Rico Zouave: How Clothes Helped Make One Man

18, July 2017

Each year clothing designers spend millions to convince us that the right outfit can change our lives. For a Chicago man inspired by the uniforms and skills of North Africa's Zouave (rhymes with suave) soldiers, that turned out to be true. It also left an imprint on St. Louis and changed Civil War history.

A vertical, sepia portrait of Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth in military dress.Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, commander of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. Missouri History Museum.

The Zouaves were members of Algeria’s Zouaoua tribe recruited by the French Army to help France consolidate its power in North Africa in the early 1800s. They were fearless soldiers and dexterous athletes who wore striking uniforms reminiscent of traditional North African tribal dress: billowing red pants held up at the waist by a sash; a short, open jacket; and a fez, punctuated with a tassel—a far cry from Western soldiers’ standard-issue attire.    

The Zouaves gained recognition for their superior abilities following the Crimean War, and Napoleon himself ordered France to establish its own Zouave regiment. By now the elite fighters were composed entirely of European troops and “Zouave” in name only—though the distinctive dress remained. The European Zouave regiments were so admired in news reports that they caught the attention of a young law clerk an ocean away in Chicago.  

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth had a lifelong fascination with the military that only intensified when he met Dr. Charles A. DeVilliers, a Zouave who fought in the Crimean War and emigrated to the United States. Under DeVilliers’s instruction, Ellsworth became an expert in Zouave drills and an accomplished swordsman. He went on to teach his elaborate “lightning drill” to militias across the Midwest in the 1850s and eventually took charge of the ragtag Chicago National Guard Cadets, who were badly in need of leadership.

A drawing of four Zouave cadets in uniform surrounded by an eagle with a banner in its beak.Drawing of four Zouave cadets and an eagle with a banner in its beak, surrounded by the locations of other Zouave units. Missouri History Museum.

They found it in Ellsworth. Besides training the cadets in the Zouave tradition, Ellsworth demanded they behave like gentlemen at all times. That included avoiding saloons, bordellos, pool halls, and gambling houses—in and out of uniform—under punishment of expulsion. The skills of the newly minted United States Zouave Cadets were part gymnastic and part militaristic, quickly earning them national renown. Chicago’s Sunday Mercury described the Zouaves as:

A fellow who can put up a 110-pound dumbbell . . . who can jump 17 feet, 4 inches high without a springboard . . . who can take a 5-shooting revolver in each hand and knock the spots out of the 10 of diamonds at 80 paces, turning somersaults all the time and firing every shot in the air.

In the summer of 1860, 49 Zouave cadets left Chicago for a 20-city tour that included a stop in St. Louis. They arrived here on August 10, greeted by a crowd of thousands. The cadets dazzled, leaving one spectator to marvel that he “cannot refrain from expressing admiration at such perfect precision and concert of movement as made it appear that a single soul animated and controlled the nerves and muscles of 40 men.”

In the run-up to the Civil War, Zouave units formed in both the Union and Confederate forces, retaining their quick-footed skills and North African dress. Ellsworth was promoted to the rank of colonel in the Union army, finally fulfilling his military dreams. He and four of his men were in Washington, DC, on May 23, 1861, when Virginia announced its plans to secede. The next day, Ellsworth was enraged by the sight of the Confederate flag flying over the Marshall House, a hotel in Alexandria. He ran inside and cut it down but was soon confronted by James Jackson, the hotel’s owner, who was furious.

Civil War envelope with a drawing of Corporal Francis Brownell killing James Jackson.Civil War envelope with a drawing of Corporal Francis Brownell killing James Jackson, ca. 1861. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

According to Henry J. Wisner, a New York Times reporter, “Jackson . . . discharged his gun, the contents lodging in the heart of the Colonel, who fell forward on his face, his life’s blood perfectly saturating the secession flag.” At just 24, Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Francis Edwin Brownell, one of Ellsworth’s men, swiftly killed Jackson in retaliation.

Black-and-white vertical photo of Francis BrownellFrancis "Ellsworth's Avenger" Brownell, wearing black crepe on his left arm as a sign of mourning for Col. Ellsworth, 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Brownell was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in 1877. By then Zouave regiments in the United States were largely for show, their prowess reserved for parades rather than battlefields. It’s in Brownell that St. Louis finds its most enduring link to the Zouaves: He lived here until his death on March 15, 1894, and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. His headstone is inscribed with a reminder of the bloody morning at the Marshall Hotel that made him famous. It reads: “Ellsworth’s Avenger.” 

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

Membership appeal