We Have Them On Our Own Ground: Zouaves at Gettysburg by Shaun C. Grenan, Illustrated by Mark Maritato. Independently Published. 92pp. 2021.
I’ve long held a peculiar fascination with Zouaves, which is possibly rooted in a story my Great Uncle Walter told me when I was a boy. The tale was originally recounted to him by his grandfather David, an English immigrant with Irish roots who enlisted in a Zouave company early in the American Civil War. David spent the first few weeks of the war haunting a Manhattan saloon and later told his grandson that when he would come out to the street, throngs of local boys would gather to taunt him and his colorful duds, chanting, “Blue pants, red coat, couldn’t catch a nanny goat!” Uncle Walter would laugh as he described how David charged them with “fixed bayonet,” scattering the bratty urchins in all directions. The image of Uncle Walter’s armed, drunken grandpa stumbling about the New York City cobblestones in a gaudy costume of war is something I could never shake. And the more I’ve read about American Zouaves, from the “beau ideal” vision that inspired their inception to the rowdy reputations they came to obtain, the more that image has endured in my mind. For that and various other reasons, when I learned of the publication of We Have Them On Our Own Ground: Zouaves at Gettysburg by Shaun Grenan, I was easily sold.
Zouave was a style of uniform and drill that originated with the Zouaoua tribe of Algeria, entered the French military during their colonial occupation in the 1830s, and was introduced to the US in 1859 via Elmer Ellsworth’s famous Zouave Cadets of Chicago. By the start of the Civil War, romanticized adaptations of Zouave fashion and characteristic light infantry drill were all the rage across the country. Many volunteer soldiers, from the docks of New Orleans to the goldfields of California, marched off to war sporting Zouave-inspired outfits. Zouaves, specifically Union Zouaves, played vital roles in some of the most pivotal moments in the Battle of Gettysburg. In We Have Them On Our Own Ground, Shaun Grenan, who’s a sort of Zou Zou guru, lays it all out in one comprehensive guide that includes original full color illustrations painted by artist Mark Maritato specifically for this project. The book is a result of Grenan’s years of research into the subject; in addition to being a former resident of Gettysburg, he has painstakingly maintained the Civil War Zouave Database (https://www.zouavedatabase.com/), an online encyclopedia cataloguing every known zouave unit, both Union and Confederate, that served during the war.
“We Have Them On Our Own Ground,” begins with a concise history of Zouaves and of the Zouave craze in the United States, while the main body of text is organized by unit (regiment or company as the case may be), outlining the history of each from its inception to muster out, with a focus on their service at Gettysburg. In addition to Maritato’s Zouave paintings, the book is chock full of images, including period portrait photographs, modern images of Gettysburg monuments, and even honed-in details from Library of Congress photographs of showing Zouaves in the field, which Grenan has likely leveraged his expertise to identify based on visible uniform details. In addition to to highlighting the roles of more famous units and actions, like Baxter’s Zouaves role in repulsing Pickett’s Charge, Grenan shines light on lesser-known units and participants, including local militia companies like the Gettysburg Zouaves, who provided vital reconnaissance during the campaign and were later present for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Additionally, he devotes some time to the roles of female vivandieres in Zouave regiments, and recounts the fascinating story of Marie Tepe, who served with Collis’ Zouaves.
Grenan delves into the realities of different Zouave units’ behavior and appearances, which sometimes contrasts with the Currier and Ives stereotype of well-behaved soldiers in straight lines sweeping across a field in identical crisp, bright uniforms. For example, he explores the background of disciplinary problems in several Zouave units, and describes the motley and ragged appearance of Birney’s Zouaves by the end of the Union 6th Corps’ grueling march to Gettysburg. Grenan also does not shy away from confronting the real horrors of war. One moment from this book that will endure in my mind is his description of the horrific demise of many wounded members of Collis’ Zouaves, who took shelter in the Sherfy Farm on the battlefield, only to find themselves trapped inside when the building caught fire. When burial parties discovered their bodies, they found them burned beyond hope of identification, but enough of the soldiers’ uniforms remained to ascertain they were Zouaves. Consequently, their graves at Gettysburg–among the hundreds of unidentified soldiers–contain the simple epitaph: “UNKNOWN ZOUAVE.”
Grenan provides general context to the battle itself, but it would help the reader to have some further prior understanding of Gettysburg and its major landmarks. For Gettysburg buffs, Zouave geeks, and anyone interested in 19th century military material culture, this is a great read. And for regular readers of this site, I should note that while Grenan doesn’t specifically delve into the ethnic backgrounds of Gettysburg’s Zouaves, most of the units he chronicles were recruited in Northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, all of which were hubs of Irish immigration in the pre-Civil War period; there were unquestionably large numbers of immigrants from the Emerald Isle in the ranks and among the officers. Collis’ Zouaves, for example, was named for their colonel, Charles H.T. Collis, who was himself a native of Cork. It could be argued that the history of American Zouaves is indelibly interwoven with the story of Irish America, whether their part in the story involves a tenacious stand against Confederates near the Peach Orchard or a one-man bayonet charge on the children of New York.