Louisiana Tigers gave name to LSU athletics team

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Choiseul ("shwah-zool") of the 7th Louisiana was not a happy man in September 1861. A well educated French Creole, de Choiseul had been ordered to take temporary command of Major Roberdeau Wheat's 1st Special Battalion of Louisiana Infantry while Wheat recovered from a serious wound suffered at First Bull Run. A Virginia officer had been given the position previously, but he was unable to control the rowdy men and quit after only a few days. Now it was de Choiseul's turn to try to rein in what was known as the Tiger Battalion. He wrote a friend, "I am a victim of circumstances, not of my own will. . . .Whether the Tigers will devour me, or whether I will succeed in taming them, remains to be seen."

Few people wanted to associate with the battalion raised by Rob Wheat, a huge six foot, four inch giant who weighed in at about 275 pounds. Wheat had served as an officer in the Mexican War and fought on American filibustering expeditions to Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua. He was serving with Giuseppe Garibaldi's forces in Italy when the Civil War began but immediately came home to New Orleans and organized a battalion of five companies. 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 Zouave uniform and was said to have been partly recruited from New Orleans' jails.

Like other units that were raised in New Orleans, many of Wheat's men were of foreign birth. While the soldiers from North Louisiana were English-speaking, Scot-Irish Protestants like other Confederates, those from New Orleans and South Louisiana were unique in the army. Louisiana was the only Southern state that was predominantly Catholic, and it had the highest number of newly arrived immigrants. In fact, when the Civil War began nearly one-half of the New Orleans people had been born outside the United States. Out of this multi-cultural population, men from at least twenty-four different nationalities volunteered for military service.

\par }{\plain A large number of the state's regiments were comprised of mostly Catholic immigrants who spoke a variety of languages. Others were filled with Cajuns and Creoles who spoke only French. Many of the foreign born had worked at the most menial of jobs on docks, wharves, levees, and steamboats where drinking, fighting, and thievery were seen as necessary for survival. They naturally brought those same values within them into the army. As a result, Louisiana regiments with high numbers of foreign born men were often associated with drunken and violent behavior.

Before de Choiseul took command of Wheat's Battalion, several Louisiana units had already become well known for such misconduct. Coppens's Zouaves had hijacked their troop train on the way to Virginia and looted Montgomery, Alabama, and drunken members of the 14th Louisiana rioted and attacked their officers on the way to the Old Dominion. In the latter incident, the regiment's officers had to kill several of the men to regain control. Nonetheless, Wheat's Battalion became the most notorious of all. It created so much mayhem in Virginia that General Richard Taylor claimed "every commander desired to be rid of it."

Because of its bravery at First Bull Run and its subsequent misbehavior in camp, the battalion was soon nicknamed the Tiger Battalion, probably in reference to the Tiger Rifles company. Civilians and soldiers alike came to fear the Tiger Battalion. One Alabaman described the men as being "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, members of Wheat's Battalion engaged in a drunken street brawl in Lynchburg, fought the 1st Kentucky with rocks in camp, and lit into the 21st Georgia when the Georgians ran off with the Louisianians' whiskey bottle. In the latter incident, ten members of the Tiger Rifles took on an entire company of Georgians and were badly beaten. The Georgians' captain apologized for his men's theft but warned the bloodied Tigers they could have been killed if had not intervened. While walking away, one defiant Tiger called over his shoulder, "We are much obliged, sor, but Wheat's Battalion kin clean up the whole damn Twenty-first Georgia any time."

Although most of the 12,000 Louisiana soldiers in Virginia were decent, God-fearing men who served their state honorably, there were enough criminals and drunkards mixed in to give all a bad reputation. The good were lumped together with the bad and because Wheat's Tiger Battalion was the most infamous, all 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." That day an inebriated soldier twice snapped his loaded musket at the colonel's orderly outside his tent, but the gun failed to discharge and the man was subdued. Later in the day unknown Tigers succeeded in "knocking down & badly beating & robbing . . . a washerwoman of the battalion in a thicket not a hundred yards from the guard house." That night a free-for-all at the guard tent wakened the colonel. With pistol in hand, he found the guards battling seven or eight Tigers who were trying to free some of their comrades. De Choiseul slugged one man who charged at him and finally restored order "with seven or eight beauties bucked & gagged in the guard tent."

The next day the tension between the colonel and his men exploded. When two Tigers casually walked out of camp, de Choiseul mounted his horse and rode over to investigate. The men told him that the orderly sergeant had given them permission, but the colonel was suspicious of their story. He rode over to question the sergeant but ended up arresting him when the sergeant gave "an impudent answer" to his questions. De Choiseul ordered the man to his quarters and he skulked off uttering oaths under his breath. No sooner had he left than another Tiger strolled over and began defending the sergeant. Out of patience, de Choiseul ordered him to the guard house, but the man refused to go. Furious, de Choiseul grabbed him by his collar and threw him to the ground. The soldier picked self up but still refused to obey the order, so the colonel knocked him down a second time.

By then, a crowd of Tigers had begun forming around de Choiseul in a threatening manner. The colonel fingered his pistol and warned he would shoot the first man who "raised a finger." Immediately, as de Choiseul recalled, 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, according to de Choiseul, "that quelled the riot."

After de Choiseul demonstrated his willingness to shoot a disobedient man, the Tigers quickly accepted him as their commander. He later recalled that when he returned to his own regiment after Wheat recovered, he met a Tiger on the road who cried and kissed his hand in what appeared to be a heartfelt goodbye. The colonel admitted, however, that the man was drunk at the time. De Choiseul had proven his meddle to the notorious Tiger Battalion, but a few months later he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Port Republic, Virginia. Major Wheat was killed while leading his battalion at Gaines' Mill in June 1862.

The Louisiana Tigers proved to be unruly in camp and on the march throughout the war. Tales of their wild side are legion. General John Bankhead Magruder once wrote his wife that during the twelve hours the 10th Louisiana was camped on Jamestown Island, its members "eat up every living thing on the Island but two horses and their own species." Later when the army captured a large quantity of whiskey, the officers dumped it in the ditch to keep it away from the men. One soldier reported the Louisiana Tigers got down on their hands and knees a hundred yards down the road and lapped the whiskey up like dogs as it ran by. So terrible was the Tigers' reputation that one poor Pennsylvania woman feinted from fright when the Rebel who was politely asking her for something to eat made the mistake of telling her he was from Louisiana.

On the other hand, the 12,000 Louisiana Tigers would prove to be among the best fighters in the Army of Northern Virginia. When their ammunition expired 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 at the Bloody Angle. The Louisianians fought in every major battle in the Virginia theater and they suffered appalling casualties. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox after four years of war there were only 373 Tigers still on duty.

Some of the 126 Louisiana Tigers killed at Antietam. Another 478 were wounded (Library of Congress).

Today, the Tigers' name lives on. In the early 1900s, Dr. Charles E. Coates of Louisiana State University was trying to decide on a name for the football team. When he was 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.

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He has written a number of books on the Civil War, including The American Civil War (McGraw Hill) and Lee's Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia (LSU Press).