December 1864: Beginning of the End for South

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Because of heavy casualties, like these Louisiana dead at Antietam, only 563 Louisiana Tigers remained on duty in December 1864. (Library of Congress)

The 1864 Christmas season brought little cheer to Louisiana's Confederate soldiers in Tennessee and Virginia. The recent campaigns had ended in disaster, and everyone knew the spring would bring a new Yankee onslaught.

In Tennessee, Gen. Randall Gibson's Louisiana brigade was retreating from Nashville with the remnants of the Army of Tennessee. Weeks earlier, Gen. Braxton Bragg had launched the last major Confederate offensive in an attempt to liberate Tennessee from the enemy and draw William T. Sherman out of Georgia. The army suffered a crushing defeat at Franklin and then was almost annihilated at Nashville.

Gibson's brigade covered 137 miles in ten days as it headed back south. One soldier wrote, "I thought the march was hard as we advanced but the retreat surpassed anything I have ever experienced or even read. Rain, snow, wind, mud, all added together with the marching." Another man declared, "The suffering from the extreme coldness of the weather was very great on account of [the men] being badly clad and many of the men being completely barefooted, in consequence of which in many places their tracks were left bloody."

On Christmas morning, the Louisianians reached a wide creek and had to wade across the freezing waist-deep water. When they reached the far side, they were not allowed to build fires to thaw out and had to continue marching in their icy clothing. One man summed up everyone's feelings when he wrote in his diary, "Christmas, and a miserable one." When Gibson's brigade finally reached Tupelo, Miss., only 262 men answered the roll. It started the campaign with 660.

In Virginia, the Louisiana Tigers fared little better as they manned the trenches protecting Petersburg. The few hundred men were now commanded by Col. William Raine Peck, a huge six-foot-six-inch resident of Madison Parish who was known in the army as "Big Peck." He had volunteered as a private in 1861 and would end the war as a brigadier general.

In 1861, some 12,000 Louisiana soldiers were sent to Virginia. Soon afterwards, they became known as the Louisiana Tigers, partly because of their fierce bravery in battle, but more so because of alcohol-fueled brawling, thievery, and rioting. Losses had been so heavy over the years that the two Louisiana brigades had to be reorganized into one, and then into a small battalion, although it was still referred to as the Louisiana brigade.

In December 1864, only 563 Tigers were still present for duty when Peck led them to Petersburg. Filing into the muddy trenches was a sobering experience after having spent the last six months in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. One soldier remembered that "the men were cheerless, and though disheartened, determined to 'stay to the finish'."

The hunger, atrocious weather, and deadly Yankee sharpshooter fire made the months spent on the Petersburg line among the war's worst. The men often lay exposed to sleet and rain for days at a time, and food was so scarce that soldiers sometimes picked corn out of the mud where the horses were fed.

At the end of December, an officer who inspected the Louisiana brigade wrote, "The appearance of the troops is good considering the state of their clothing, which is much worn. The arms are in fair condition. Accoutrements are greatly needed." Despite the horrible conditions, the inspector surprisingly reported that discipline was good.

The dreadful conditions took a heavy toll on Peck's brigade. One Tensas Parish soldier who rejoined the command after being released from the notorious Point Lookout prisoner of war camp was shocked at what he found. He wrote his sister, "I came out to our command on Friday last and found only four men in the company. The 5th, 6th & 7th Regiments are temporarily consolidated into one Company, numbering only 60 men out of over 3,000 [original members]. . . . [T]his place is enough to kill the dead. We do not positively get any more to eat here than we did at Point Lookout."

Apparently both physical strength and courage failed many Tigers, for at least 28 soldiers deserted that winter. By the end of February 1865 there were only 401 men still on duty, with some companies having completely vanished. Those who remained would be among the last to evacuate Petersburg when it fell in April 1865. A week later, just 373 of the original 12,000 Tigers were still with Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox.

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.