Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vivandieres - a short overview

Before the Civil War, there were vivandieres.

The role of the vivandiere reaches back to France, in the Imperial Army and became a fixture with the Zouaves. In truth mention of them goes back to the 1600s, but the role interpreted and taken up by those of the American Civil War is firmly rooted in the Napoleonic Wars. A vivandiere was a woman who filled several roles as needed: water bearer, a seller/distributor of food and creature comfort items like whiskey and tobacco, a nurse, a laundress, a mascot for shoring up morale, and many other incidental ones that came up as circumstances warranted. There were similar ladies called cantinieres, but at least early on there was a distinction between the two; vivandieres could accompany a unit onto the battlefield, while the cantinieres were to remain behind in camp. It has been noted that vivandieres did occasionally fight with their men.

Zouaves were a specific type of French soldier, who were stationed in North Africa for the most part. The name stems from the Berber tribe from which they were first recruited in Algeria, the Zouaoua. Their uniforms are varied, yet distinctive in their related components, generally consisting of exotic (Middle Eastern) cuts of jackets, baggy trousers, and some form of headdress, ranging from a fez to a turban. Many uniforms sported embroidery and other elements to further set themselves apart. For many years Zouave units were considered elite troops and saw meritorious service wherever they were deployed. And where there were Zouaves, there were vivandieres.

A vivandiere was not just any woman who decided to throw in her lot with the military, at least in the original permutations of the role. By and large the women had some sort of close tie to a member there, commonly her husband. Somewhere around the Crimean War the vivandieres began to adopt feminized versions of their units' uniforms, generally a jacket similar to those already worn by the men, a skirt that reached to about the knees or calf length, and baggy trousers beneath. A vivandiere was hardly ever without her keg that was used to carry alcohol such as brandy or whiskey, and with the original vivandieres they were frequently painted. Some were even issued dress swords.

At some point the role of the cantiniere and the vivandiere began to merge, until one was hardly distinguishable from the other.

The Americans were inspired by the idea of the vivandiere through popular culture and news of the wars in which France fought. There was a ballet written in 1844 named La Vivandiere, though the plot and characters are staged in Hungary rather than France. Nevertheless, it was popular in the US prior to the war, and many people took home somewhat romanticized ideas concerning the "soldier girl gone for love".

For a really excellent article concerning the vivandiere in the Civil War, try here.


Celestial Charms said...

Very interesting post. My Great Great Grandmother's brother William Shaw served for 3 years with Company H of New York's Brooklyn 14th Regiment, known as the "red legged devils." He was slightly wounded in action at Pollack's Mill Creek, VA and also temporarily went missing at Gettysburg. He did get to muster out with his company in June of 1964. On the contrary, his own brother John served only about a month in the same company before he deserted. It must have created an awfully strained family dynamic at the time. I have never been able to trace "the deserter" after the war. I must post more info about this on my blog!
Thanks for adding me to your list of blogs that you follow!

Scott B. Lesch said...


Good post about cantinieres! I have a post about Kady C. Brownell with a good number of period images of her that you may be interested in.