Louisiana troops mobilized for Civil War in 1861

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

In May 1861, war clouds gathered and Louisiana buzzed with activity. Decades of bitter arguments between the North and South over slavery, tariffs, and states' rights came to a head when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Eventually, eleven Southern states-including Louisiana-seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, under the leadership of President Jefferson Davis. By May 1861, full scale war had erupted and Louisiana mobilized to defend itself.

During that spring 150 years ago, thousands of Louisianians rushed to volunteer for military service. Enlisting in the army during the Civil War was a local thing. The basic military unit was called a company, and each company was raised in a particular community. Usually a prominent citizen would announce he was raising a company and ask his friends and neighbors to join him. Friends, brothers, and cousins signed up and marched off to war together.

This system proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it kept morale high because soldiers were always surrounded by close companions, and they took care of each other. On the other hand, if the company had the misfortune of getting into a particularly bloody fight, the folks back home might learn that they had lost an entire generation of men within a matter of minutes. For example, 151 men served in the Pelican Rifles of DeSoto and Natchitoches parishes, but only 32 survived the war. Of those, 31 were wounded.\par }{\plain Each company adopted colorful names, such as the "Bienville Blues," "Confederate States Rangers," "Jeff Davis Guards," and "Tiger Rifles." Later, when the company was formally accepted into the army, these names were dropped in favor of the designations Company A, Company B, etc.

A company numbered approximately 100 men and was commanded by a captain. The Confederates allowed the men in each company to elect all of their officers and sometimes popularity won out over skills. A year later, the armies were reorganized, and, having learned from experience, the soldiers voted out many of the original officers and replaced them with more qualified men.

Often, the community's ladies would sew a beautiful flag for their boys and present it to the company in a formal ceremony. When a group of seamstresses presented their flag to the DeSoto Rifles, their spokeswoman told the color guard, "[W]hen this bright flag shall float before you on the battlefield, let it not only inspire you with the brave and patriotic ambitions of a soldier aspiring to his own and his country's honor and glory, but also may it be a sign that cherished ones appeal to you to save them from a fanatical and heartless foe." The flag bearer solemnly grasped the staff, made an equally poetic speech, and promised, "May the God of battles look down upon us as we register a soldier's vow that no stain shall ever be found upon thy sacred folds, save the blood of those who attack thee or those who fall in thy defence."

Few company flags survived the war. One that did is that of the Old Dominion Guard, a New Orleans company organized by famed Louisiana hero Roberdeau Wheat. Today, it is on display at Louisiana's Civil War Museum at Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans. When Wheat was badly wounded at First Bull Run, his men covered him with the flag as they carried him from the field. The blood stains are still visible.

After the company was organized, it was sent to a training camp to be inducted into the army. There were many such camps scattered across the state, but two of the largest were Camp Moore (St. Helena Parish) and Camp Walker (New Orleans). There, the company was attached to a regiment. Regiments usually consisted of ten companies and were numbered according to the order in which they were accepted into service. The 1st Louisiana Regiment was created first, then the 2nd Louisiana, and so on. Over the course of the war, Louisiana fielded thirty-three infantry regiments, plus many other smaller units called battalions, as well as artillery and cavalry organizations. In comparison, Pennsylvania fielded the 215th Pennsylvania Regiment.

When the regiment was organized, the company officers elected the positions of major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel (the commander). Such high ranks were much sought after, and politicking and bribery was rampant.

It was at the camps that the men got their first taste of military life. Henry E. Handerson wrote from Camp Moore, "[W]e were fairly initiated into the mysteries and miseries of a soldier's life." Few enjoyed the constant drill and hard manual labor. One soldier wrote his father that he felt like "the Rich Man in the Bible and biseach the officers to let me warn my brothers against the folly which has brought me here. . . . I do implore you to think well before telling any more of the family [to] enter [the] ranks."

The new recruits also found it hard to adjust to the lack of alcohol. No soldier could purchase liquor unless he had the company captain's written permission, and many captains refused to comply. Andrew Newell wrote home that "Tom Furlong is in good health; quit drinking per necessity can't get it." Other soldiers simply forged the captain's signature and went to the store.

The men of each regiment and battalion wore an astonishing variety of uniforms in both color and design. One popular idea was to pattern the unit after the French Algerian Zouaves (pronounced "zwahvs"). There were several variations of the colorful Zouave uniform, but a typical one consisted of a red fez; dark blue, loose-fitting jacket trimmed and embroidered with gold cord; dark blue vest with yellow trim; blue cummerbund; baggy red pantaloons; black leather leggings; and white gaiters. Add a musket, bayonet, and perhaps Bowie knife, and the Zouave somewhat resembled a heavily armed Shriner.

Those regiments hailing from North Louisiana and the Florida Parishes largely were made up of English-speaking, Scot-Irish Protestants like most other Confederate units. But others were unique in the Confederate army. In May 1861, Louisiana was the only Southern state that was predominantly Catholic, and it had the highest number of newly arrived immigrants. In fact, nearly one-half of the New Orleans people had been born outside the United States. This diversity revealed itself in the makeup of the city's regiments.

Those units from South Louisiana, and particularly from New Orleans, were filled with mostly Catholic men who came from many different nationalities and cultures. Some regiments were filled with foreign immigrants who spoke a variety of languages. Others were dominated by Cajuns and Creoles, and the officers issued orders in French. When one visiting Englishman watched Col. Gaston Coppens' Zouaves drill at Pensacola, Florida, he wrote "the well known reveille of the Zouaves, and then French clangors, rolls, ruffles and calls ran along the line."

Three out of four men in the Montgomery Guards (1st Louisiana) were Irish and more than half of the 6th Louisiana was foreign-born, with the Irish being predominate. The most cosmopolitan of all was the 10th Louisiana. Most of the regiment was foreign-born, with one company having men from fifteen different nationalities and another being made up mostly of Greeks and Italians. In all, men from twenty-four different countries can be found on the rolls of Louisiana's Civil War regiments.

Over the course of the war, some of the Louisiana units with a high percentage of foreign-born men became notorious for drinking, stealing, and brawling. There are a lot of reasons why this occurred. Some, like the "Tiger Rifles" company and Coppens' Zouaves, were rumored to have been recruited from New Orleans jails and they continued their criminal ways in the army. Other units included soldiers who did not want to be there. The 1st Louisiana apparently shanghaied foreign men off the streets and pressed them into service. When the English consulate complained, the regiment had to release eight men. And many Irish and other immigrants were on the verge of starvation when the war began and simply joined the army to survive. They had worked before the war building levees and working on the rough and tumble docks and steamboats, and fighting and drinking were just part of everyday life.

Even some women joined up. A number of Louisiana units followed the French custom of recruiting vivandiáres (pronounced "vee-vahn-DYAIRS"). These were women who wore their own uniforms and accompanied the men into the field to serve as cooks, nurses, and laundresses. Coppens' Zouaves was one battalion that "had the good taste" to recruit vivandiáres. A photograph of the battalion taken at Pensacola shows a vivandiáre at the end of the line wearing a uniform, sword, and plumed hat.

Other vivandiáres, however, were not so neatly attired. Roberdeau Wheat's battalion also included some women, and four of them reportedly had to be hauled from the front lines just before the Battle of Bull Run. They were described by one witness as being "disgusting looking creatures," who were "all dressed up as men." Rose Rooney, a member of the Crescent Blues, was also at Bull Run. Rather than withdraw when the fighting began, however, she tore down a rail fence while under heavy fire to allow an artillery battery to enter the fight. Rooney was still on the company roles when it surrendered at Appomattox nearly four years later.

Almost forgotten among the volunteers were several hundred free men of color in New Orleans who offered their services to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis refused to accept them, but Governor Thomas Moore did make them a part of the Louisiana militia. Some of the men later joined the Union army and will be featured in a future column.

By the June 1861, thousands of Louisianians were in uniform and began shipping out to Tennessee, Virginia, and other states to meet the Yankee invaders. One of the first to go was Col. Gaston Coppens' battalion of Zouaves. Coppens was a graduate of the French Marine School and was described by one woman as being "a fine example of grace and beauty." His men, however, were cut from a different cloth. Many were said to have been recruited from the New Orleans jails, and some were mercenaries of foreign wars. All looked fierce in their colorful Zouave uniforms.

Coppens' Zouaves left Pensacola, Florida, on June 1 and headed to Virginia by rail, with the aristocratic officers segregating themselves from the men by riding in a special car. As the officers were eating breakfast at the first stop, they heard a low rumble and looked out the window to see the train disappearing down the track. The men had quietly uncoupled their car and hijacked the train.

The outraged officers commandeered another locomotive and gave chase, but the Zouaves reached Montgomery, Alabama, first and began looting the town. When Coppens finally arrived on the scene, he and his officers jumped from the locomotive with pistols drawn and ran toward the drunken mob. "The charge of the light brigade," one witness recalled, "was surpassed by these irate Creoles." Yelling and cursing, the officers ordered the men to drop their loot and get back on the train. Those that refused were pistol whipped. One young lieutenant spotted a huge sergeant carrying an armload of stolen shoes and ordered him to drop his loot. The sergeant hesitated, and the lieutenant grabbed him by the throat and cracked his head with the pistol barrel. The sergeant collapsed as if pole-axed, but the officer simply roared, "Roll that carrion into the streets!" and stormed off to seek more of his men.

The bloody and beaten Zouaves finally returned to the train but they were a sullen bunch. Later, one of the officers was forced to shoot and kill a man, but it is not known for what reason. The train crew saw some men riding on the top of the cars and on the couplings and warned them of the danger, but the Zouaves ignored them. One was killed when the train passed under a low bridge and three others were crushed to death on the couplings when the train lurched. When the Zouaves entered Columbia, South Carolina, they again ran amuck and looted stores and shot animals. \par }{\plain Despite the Louisianians' violent behavior, people were curious to get a look at them. After Coppens' Battalion passed through Petersburg, Virginia, one resident wrote a friend:
The greatest sight I have yet seen in the way of military was a body of about 600 Louisiana Zouaves, uniformed and drilled it was said in the true French Zouaves style. Most of them were of foreign extraction-the French predominant-but there were Irish, Italians, Swiss, etc., etc. . . . Add to their costume and complexion that they were hard specimens before they left the "crescent city" as their manner indicated and you may perhaps imagine what sort of men they were. In fact they were the most savage-looking crowd I ever saw.

When the Zouaves entered Richmond, a newspaper reported that the city was "thrown into a paroxysm of excitement." One man said the battalion was "composed of 'Wharf Rats' of New Orleans. . . ."look wilder, are usually drunker than any Indians." Another citizen reported, "From the time of their appearance in Richmond, robberies became frequent. Whenever a Zouave was seen something was sure to be missed." It was said that the Zouaves "roamed about the city like a pack of untamed wildcats" and that "thieving, burglary, and garroting in the streets at night" were common as long as they were in town. Understandably, the citizens breathed a sigh of relief when Coppens' Battalion was sent to Yorktown on June 10.

By the end of summer there were approximately 12,000 Louisiana soldiers in Virginia. Most proved to be honorable, well behaved men, but there was enough of the criminal element mixed in to taint everyone's reputation. Collectively, they would prove to be some of the fiercest soldiers in the Confederate army.

Typical of the "boys of '61" was Edwin F. Jemison, of Ouachita Parish, who joined the Pelican Greys when he was sixteen. A year later, he was decapitated by a cannon ball at the Battle of Malvern Hill, Coppens' Zouaves. A uniformed vivandiáre stands fourth from the left (Library of Congress).

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.