Imagine it’s October 1861. You’re a Confederate soldier from Florida, encamped along Pensacola Bay. One afternoon, your commander says to get your equipment together and prepare for a night attack against Wilson’s Zouaves on Santa Rosa Island.
Fine, you say, but what in the world is a zouave?
In this particular case, the Zouaves were soldiers from the 6th New York Volunteer Infantry, which had been sent to the Pensacola area to defend United States military installations, including forts McRee, Pickens and Barrancas.
The term zouave is French, first used to identify regiments in the French Army populated by recruits from the Zouaoua tribe in Algeria. The first French zouaves appeared in 1831, and were distinguished by their unique uniform. The soldiers wore open-fronted jackets with baggy trousers, often colored red.
Wilson’s Zouaves, named for Brevet Brigadier General William Wilson, were organized in New York City. The “Zouaves” title appears to have been more of a nickname in this case, as images of the 6th New York Volunteers show its members dressed in standard military uniforms. The regiment left New York in June 1861 aboard the steamer Vanderbilt and headed for Pensacola Bay.
In Florida, an uneasy peace had settled between the Union forces stationed at Fort Pickens and the Confederates holding the mainland along Pensacola Bay. The Confederates had sunk several vessels in the channel leading from Pensacola Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, to stave off a large-scale Union invasion. The federals had retaliated by setting fire to a large dry dock and other naval repair facilities in the area. They also burned the Confederate blockade runner Judah as it sat anchored in the harbor.
By this time, Wilson’s Zouaves were encamped on Santa Rosa Island, just east of Fort Pickens. General Braxton Bragg, at that time commander of Confederate forces in Pensacola, ordered an assault on the Union-held fort. General Richard Anderson had responsibility for carrying out the attack. Just after midnight on October 9, 1861, Anderson and a force of 1,200 Confederate soldiers crossed Pensacola Bay in two steamers and landed on Santa Rosa Island, far east of the Zouaves’ camp. Anderson divided his men into three columns and began marching west toward the New Yorkers.
The Sixth New York was indeed surprised by Anderson’s tactics. The camp was awakened when some of its pickets fired their guns in warning, and the Union soldiers put up a fight, but ultimately they fell back to Fort Pickens.
Once Anderson’s attack began, Union commanders were able to send for reinforcements, which eventually forced the Confederates to retreat to the mainland. Fort Pickens remained in Union control, as it would until the end of the war. Wilson’s Zouaves, in the meantime, continued to serve in the Gulf region. Some companies stayed close to Pensacola, while others were sent to Louisiana.
For more information, check out our learning unit on Florida in the Civil War in the Online Classroom. Also, don’t forget the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge is coming up on March 6, 2015. The Florida Memory Blog will feature historical documents relating to the battle throughout the week of March 2-6.