Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tiger Rifles -- Zouave Uniform Mystery

A group of  Tigers Rifle zouaves can be seen
in the center of this  Harper's Weekly sketch from
the September 28, 1861 issue of the publication. It
done from life by a wartime artist.
By Mike Jones
The famous zouave uniform of Company B (Tiger Rifles), First Special Battalion (Wheat's) Louisiana Volunteers has long been a matter of debate due to the lack of a wartime photographic image that could answer a lot of the detail questions that have been raised over the years. Even if it was in black and white, we could at least tell the shape of the fez, if the jacket had tombeau (false pockets in a trefoil design), and design of the blue and white striped pantaloons and if  the pantaloons were in true zouave fashion or modified and the exact look of the blue and white striped socks worn under the gaiters. If the photograph had been tinted with color, we could see if it was blue or brown (both have been given in period descriptions) and shade of blue of the stripes on the zouave pantaloons. All the descriptions are consistent that they wore a red woolen shirt.

Surely in early war New Orleans, where the company was organized, there were plenty of photographers around the camps to take pictures of soldiers in the colorful uniforms. If pictures do still exist, they haven't come to public notice yet. Until that happens, we only have physical descriptions by eyewitnesses, and period sketches by war artists from Harper's Weekly and Captain Leon Fremaux of the 8th Louisiana Infantry. A very nice sketch by Confederate veteran and artist A.C. Redwood done in the 1880s for an article by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard in the 1880s. In the 20th and 21st centuries , numerous renditions of the Tiger Rifle zouave uniform  have been rendered by artists reflecting all the various wartime descriptions. How close these drawings and and paintings have been is a matter of speculation and opinion, but surely those using the earliest wartime sketches and descriptions are the closest to accurate.

The Harper's Weekly  and Fremaux watercolor are very consistent in the general look of the uniform. They both show the Tigers wearing very traditional looking zouave uniforms, with the exception of the striped pants which were made of blue and white striped Hamilton mattress ticking material. The traditional uniform pants for the original French zouaves was red and white tropical climates. The Fremaux watercolor, which was done in September of 1861, has the color of the jacket a light brown. All the earlier descriptions of the jacket before the First Battle of Manassas have them in blue jackets. Later descriptions had them both in blue and light brown jackets. This has led to speculations that after Manassas, where they were fired upon by accident by the 4th South Carolina Infantry, that they made have dyed their jackets brown, or the jackets were bleached to a brownish color by exposure to the sun and elements, or that one platoon was originally outfitted with one platoon in blue jackets and the other platoon in brown jackets. Another possibility is that the company received a second issue of jackets, this time brown, after Manassas to correct the friendly fire problem.

The discovery in 1978 of what is believed to be the graves of privates Dennis Corcoran and Michael O'Brien, who were executed in December 1861, resulted in some concrete evidence of some elements of the uniforms. A scientific investigation of the few scraps of textiles in the graves led to the conclusion that the jackets were originally blue with red trim, the shirt in one grave red and the other white, porcelain buttons on one of the shirts and a silk cravat was worn by O'Brien. There was no evidence of lower body garments. It could not, apparently, be conclusively determined from the material scraps if they had tombeaux on their jackets or exactly what type of fez they wore.

The wartime sketches by Harper's Weekly and Fremaux make it appear they  may have worn the stiffer, military type fez worn by the Turkish army, rather than the looser, floppy type worn by the French army zouaves. These hats also had a red tassel hanging down from the top. Such a colorful, and unique zouave uniform garnered the Tiger Rifles a lot of attention, and no doubt added to their fame as a unit.

A Tiger Rifle drummer by A.C. Redwood
The Century Magazine, 1884.
A postwar sketch by Confederate veteran artist A.C. Redwood in Century Magazine in 1884 shows a drummer of the Tiger Rifles generally wearing the standard uniform of a zouave. This sketch generally follows the wartime  sketch appearance of the uniform. Of course the colors are not shown in the Redwood sketch and the uniform is not described in the article, which was by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's reminiscence of the First Battle of Manassas. It has been much reproduced and is probably a pretty accurate representation of the uniform.

A charging Tiger Rifle from the Louisiana
Civil War Centennial brochure, map.
My favorite sketch of the uniform is one by an unknown artist for the Louisiana Civil War Commission's 1861 "Civil War" map and brochure about the war in the Pelican State. I like it not so much for the appearance, which may or may not be historicall accurate, but for the fighting spirit shown in the charging, screaming Tiger.

Many commercial artists are turning out excellent prints representing the Tiger Rifles and we have every reason to believe based on all of the historical research, that are probably pretty accurate representations of the uniform.
But until a wartime photograph of an enlisted man in the Tiger Rifles surfaces, this famous zouave uniform will  remain matter of opinion and speculation to a  large extent.

1 comment:

Boo said...

Thank you for this article. It will help with the Tiger zouave toy soldier I am making.