a spectacular, previously unknown cased half-plate thought to be Lt. Colonel George A.G. Coppens (seated) with his younger brother Captain Marie Alfred Coppens (standing) of Coppens’ Louisiana Zouaves, the 1st Louisiana Zoauve Battalion, circa March 1861.
One of only two Confederate Zouaves units organized early in the war (the other being Wheat’s Battalion), the distinctive uniform of Coppens’ Zouaves is well-documented in period newspapers accounts and contemporary illustrations, although only three published albumen photographs of Coppens’ Zouaves have come to light (one, a cdv of Capt. H.H. Zacharie was in our November 2002 Sale). Coppens’ uniform was patterned, indeed grafted, from the famous French Zouaves whose exploits had captured the public’s imagination during the recent Crimea War. For a brief period of time, at least through the end of 1861, Coppens’ officers wore a trademark red chasseur-style kepi with wide sky-blue band and “gold lace quartering.” The black-blue frock coat was “single breasted, closely tailored to the torso, very full skirt to below mid-thigh, low collar with round edge, with rank being indicated by rows of gold lace in Hungarian knots that reached almost to the shoulder.”
Officers' trousers were red with a wide sky blue stripe. In fact, the ambrotype represents the definitive portrayal of the uniform from life conveying a true sense of the actual colors. While the French influence is unmistakable, the astute observer will note subtle, uniquely “American” differences versus French regulations of the period, the most obvious being the narrow cut of the red trousers instead of the French style balloon cut, the checkered shirt, and importantly the two-piece Louisiana Pelican sword belt plate illustrated on page 153 of Gavin’s “Accoutrement Plates.” The seated officer is either a Lieutenant Colonel or Major based on the triple rows of interwoven sleeve braid (no shoulder straps were worn) corresponding to rank set forth in the February 1861 Confederate Regulations. The casually standing officer wearing the red fez is a Captain indicated by two rows of gold braid. Unlike the French Zoauves and most Federal Zouave regiments, Coppens’ uniform did not utilize the familiar tombeaux quatrefoil on the front of the jacket.
Regarding weaponry, the saber on the left appears to be either an early British P1796 or Starr contract, possibly even a later Mexican War era imported saber--all three acceptable for ante-bellum militia and documented in other identified Louisiana Civil War period photographs. The holdover French Imperial inspired brass hilted saber with three branch guard and distinct ear is found in the “Medicus Collection of American Swords” as a two-branch militia specimen. Parenthetically, French infantry officers of the period carried the readily identifiable precursor of our M1850 Foot Officers sword from before the Crimea until after the Franco-Prussian War. The Coppens’ bibliography is relatively small, amounting to eight published references in two books and six sundry articles since 1962. The most recent book, Lee’s Tigers by Terry L. Jones published in 1987 and considered authoritative, does not contain a likeness of George Coppens.
Upon organization in March 1861, the battalion was authorized just two staff grade officers, a Lieutenant Colonel and Major, therefore, the seated officer must be either Lt. Colonel George A.G. Coppens himself, or alternatively Major Waldhemar Hylestad. George Coppens, descended from minor French nobility and born in Martinique, was 25 when he organized the battalion and had a “deep facial gash” suffered in a March 1859 duel. The candid familiarity of the two subjects suggest that the standing officer may be George Coppens' younger brother, Captain Marie Alfred Coppens who commanded Company F. upon organization and would eventually take over as Lt. Colonel when his brother was killed in action at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862.
The colorful 1st Louisiana Zouave Battalion was organized under the direct sponsorship of President Jefferson Davis after Coppens had met personally with the President in Montgomery and authorized the battalion for the Provisional Army. Coppens enlisted his social peers including family members and the officers were largely French-born transplants, most with prior military experience in the Crimea and French North Africa, with commands given in French. The ranks were recruited among New Orleans’ working class (some prisoners, according to one account) and were composed of a rough, cosmopolitan mixture of native born, Cajuns, recent immigrants including many Swiss and Irish, some Spaniards, Mexicans and other expatriate Europeans drawn to the Crescent City. Numbering about 600 men organized into six companies, the battalion served briefly in Pensacola where it entered Confederate service before journeying to Virginia. Coppens’ Zouaves had acquired a raucous reputation as “Jeff Davis’ Pet Wolves” and along the way part of the battalion mutinied, disgruntled over lack of pay, with several being killed before order was restored.
Under Coppens, the battalion fought conspicuously during the summer of 1862, particularly at Seven Pines and Second Manassas where the Zouaves ran out of ammunition and resorted to throwing rocks. Severely reduced in numbers, Coppens’ Zouaves bled out at Sharpsburg where Coppens himself was killed along the Hagerstown Pike. In a twist of irony, the remnants of the battalion were later assigned as Provost Guard in the Department of Richmond. Unable to recruit, the skeletal battalion appears to have disbanded by December 1864 under a General Order consolidating chronically under strength units.
This historic half-plate is beautifully tinted and as far as we are able to determine the only cased image of Confederate Zoauves ever offered on the market. The consignor relates that the image was acquired from a consignment resale dealer in Los Angeles, California in June 2004. The dealer was unable to provide any substantive provenance other than an enticing handwritten note from the owner stating that “the picture is of a count in Spain and his son by the name of San Miguel.” The dealer related that the local owner had taken the image in lieu of a debt from an unidentified third party. If only images could talk!