Lee, McClellan meet in battle to take Richmond

Seventeen-year-old Edwin Jemison was one of the Louisiana Tigers killed at Malvern Hill (The Louisiana Journey).

In late June 1862, General George B. McClellan's Union Army of the Potomac was poised to capture Richmond, Virginia. Robert E. Lee, however, counterattacked with the Army of Northern Virginia and drove McClellan away from the city. At the end of a nearly week-long fighting retreat, McClellan took up a strong position on Malvern Hill near the James River. Several lines of infantry were arranged along the hill's slope, with numerous batteries of artillery positioned behind them with a clear view of any approaching Rebels. McClellan's position was nearly impregnable, but Lee believed one more attack would destroy the exhausted Union army.

Colonel Eugene Waggaman's 10th Louisiana was one regiment that participated in the dramatic charge. Waggaman was a deeply religious and popular officer who commanded a motley crew of soldiers. Most of his men were from New Orleans, and they reflected that city's cosmopolitan makeup. One company had recruits from fifteen foreign nations and another was made up almost entirely of Greeks and Italians. Because many of Waggaman's men could not speak English, the regiment used French drill commands exclusively. The 10th Louisiana proved to be unruly in camp and helped create the notorious reputation of the Louisiana Tigers. It would also see its share of hard service. Of the regiment's 845 members, 205 would not survive the Civil War.

On the morning of July 1, Waggaman was disappointed to learn that his men were to remain in the woods at the base of Malvern Hill as a reserve force during the attack. He had received the same orders in every previous battle of what became known as the Seven Days Campaign. The Tigers were bitterly disappointed and were openly expressing their anger when a courier galloped up to Waggaman and handed him a note. The colonel scanned it and then roared, "Fall in!" The men's spirits lifted when they realized they were to take part in the attack after all.

Waggaman led the regiment forward and halted at a fence that skirted a large field. The Yankee line was clearly visible five hundred yards in the distance, but the only protective cover was a shallow ravine about halfway to the enemy. Waggaman decided to cover the open ground as quickly as possible and then regroup in the safety of the gully before the final charge. The regiment suffered a number of casualties from artillery fire during the sprint across the field but finally made it to the ravine. Waggaman gave the order to fix bayonets and then took up a position in the center of the regiment. "Men," he yelled, "we are ordered to charge the cannon in our front and take them. The Tenth Regiment has been in reserve all week, and every other Louisiana regiment has been in action. Not a shot must be fired until we get to the guns. Now, men, we are going to charge. Remember Butler and the women of New Orleans. Forward, charge!"

Thirty-six Union cannons swept the field with a deadly barrage of iron as the Tigers sprang from the gulley. Those men who survived the murderous fire and still had heart for the fight closed in on the Union position held by General Thomas Meagher's Irish Brigade. Meagher ("MARR"), an Irish native who had participated in the unsuccessful 1849 uprising against Great Britain, formed the brigade a year earlier by recruiting mostly Irish immigrants. A number of different regiments served in the brigade over the course of the war, but at its heart were the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts. The soldiers in these units never forgot their native land and conspicuously carried green Irish flags on the battlefield. The Irish Brigade became one of the most famous units of the war, and it suffered the third highest casualty rate of any brigade in the Army of the Potomac.

Watching from the base of Malvern Hill, one soldier remembered how the Tigers disappeared into a cloud of smoke and flame as if they had been swallowed by hell itself. But Waggaman and a handful of his men managed to make their way to the enemy's line and engage the Irish Brigade in a bloody hand-to-hand fight.

Waggaman carried his family's 150-year-old sword and used it to slash at the enemy that now had him surrounded. One of his men was bayoneted through the neck while standing next to him, and the colonel knocked a Yankee's musket out of his own face before it could be fired. Cries of "Bayonet him!" and "Kill him!" rose all around as Waggaman continued hacking his way through the Irishmen. Within minutes, however, the colonel and sixteen of his men were overpowered and captured, but not before Waggaman threw away his sword to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The 10th Louisiana was the only regiment in its brigade that penetrated the federal position atop Malvern Hill, but the Tigers paid dearly for the honor. Of the 318 men engaged in the fight, 18 were killed, 35 wounded, and 18 reported missing.

The Rebels had been defeated and while the Irish Brigade was licking its wounds some of the men requested new muskets to replace the ones destroyed during the melee with the Tigers. General Edwin Sumner, the brigade's corps commander, at first refused to issue the weapons because he thought the soldiers had simply thrown them away during the week-long retreat from Richmond. He changed his mind, however, when he was shown what was described as a "pile of muskets with cracked and splintered stocks, bent barrels and twisted bayonets"-evidence of the fierce clash with the Louisianians. One soldier told the general, "The boys got in a scrimmage with the Tigers, and when the bloody villains took to their knives, the boys mostly forgot their bayonets, and went to work in the style they were used to, and licked them well, sir."

Colonel Waggaman and the other Tigers captured on Malvern Hill were released several weeks later as part of a prisoner exchange. At that time, the colonel was reunited with his sword. A Union soldier had picked it up on the battlefield, and General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered it returned to Waggaman.

Waggaman eventually rose to command the army's Louisiana Brigade and returned home after the surrender. When the war ended, all of the Irish Brigade regiments were disbanded except for the 69th New York. It was designated a National Guard unit and gained more fame as "The Fighting 69th" while serving in both world wars. In Louisiana, National Guard units were also formed in the post-war period, and they traced their ancestry back to the Louisiana Tigers. As it turned out, the New Yorkers and Louisianians were destined to meet on the battlefield one more time.

In 2004, Louisiana's 256th Infantry Brigade was federalized for the war in Iraq but it needed additional manpower to bring it up to full strength. As a result, the 69th New York was ordered to join the 256th at Fort Hood, Texas. The last time members of the 69th New York met Louisianians face to face was when they bayoneted and clubbed one another atop Malvern Hill during the Civil War.

Reflecting on the turn of events, the 256th's Lt. Col. Mark Kerry declared, "We've met before. And we have quite a history between us, and now we're going to war with them. I couldn't be happier. I guess we can file this away under the heading 'The Civil War is Really Over.'"\par }{\plain The New Yorkers apparently agreed. Staff Sgt. Timothy P. O'Brian told a reporter, "It's been kind of neat talking about the Civil War, and it's been fun learning about the other side."

On January 2, 2005, one of the 256th Brigade's Humvees was destroyed by an IED in Iraq. Six members of the modern Louisiana Tiger Brigade and one man from the 69th New York were killed. The seven soldiers were the descendants of bitter enemies that fought one another in a vicious civil war nearly 150 years earlier. In the end, however, they died together as brothers in arms.

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.
Michael Cavanagh, Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher; Terry L. Jones, Lee's Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia; Terry L. Jones, The Louisiana Journey; Official Records, Vol. XI, Pt. II; New Orleans Times Picayune, May 16, 1862; Eugene Waggaman to Louis Janin, July 1862, Janin Family Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Army Times, July 6, 2004.