Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review - "American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History" by Daniel Miller

[American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History by Daniel J. Miller (McFarland, 2020). Softcover, 397 photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,476/533. ISBN:978-1-4766-7726-2. $95]

It's been said that any individual holding a great artifact collection of historical significance has an unspoken obligation to permanently document it in some distributable form for the wider public and posterity. Taking that wise counsel to heart is Daniel Miller, a retired law enforcement professional with a massive collection of Zouave photographs and printed ephemera. His book American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History is a photographic encyclopedia of American Zouave units organized between the end of the late antebellum era (when Elmer Ellsworth's Chicago Zouave Cadets swept the national imagination) through the middle of the twentieth century. By the latter period, the forces of National Guard standardization finally ended the wider Zouave phenomenon.

The stated purpose of Miller's Zouave study is "to offer a visual glimpse and written record of these long forgotten military units to provide collectors and historians with a reference aid in identifying the surviving images and historical artifacts of these units" (pg 2). All of the images presented in the book, from photos to "patriotic envelopes, cigarette cards, ballroom invitations, woodcuts, and lithographed song sheets," are part of the author's personal collection. According to Miller, song sheets rate among the most historically useful sources as they often include images of Zouave companies based on photographs, with color information provided directly from the men in the unit.

Attached image or not, the unit encyclopedia, which includes both military and non-military Zouave squads, companies, battalions, and regiments of different races and ethnicities from 41 states and the District of Columbia, is incredibly comprehensive. Unit entries, organized in chapters by state, range from well-documented military units that fill several pages in the book to those that have so little information about them that there's the possibility they didn't even exist. Complicating matters are the companies that called themselves Zouaves but didn't wear Zouave uniforms or the ones that wore the uniforms and didn't call themselves Zouaves! The author's work is not finished either, as the volume contains an extensive late chapter including a large number of so far unidentified Zouave images. The overwhelming focus of the book is on the Civil War period, but the uniforms remained popular among National Guard units and a great many post-war "civil organizations, youth cadet companies, political marching groups, and quasi-military groups."

The captions applied to the volume's nearly 400 images (41 of which are in color) often include a great amount of detailed commentary, and unit entries themselves typically offer some initial organizational information accompanied by extensive uniform descriptions. Some of the best sources for the latter are newspaper reports, which are often quoted extensively in the text though the author appropriately cautions the reader about their veracity. It is apparent that the volume does not aim to provide extensive service histories (even for the famous units), and early chapter discussions of late antebellum "Zouave Fever" in the U.S. as well as the history of the French Zouave combat units that inspired it are also quite brief.  Some readers will wish Miller had included more of this background information but space considerations in an already very large book probably entered into play.

The book notes the seeming incongruity of normally pragmatic American volunteers embracing such an exotic model with bright colors that made inviting targets on the battlefield (indeed, Miller cites some contemporary pushback against the craze in the newspaper media). However, as most Civil War readers are aware, French military history and practices over the first half of the 1800s heavily influenced all aspects of the American military establishment and the added romanticism of the Zouaves easily overcame any misgivings. The author confirms that early Union Army martyr Elmer Ellsworth's much celebrated role in exciting a national embrace of the Zouave phenomenon has not been exaggerated. Miller also does try to clear up what he sees as the popular misconception among Civil War writers that Zouave uniforms rapidly declined into near universal disfavor, with nearly all units freely adopting more conventional appearances relatively early in the conflict According to the author's research, Zouave units often went to great lengths to try to preserve their distinctive uniforms, and it was mostly outside factors (such as material shortages) that forced many units to adopt mixed uniforms and other more expedient alternatives.

Though apparently outside the scope of the book, one wishes Miller had devoted at least some space to a brief discussion of whether Civil War Zouaves conducted themselves on the battlefield in any unique ways. He does reproduce in full an extensive newspaper article that describes in some detail the reporter's observation of a new Zouave regiment's drilling exercise, one that included the "Zouave Rush" frequently mentioned in the secondary literature.

Daniel Miller's exhaustive documentation of his Zouave image collection, expanded to include a descriptive organization and uniform register of all known Zouave units of any kind over a century-long period of American history, represents an invaluable reference tool for subject enthusiasts and serious researchers alike. With the publication of this volume, Miller's self-imposed collector's obligation to the public can be regarded as redeemed in full.

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