What was Zouave Fever?
One Special Young Man
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It was a fad, a craze, something that had almost never been seen before. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of Americans caught the fever for the Zouaves.
Dressed more like acrobats than soldiers, and performing drills that elicited deep-throated cheers, the Zouaves were paramilitary groups that formed all across the nation: North and South, East and West. All Zouave groups took their name and part of their identity from the French Foreign Legion, which had used special tactics to fight a group of Algerian tribesmen of that name. By 1859, the year Elmer Ellsworth’s group toured, Americans were thrilled, even bowled over by the athletic young men who delighted in showing their tricks to audiences. One imagines that Ellsworth was completing a dream he had nursed in youth: a dream of glory, beauty, and above all, fun.
No one expected that Zouave Fever would lead to, or help along, the Civil War. That is precisely what happened, however. When the recruiters—North and South—went into different cities and towns, they spoke of the glories of the military life, and thousands of boys and young men—many of whom had seen the Zouaves on parade—were quick to sign the rosters.