Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ali ben Moussa, a real Zouave

Every Civil War aficionado knows the story of the legendary Zouave regiments and their many and varied, sometimes valiant, exploits.  Styled after the crack Algerian forces in the employ of the armies of France, their American counterparts tended to resemble the North-African soldiers only in dress and rarely in fighting skill.  Nonetheless the romantic ideal of a whole unit dressed in suave Zouave fashion spoke to the hearts of many would-be soldiers, and dressed as they were, they stood out amongst the other blue garbed men.  Noticed and noted, they tended to emulate the expectations heaped upon them, rushing headlong into slaughter in an attempt at glorious victory, and occasionally succeeding.

If the example of the one genuine Zouave in the service of both Union and Confederate armies is anything to base an opinion on then it will be a disappointing one.  Ali ben M’oussa was born in Algiers about 1830, right about the same time that France conquered the land now known as Algeria.  He stood 5’ 4½” tall, had hazel eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion.  It is unclear whether he was indeed French, a native North-African, or some mix, and his name is not an uncommon one from the North African region.

It is unknown when he arrived on our shores, but his first encounter with authorities that resulted in a record being made was in late July 1863 in Providence, Rhode Island when he enlisted for service in the Union Army.  He volunteered, or was persuaded, to act as a substitute for a man unwilling to submit to the indignity of conscription, and for a hefty sum. As little as $300.00, perhaps as much as several thousand dollars could be gained by offering himself as a substitute.  He joined on 28 July 1863 as a recruit for the 5th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, then already in garrison at New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina.  He was transported south then mustered-in on 16 August and assigned to Company K, commanded by Captain E. Meulin.

(NARA RG94, entry 519)
       With perhaps hundreds of dollars from his pay, due for being a substitute, stuffed in his uniform pockets, he never bothered to even collect his $100 bounty or muster for pay before he deserted.  Taking his knapsack, haversack, and canteen, but leaving behind his weapon he turned up missing on 23 September 1863.  After wandering the North Carolina and Virginia countryside for a few weeks, he was arrested by Confederate authorities and sent to Richmond, where he was imprisoned at Castle Thunder.  Castle thunder was the popular name for the Eastern District Military Prison of the Confederate Army’s Department of Richmond.  It was a 3½ story structure formerly used as a tobacco warehouse, re-purposed to house the south’s political prisoners, spies, captured Union citizens, foreigners, deserters and others.  Moussa fit several of those categories, being at once Union deserter, unusual foreigner and suspected spy.

It wasn’t long before the confident and well-informed Algerian addressed a letter to the prison’s commander, General Winder.  On Halloween, 1863 his plea made its way to the prison’s commissioner, Major Isaac H. Carrington.  Carrington’s job was to review the prisoners’ cases, ascertain the circumstances of the detention, and make decisions on their final disposition.  Moussa was politically adept and charismatic, enough to impress Carrington.  His letter states that he was forced to desert the Union forces because Captain Emelius de Meulen had treated him cruelly. However, Moussa had only been under the Capt. de Meulen's command for 6 weeks. He stated that he wouldn’t want to fight against the southern cause in any event because his home country’s monarch, Emperor Napoleon III, was just about to recognize the Confederate States.  He didn’t want to raise arms against a nation that was about to be recognized by his homeland’s leaders, to whom he still professed loyalty.

(NARA RG94, entry 409, Enlisted Branch Letters Received)

Considering Moussa’s background and birthplace it is amazing the Carrington so readily admitted Moussa into the Confederate Service.  He stated that he was a French Soldier by occupation and was born in Algiers, Africa.  The south was desperate enough to enlist foreigners or even mercenaries like Moussa, but to select a man from Africa seems so antithetical to the southern cause that it baffles the mind. Desperation leads to many things. Moussa must have been one smooth, calm, collected, well educated and well spoken man; must have known at least three languages, perhaps Arabic, French and English, and keen enough to understand how to use the military system to his advantage.  On can also only speculate on his religion, whether he was a Muslim, a Christian or neither.  His service record doesn’t indicate anything in that regard nor do his actions.

(NARA RG109, War Dept Collection of Confed Recs)

He cheated the North out of  pay as a substitute.  He would never have been drafted anyhow, being a foreigner and an African.  It is not likely that even in the North, he would have been received with anything but some sense of suspicion.  He was savvy enough to desert and not be caught by his former unit.  Once captured he wormed his way into Carrington and Winder’s favor, obtained his freedom and was paid for it.

He was formally enrolled as a Private in the Confederate Army on 28 December 1863 at Richmond, Virginia by Captain Samuel T. Bayly. At the time he enlisted Moussa, Bayly was Assistant Adjutant General on General Winder’s Staff in Richmond.  He must have had some prior training as an artilleryman, as both the Union and Confederate authorities assigned him to Artillery units.  This may also indicate that he had some prior experience with cannon from being a mariner or sailor. He was placed in Captain Brander’s Company, Pegram’s Battalion Artillery Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, and almost immediately reported as absent sick.

He knew the system well, complained of the generally un-diagnosable ailment of rheumatism and was sent to the General Hospital at Charlotteville, Virginia where he was able to stay until 25 March 1864 when returned to duty.  The next and only notation concerning Ali ben Moussa in the records again indicates the he promptly deserted instead of returning to his unit.

One of the Civil War's only real Zouaves, a genuine French soldier from Algeria, did not live up to the glorious reputation of his native brethren.  After this period, no trace of him can be found.