Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Louisiana Tigers

Editor's Note: Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. To mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, a series of articles by Dr. Jones about the war will be published in The News-Star. This is the sixth article in the series.

Louisiana in the Civil War

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Choiseul ("shwah-zool") was not a happy man in September 1861. A well educated French Creole, he had been ordered to take temporary command of Major Roberdeau Wheat's 1st Special Battalion while Wheat recovered from a serious wound. This battalion was one of the most unruly units in the Virginia army and few people wanted to associate with it.

Wheat's men were a potpourri of high society lawyers, merchants and planters' sons, and low life pickpockets, gamblers, and thieves. One company, the Tiger Rifles, adopted the colorful Zouave uniform and was said to have been recruited from New Orleans' jails.

Several Louisiana regiments made headlines for drunkenness and rioting, but Wheat's Battalion became the most notorious. It created so much mayhem in Virginia that it soon became known as the Tiger Battalion, probably in reference to the Tiger Rifles company.

Civilians and soldiers alike came to fear the battalion. One Alabaman wrote that the men were "adventurers, wharf-rats, cutthroats, and bad characters generally." Another soldier admitted, "I was actually afraid of them, afraid I would meet them somewhere and that they would do me like they did Tom Lane of my company; knock me down and stamp me half to death."

Within six months after arriving in Virginia, the battalion's misdeeds included a drunken street brawl in Lynchburg, a rock-throwing fight with a Kentucky regiment, and a nasty incident in which ten members of the Tiger Rifles took on an entire company of Georgians when the Georgians ran off with their whiskey bottle.

Although the vast majority of Louisiana's soldiers sent to Virginia were decent men, there were enough criminals mixed in to give all a bad reputation. The good were lumped in with the bad and, because Wheat's Tiger Battalion was so infamous, all of the state's 12,000 soldiers serving in Virginia became known as the Louisiana Tigers.

Not long after Colonel de Choiseul assumed command of Wheat's Battalion trouble began when, as he said, "the whole set got royally drunk." An inebriated soldier tried to shoot the colonel's orderly and another beat and robbed one of the battalion's washerwomen. That night several men tried to free some of the prisoners de Choiseul had placed in the guard house and a wild free-for-all led to several more men being placed under arrest.

The next day the situation exploded. When de Choiseul ordered a sergeant to his quarters for impudence, a comrade walked up and began defending the sergeant. De Choiseul ordered him to the guard house, but the man refused to go. Furious, the colonel knocked him to the ground twice but he still refused to leave.

By then, a menacing crowd had gathered around de Choiseul, who was mounted on his horse. The colonel fingered his pistol and warned he would shoot the first man who "raised a finger." De Choiseul wrote that a "big double fisted ugly looking fellow came at me & said 'God damn you, shoot me.'" De Choiseul drew his pistol and shot him point blank in the face. "He turned as I fired & [I] hit him in the cheek, knocking out one upper jaw tooth & two lower ones on the other side & cutting his tongue." The others quickly retreated from the obviously dangerous colonel, and De Choiseul never had any more problems with the men.

Although often ill-behaved in camp, the 12,000 Louisiana Tigers proved to be among the best fighters in the Virginia army. When their ammunition ran out at Second Bull Run they refused to retreat and began throwing rocks at the Yankees; they were the only Confederates to break the Union line at Gettysburg; and the Tigers possibly saved Robert E. Lee's army from destruction at Spotsylvania by holding their position after the enemy overran other Confederate units. The Louisianians fought in every major battle in the Virginia theater and suffered appalling casualties. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox after four years of war there were only 373 Tigers still on duty.

Today, the Tigers' name lives on. In the early 1900s, Louisiana State University's Dr. Charles E. Coates was trying to decide on a name for the football team. After being told that the Louisiana Tigers were the toughest set of men who ever lived, he chose them as his mascot. Contrary to popular belief, the LSU Tigers are not named for a ferocious feline but for Louisiana's most famous Civil War soldiers.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War. Dr. Jones is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.