and will be important contributors to the conversation. Jennifer Sessions, who writes about the French colonization of north Africa and hence about the original Zouaves, will chair the panel, and our commentator, André Fleche, a scholar of the US Civil War in global perspective, is well positioned to assess the significance of men who went to war for a variety of different causes and states but who all chose to fight as Zouaves.

We anticipate that our panel will attract military historians, particularly those interested in the cultural history of military service, and scholars of popular culture and gender. The appeal of the Zouave was international, and the uniform appeared in armies in eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean as well as in the European and US cases that we discuss. We hope that our audience will reflect that geographic breadth of the Zouave.

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