Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Jim Taub
Firing had been growing in intensity all along the line. The skirmishers of Governeur Warren’s V Corps were hotly engaged with Richard Ewell’s Confederates. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were to encounter each other again in this new fight, on an old battlefield. The men of the V Corps pushed through the dense Virginia woods to an open clearing known as Saunders Field. The leading regiments gave a more complex look to this opening fight of Grant’s Overland Campaign than many would have expected. In his book The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864, historian Gordon C. Rhea describes the advance of the 146th New York Volunteer Infantry across Saunders Field against Confederate defenses. As they entered the open field surrounded on all sides by the dense woods characteristic of the Wilderness region, they began to take fire from the Confederate troops under Brigadier General George Steuart both in their front and to their sides. Rhea comments that at this moment the 146th “presented tempting targets for Steuart’s marksmen. They still affected the distinctive Zouave dress of white canvas leggings, flared dark blue pants, wide red sashes, and dark blue jackets trimmed in yellow. As the Zouaves hit the gully, a ‘withering volley’ of musketry convulsed their colorful line.”
The generally accepted idea behind the Zouave of the Civil War and his uniform was that at most, he was a part of an early war fad that quickly became not only ridiculous on the battlefield, but also more dangerous, for he stood out like a sore thumb. Logic would expect the Zouave presence to be reduced as the casualty figures rose. This was not the case however. The Zouave and his uniform continued to appeal to many soldiers even after some of the bloodiest battles of the war had been fought. As an example one must look at the accounts of the men who made up regiments which, due to their proficiency at drill and on the battlefield, were rewarded with Zouave uniforms and the status of being designated Zouave regiments.
If you visit Gettysburg National Military Park and go to the famous viewpoint on Little Round Top, you may notice a statue not far from General Warren’s defiant memorial, on which stands a Zouave, loading his musket. This is the monument to the 155th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a regiment recruited around Pittsburg in the fall of 1862. They were raised with great urgency as a result of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland and were equipped as any other regiment leaving the Keystone state in those tense days. They participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, before arriving on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg to help stop the Confederate assault on the hill. Although they did not take as active a role as other units on those rocky slopes, and though they went through much more costly fighting at other points in their existence, Little Round Top is where the 155th was placed by the veterans and the state of Pennsylvania. More importantly, they chose a monument portraying a Zouave. There is only one issue with this portrayal – at the Battle of Gettysburg, the 155th Pennsylvania were not Zouaves. At that time they were still outfitted in their regulation federal uniforms. Yet they chose to be remembered as Zouaves, and they wanted all future visitors to Little Round Top to see them depicted as such.
The 155th received Zouave uniforms in January, 1864, six months after the Battle of Gettysburg, when their brigade commander General Garrard approved of his entire brigade’s efficiency in bayonet drill, the trademark of the Zouave. With the 155th Pennsylvania was the 140th New York which also switched to the Zouave uniform at this time, as well as the 146th New York who, like the other two regiments had been organized in the fall of 1862 as regulation infantry. They too had later obtained Zouave status, but had been issued their uniforms in early June, 1863 which they proudly wore during the Battle of Gettysburg. Apart from the United States Regulars who were brigaded with the 140th, 146th, and 155th, the transition to the Zouave uniform was not feared as raising the potential for increased Confederate attention on the battlefield, but was praised for its beauty and comfort. The regimental history of the 155th Pennsylvania shows this when it states:
“The exchange to the Zouave uniform from the plain blue infantry uniform was enjoyed immensely by the men of the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Regiment, not only on account of their having earned the recognition, but also because of the great beauty of the uniform and the greater comfort and other advantages it possessed over the regulation uniform.”
In fact, the only disadvantage the veterans of the 155th decided were worthy enough of mention to place in their detailed regimental history, was the fact that if a member of the regiment became a straggler, he would easily be identified by the provosts and immediately face the consequences.
Major Henry H. Curran of the 146th, upon seeing the two other regiments of the brigade outfitted saw the same topic of easy identification from an officer’s standpoint. While he commented in a letter to his mother that the three regiments each in their own different uniform “presents a very gay and dashing appearance”, he also realized that: “The uniform will, of course, make the brigade more or less prominent, and it now devolves on officers and men to perfect themselves in all a soldier’s duties and excellencies to such a degree that our prominence will serve to spread abroad only a good reputation.” Charles Brandegee also of the 146th wrote to his brother after seeing the entire assemblage of Zouaves saying: “As our brigade is composed of 3 Zouave regiments it presented quite an imposing appearance.”
There is something to be said about the use of the Zouave uniform through the end of the war by these three regiments which constantly saw service side by side with one another. The use of a Zouave uniform as a reward for good service indicates of the esteem with which the uniform and military prowess of the Zouave was held by the average soldier in the Army of the Potomac. These three regiments, the 155th Pennsylvania, 140th New York, and 146th New York, all started out in regulation uniforms, as regiments hastily assembled during some of the darkest days of the Union war effort. However by the end of the war, through their good standing on the battlefield and the parade ground, the men of these regiments felt that they had earned the right to identify themselves as Zouaves and would continue to do so until the last veteran passed away. The men of the 146th New York may very well have been an excellent target for the Confederates on the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, but with the possibility of becoming an easier target came the unit pride, and morale with which the men of the 146th and many other Zouave regiments carried themselves forward into battle not only in the first days of the war, but all the way through until peace. Perhaps therefore it is symbolic that the last recorded casualty of the Army of the Potomac, William Montgomery, was a Zouave in the 155th Pennsylvania. The Zouaves, who had entered the war with such color and passion, ended it as well.
Livingstone, Charles Brandegee., and Brian C. Pohanka. Charlie’s Civil War: A Private’s Trial by Fire in the 5th New York Volunteers-Duryʹee Zouaves and 146th New York Volunteer Infantry. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1997.
McKenna, Charles, comp. Under the Maltese Cross: Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865 .. Pittsburg: 155th Regimental Association, 1910.
North, Edward. Memorial of Henry Hastings Curran Lieutenant Colonel of the One Hundred and Forty-Sixth Regiment of the New York State Volunteers. Albany: J. Munsell, 1867.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
 Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 149-150.
 Charles McKenna, comp., Under the Maltese Cross: Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865..(Pittsburg: 155th Regimental Association, 1910), 224.
 Edward North, Memorial of Henry Hastings Curran Lieutenant Colonel of the One Hundred and Forty-Sixth Regiment of the New York State Volunteers (Albany: J. Munsell, 1867), 126.
 Charles Brandegee. Livingstone and Brian C. Pohanka, Charlie’s Civil War: A Private’s Trial by Fire in the 5th New York Volunteers-Duryʹee Zouaves and 146th New York Volunteer Infantry (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1997), 176.
 Charles McKenna, comp., Under the Maltese Cross: Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865..(Pittsburg: 155th Regimental Association, 1910),615.