Reappearance of the suave Zouaves—Manassas, Virginia

Manassas National Battlefield Park
6511 Sudley Road
Manassas, Virginia

Some years ago, a reporter for the local Manassas Journal Messenger poetically described a sighting of the apparition of a Zouave on the Manassas battlefield,

A shadow emerges from the among the trees bordering the barren field. The sky is black, and clouds are scudding across the face of the moon. But the moon provides enough light to make out a figure of a man in loose pantaloons scouring the battlefield, searching for something. In a moment, fleetingly, the field is bathed in light as the face of the moon clears. A chill runs down your spine as you realize the man appears to have no head!”

Van Gogh Zouave 1888
Painter Vincent Van Gogh celebrated the Zouave’s exotic dress in this portrait of a French Zouave from 1888.

Under the reign of Queen Victoria, the design pendulum swung in the direction of opulent decoration and exotic elements. Victorians took delight in adapting foreign ideals into the Western design language. Even on the battlefield, some military units adopted the fanciful dress and unique training of the French Zouave regiments.

Originally, these regiments were composed of Berbers in French occupied-Algeria, a group of warriors with a fierce reputation, called Zwawa in their language. Even after dropping the units, the French continued to create units attired in similar uniforms and trained in exotic fighting techniques, calling them Zouaves. The idea spread to many other Western armies and was eventually adopted by various military units during the Civil War, especially a number of New York regiments.

One of the best known of the New York Zouave regiments was the 5th New York Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Gouveneur K. Warren. At the Second Battle of Manassas, this regiment was in the V Division of the Union Army of Virginia under the command of General John Pope.

This regiment was known as Duryee’s Zouaves, as they were sponsored by Abraham Duryee, a prominent mahogany importer.

It was bedizened in the classic Zouave uniform, the rage style of the day: white leggings, baggy red pants, blue jackets with red braid, and tasseled red fezes. Duryee had stocked the regiment with an array of officers of impressive potential; eight of them would advance to the rank of general. These officers drilled the regiment tirelessly, until it rightfully claimed a place alongside the U.S. Regulars in proficiency. Hard fighting and marching on the Peninsula had chiseled the original 848 men down to a hardened five hundred, plus sixty new recruits.

Winslow Homer The Briarwood Pipe 1864
American painter Winslow Homer painted these soldiers from the 5th New York Infantry in this 1864 painting, entitled The Briarwood Pipe.

In late August of 1862, just a little more than a year after the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run (the two sides named battles differently, with the Union naming battles for the nearest body of water—Bull Run Creek in this case—while the Confederates named battles for the nearest town or settlement—Manassas in this case), Confederate troops under General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson captured the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction (now just Manassas) and dug in awaiting the arrival of a wing of Robert E. Lee’s army under Major General James Longstreet.

General Pope, in hopes of “bagging” Stonewall Jackson, sparred with his troops in several small battles before confronting them on the same terrain where First Manassas had been fought. On the morning of August 29, Pope found Jackson dug in along an unfinished railroad line and hurled his men at this position throughout much of the day, though they were time and time again repulsed. That afternoon General Longstreet’s troops arrived to join the fray.

About 4 PM on the afternoon of August 30, the 5th New York found themselves suddenly pelted with bullets after an afternoon of confusion and frustration. Soldiers from Texas and Georgia poured volley upon volley on the nattily dressed New Yorkers, leading one private to remark later, “Not only were men wounded or killed, but they were riddled.” The Federal troops, who had held a hill throughout much of the day, retreated only to be pursued by Confederates who slaughtered them as they fled downhill. Another private noted, “Very few, if any, of that regiment reached the hill beyond. I saw men dropping on all sides, canteens struck and flying to pieces, haversacks cut off, rifles knocked to pieces. I was expecting to get hit every second, but on, on I went, the balls hissing by my head.”

Forty minutes after the assault began, the regiment mustered on Henry Hill, about a mile from where they had been scattered by the Federals. The regiment had counted about five hundred soldiers, though about sixty gathered around the regimental colors. Much of the regiment were “dead, dying and wounded, scattered in the bloodstained stubblefield a mile to the west.” One of Hood’s Confederates, who had been a part of the attack, said it was a “ghastly, horrifying spectacle,” while another reflected that the dead and dying in red pantaloons and blue jackets reminded him of a wildflower dotted Texas hillside in the spring.

Memorial to the 5th NY regiment Manassas battlefield
Memorial to the 5th New York Regiment near the New York Avenue section of the battlefield. Photo 2006, by AndyZ, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Years later when survivors of the Zouave massacre returned to the battlefield to dedicate a monument to their fallen comrades, one posited, “War has been designated as Hell, and I can assure you that where the Regiment stood that day was the very vortex of Hell.” In ten minutes, the New York 5th Regiment had lost about three hundred, with about half of those killed. This was the single greatest number of casualties for a single regiment during the entire war.

In the section of battlefield, now known as New York Avenue, where the New York troops had been decimated, a spate of sightings took place in the mid-1970s. There were so many reports of sightings of a ghostly Zouave that parapsychologist Arthur Berger was led to investigate this phenomenon. He published the results in his 1988 book, Evidence of Life after Death: A Casebook for the Tough-Minded. One witness saw an apparition in typical Zouave dress on several nights. As he tried to approach the figure, it “dissolved.” He returned with his father and they didn’t see anything, though after the witness brought his daughter along, they saw a mysterious figure that seemed to beckon from the wood line.

Another witness, who was part of a reenactor group camping on the battlefield, saw a figure wearing what seemed to be a Zouave uniform in the woods. It raised its hand and appeared to move towards her. She quickly fled. Her husband saw a similar figure later that night with a green glow that was “floating above the ground in figure eights.”

Several of these witnesses returned on a later night and observed forty or fifty Zouaves in the New York Avenue Field through their binoculars. The soldiers were described as having white faces and dark holes instead of eyes. When the soldiers began to approach the group, they fled in terror.

Berger accompanied many of these witnesses to the battlefield one night to investigate these events. While the witnesses saw Zouaves, the investigators did not see them. However, they photographed the areas where the apparitions were reported. When these photos were developed later, they were blank. Other photos taken when nothing was on the field developed clearly.

Do images of the suave Zouaves continue to return to the battlefield where so many of them lost their lives?

Sources

  • Berger, Arthur S. Evidence of Life after Death: A Casebook for the Tough-Minded. Aventura, FL: Survival Research Foundation. Reprinted 2010.
  • Hennessy, John J. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma. 1993.
  • Sandlin, Claudia. “Ghosts march through time at battlefield, legend says.” Washington Post. 26 October 1989.
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