By William R. Trotter
Armies are no more immune to the allure of fads than any other segment of the body-politic. In some instances, especially during times of obvious transition, when the old verities are being toppled and no new ones have appeared to take their place, it may be that the career soldier is even more eager to jump on a passing bandwagon than most civilians. Armies are, after all, bureaucracies - they have to be - and there is nothing a bureaucrat, in or out of uniform, loves more than the sonorous roll of today's trendiest buzz-words upon his tongue. This is especially true of the transitional ideas, and because the terminology chosen to embody them at least SOUNDS "progressive". Ideally, of course, from the career-soldiers' point of view, they are not. It is paradoxical but often true: it does not hurt a professional soldier's career to APPEAR progressive, or to mouth the trendiest argot of the season - this denotes a certain keenness of mind and a desirable intellectual curiosity - provided he can do this in such a way as to give no umbrage to his more reactionary superiors. It's OK to pose as a figurehead on the bow of Progress, provided you don't actually rock the boat very hard by doing so.
And most professional military establishments traditionally and wisely have left room for the occasional colorful eccentricity, providing the eccentric in question amuses his comrades rather than gives serious offense to their deeper sensibilities. Another reason, perhaps, why certain fads and professional notions pass in and out of fashion just as rapidly in the ranks of the armed forces as they do in the serried cubicles of corporate life.
During the mid-nineteenth century, no fad swept through the ranks of the American military faster or with more colorful public results than the Army’s infatuation with the style, flair, and mystique of France’s elite North African regiments, the Zuoaves. Of signal importance to this study is the fact that even after the swashbuckling, colorful costumes and macho posturing of the Zouaves faded under the strain conventional campaigning, some of the tactical practices adopted from them became widely disseminated throughout the ranks of both the Union and the Confederacy. Since our subject is not only weapons but tactical innovations, it’s worth a brief – and I promise you a colorful – detour to examine this rather neglected aspect of Civil War history.
It began in the autumn of 1815, not long after Bonaparte went into final exile and France rejoined the European family of nations. The new French government, eager to join the ranks of imperialist colonizers but not wanting to venture too far from home until they got the hang of it, began casting covetous eyes on the semi-feudal territories of North Africa. It was an area close to home; its vast lands were assumed to hold economic resources worth the trouble of acquisition, and the British – fully preoccupied with administering their enormous possessions on the Indian sub-continent – were not interested in a rivalry along the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
In order to colonize a territory, however, one must first invade it; and the geo-political ground rules required a good cover story for such aggression, a pretext that other imperialist nations could accept, however transparently bogus it might be. Continued depredations by the “Barbary Pirates” (most frequently the bold and bloody-minded corsairs based in Algeria) so outraged French public opinion that a large “punitive expedition” (the classic “opening wedge” for annexation-by-force) was dispatched to Algiers in 1830. Civilian commercial ventures, and eventually colonists seeking their fortunes in a new and wide-open environment, soon followed. Algeria became a French colony in all but name, and would remain so for the next century-and-a-half (more or less).
The indigenous peoples may have been, by European standards, “backwards”, but they were not stupid – they knew exactly what the French were trying to do and they did not peacefully acquiesce. Far from “pacifying” the new North African territories, the initial French expedition (soon and frequently reinforced) sparked a fierce resistance movement, awakening if not nascent “nationalism”, at least a shared sense of outrage that united the normally squabbling tribes as nothing else had done since the death of Mohammed.
At first, the French seemed powerless to control the resistance movement. Still marching, maneuvering, and attempting to engage with the close-order drill and tactics adopted from the Prussian system of Frederick the Great (more or less the standard paradigm among all sides in the Napoleonic Wars), they sent slow, ponderous columns – their mobility compromised by their need to protect the big, cumbersome supply columns that accompanied the fighting units – deeper and deeper into a hostile, primeval landscape where the elusive and fast-moving foe enjoyed all the advantages.
As long as the French persisted in trying to fight “by the book”, there could be little progress in economic development in the newly annexed reaches of North Africa. Construction crews laying down the first railroad track heading south from Algiers had to be protected by thousands of troops, backed up by artillery in crude strong points spaced at mutually-supporting intervals, yet even so, it was rare for a single mile of track to be laid in a week’s time, so frequent and harassing were the raids by mounted tribesmen who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.
The Algerian venture soon turned into a military quagmire, a classic guerrilla war scenario that pitted a numerically and technologically superior conventional force against a fiercely motivated, highly mobile enemy who simply refused to play by the rules. The deadliest foemen were the members of the extensive Kabyle tribe, trained as warriors from infancy, they were wily, imaginative, and merciless enemies, who seemingly could find concealment in terrain that European observer would have considered barren and exposed. Well-informed by their spies, the tribesmen would set up a loose horseshoe-shaped ambush athwart the handful of roads which the French, in their heavy columns, would have to use when they tried to march cross-country. There the Arabs would wait, patiently and virtually immobile, until the French were within range of the long, ancient matchlocks which were their traditional firearm. At first, the French scoffed – matchlocks had disappeared from Europe three centuries ago, and man for man the Kaybles were notoriously poor marksmen.