The Formation of the American Zouaves Regiment

Known as the “American Zouaves,” the 8th Missouri Infantry was as much a tool for recruiting young, enthusiastic Unionists as it was a social experiment in early-war St. Louis, Missouri. At the start of the Civil War, St. Louis was a booming river city, with growing populations of German and Irish immigrants, as well as native-born slaves and white civilians. In 1860, St. Louis was the 8th largest city in the United States, with over 160,000 people living within its borders and over half being foreign born. Though many immigrants in Missouri experienced nativist opposition in the 1850s, they were some of the first to respond to the rallying cry for volunteers to serve in the Union armies and navies.

Sgt. Phillip Smith, Co. H, 8th Missouri Infantry wearing the signature Zouave uniform. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

To create a sense of unity and comradery, many recruitment officers segmented units based on ethnicity. The 7th Missouri Infantry Regiment, for example, was nicknamed the “Irish Seventh” for its large numbers of Irishmen. The “Western Turner Rifles,” or the 17th Missouri Infantry, consisted of Germans. There were many others, as well, that were formed to meet the quotas for the State of Missouri and to form a distinct unity between comrades. In early June 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. both actively supported the formation of a purely “American” unit, dubbed the “American Zouaves.”

To effectively demonstrate that Unionism extended beyond ethnic lines, Blair penned a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, sharing his thoughts on a special zouave infantry unit, “I think the Zouave regiment ought to be received,” he wrote, “for moral effect as well as for military purposes. it will be a counterpoise to the prejudice against the Germans.”[1] With New York native and military veteran Morgan Lewis Smith in command of the soon-to-be-raised regiment, the goal was to recruit as many young, patriotic native sons of Missouri into the ranks of the new “American Zouaves.” Based on the elite French North African units of the mid-nineteenth century, Zouaves were the pinnacle of the European military tradition. The fact that they were the most famous and renowned of all French, encouraged Blair and Lyon to make the all-American unit of that likeness. Surgeon Thomas Hawley wrote from St. Louis just as the regiment was being formed to describe the unique uniforms of the 8th Missouri Infantry:

“All the men or nearly so are Americans they have the regular Zouave uniform. Turban of blue with a white roll for cordes and red tassell [sic] deep blue jacket with red trimmings.”[2]

Additionally, Pvt. William Bates of Company H described the uniform in detail after the war to his daughter:

“The short zouave jacket was dark blue with trimming of red braid (blue braid could not be secured early in 1861); the shirt of coarse gray wool; the pants light blue wool (the regiment voted unanimously against the red, baggy zouave pants), and the [kepi type] cap of dark blue.”[3]

Medal of Honor recipient Pvt. James S. Cunningham of Co. D is shown wearing his Zouave uniform. Courtesy of Find-a-Grave.

Beginning on June 12, 1861, 10 companies were to be filled for the 8th Missouri Infantry Regiment. Company A out of St. Louis City and County; Company B from Peoria County, Illinois; Company C from St. Louis City and County; Company D formed from St. Louis City and County; Company E from Bloomington, Illinois; Company F from St. Louis City and County; Company G from Chicago, Illinois; Company H from Peoria County, Illinois; Company I out of Fulton County, Missouri; and finally Company K out of Warsaw County, Missouri.Though the unit was to be made up of native-born Americans, the nature of forming a unit from across the region was much more difficult to regulate. Instead, Germans and Irishmen rushed forward once again to fill in the ranks of the 8th Missouri Infantry. These immigrants were river boatmen, farmers, miners, stone cutters, and factory workers. German immigrant Pvt. (later sergeant) Phillip Smith of Company H recalled the enlistment of his small Peoria, Illinois company:

“On account of Which I with a number of others reorganized the old Company. Commenced to fill up the Company and had succeeded in having 70 men enrolled […] join either the Douglas Brigade that was being organized at Chicago, Ill or the 8th Missouri Inf which was being organized at St. Louis Mo. and which was to be a Zouave Regiment, this latter Regiment being a Zouave one and as we called ourselves of the same family we decided to Join it and accordingly offered our services and were accepted.”[4]

On July 16, 1861, the Chicago Tribune featured an advertisement to fill the tenth, and last, company of the American Zouaves:


After filling all ten companies in mid-August 1861, the American Zouaves were officially organized and mustered in in St. Louis, Missouri. From fighting guerrilla troops in Wentzville and Mexico, Missouri to marching along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC at the Grand Review in 1865, the 8th Missouri Infantry had a distinguished service in the Civil War. They fought in frigid temperatures against a fortified Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson in 1862. The Zouaves would also be heavily engaged under the command of Ulysses Grant on the second days’ fighting at the Battle of Shiloh. They were the first Union regiment to enter Corinth, Mississippi following the month-long siege of the major rail junction there. These Missouri troops were also instrumental in assaulting the Confederate position at the Stockade Redan, where eleven of them would receive the Medal of Honor. They would also go on to fight at Jackson, Chattanooga, throughout the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, the Carolinas Campaign, and all the way to Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865. Over the course of those bloody four years, the American Zouaves lost 3 officers and 78 enlisted men killed-in-action or mortally wounded. 125 of them died of disease.

Veterans of Company H, 8th Missouri Infantry, are shown gathered together in 1890. Courtesy of the Wheeling Area Genealogical Society.

1. Letter from Francis Preston Blair, Jr. to Abraham Lincoln, June 1, 1861, in Missouri Troops in Service During the Civil War (Washington, DC: Department of War, 1902), 123.
2. Letter from Thomas Hawley to Parents, May 5, 1861, St. Louis Area Digitization Project, Missouri Historical Society.
3. William H. Bates, in Gateway Heritage: Quarterly of the Missouri Historical Society, vol. 19, no. 4, Spring 1999, 27.
4. Diary of Phillip Smith, Peoria Historical Society, 14.

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