The Fifth Michigan Fire Zouave Lancers was a United States military unit that fought in the American Civil War. Lewis Barnavelt is proud to know his uncle’s grandfather (or his own great-grandfather) fought in the war (The House with a Clock in its Walls, 24), and is later surprised to find out his ancestor was a member of the unit. When asked by Lewis what the unit was, Mrs. Zimmermann quips, "idiots" (The Figure in the Shadows, 20).
In medieval times, lancers carried long spears that were used to run through enemy soldiers. The problem in the Civil War was that lancers would be up against soldiers that used cannons and muskets and other weaponry that made lancers pointless. Jonathan Barnavelt admits his grandfather probably only joined the unit because he was attracted to their "flapping pennants and bright-colored uniforms." The New Zebedee-based unit of lancers were defeated at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, with only two New Zebedee boys (Grampa Barnavelt and Walter Finzer) surviving the battle because they never got involved (Figure, 20-2).
Bellairs seems to have had some fun coming up with the name for this group:
- Fifth Michigan signifies this as the fifth regiment the state has put together of such a silly-sounding group
- Fire suggests its members were possibly drawn from the ranks of New Zebedee's volunteer fire company, similar to the makeup of the First Fire Zouaves of New York.
- Zouave comes from the Zouaoua tribe in Algeria, some of whom volunteered for the French colonial army in 1830. In later years the word designated Frenchmen who wore the native dress of the Algerians - brightly colored jackets and vests, baggy trousers, sashes, fezzes, and turbans. The colorful outfits and strict discipline of the original Zouaves inspired overseas imitators during the American Civil War: there were supposedly over 70 volunteer Zouave regiments fighting for the Union and around 25 known regiments for the Confederacy.
- A group identified as the "Marshall Zouaves" formed in 1861. Coincidentally our research shows there was also a "Brother Jonathan Zouaves" group out of Detroit, but we doubt there is any relation to Jonathan Barnavelt.
- Perhaps the best known group in the state was the Jackson Michigan Zouave Drill Team, who we were told used to march in Marshall-area parades back in the 1950s. The group was quite popular and showcased on The Ed Sullivan Show and featured in the film, The Court Jester (1955), alongside Danny Kaye.
- Lancers were horse-mounted soldiers that fought with a lance, or pole-based weapon, similar to a spear. There was a group of lancers from Michigan that were organized in 1861 as the 1st United States Lancers Regiment, but the group disbanded in February 1862 - just over three months from their formation.
Bellairs wrote Figure while living in Massachusetts, and may have seen reenactments performed by the National Lancers, a volunteer militia group stationed about an hour south of Haverhill in Framingham. The National Lancers were organized in 1836 to provide a mounted escort for the governor, as well as to enforce the law and defend the state from invasion and insurrection. During the Civil War, the Lancers organized portions of the First Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry.
Alfred Myers remembered that while attending the University of Notre Dame, he was "browsing with [John] in a bookstore and encountered The Fatal Lozenge by Edward Gorey, as coincidence would have it." The book was an illustration of the alphabet with an accompanying four-line verse for each of the 26 letters. Myers says that Bellairs was naturally particularly fond of Z, which was illustrated with a Zouave hoisting an impaled baby on a bayonet.