Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tidbits of History -- The Tiger Rifles: The Making of a Louisiana Legend


Living history reenactor Luke Jones
demonstrates the look of a stalking
Tiger from the famous Tiger Rifles of
Louisiana. (Photo by Mike Jones).
 By Mike Jones
     LAKE CHARLES, La. -- I gave a presentation on my book, The Tiger Rifles: The Making of a Louisiana Legend, January 3 at the "Tidbits of History" program at the Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library. The program is a monthly presentation on some topic of historical interest to the local area.
     I began the program noting that the in the 1860 census of Calcasieu Parish that the area had fewer than 6,000 people, which at that time included the entire Southwest Louisiana area, which today includes the civil parishes of Calcasieu, Cameron (named for Lincoln's first Secretary of War Simon Cameron), Beauregard (named for General Beauregard), Allen (named for Confederate general and governor Henry Watkins Allen) and Jefferson Davis. In the 1860 election, Calcasieu Parish voted for Vice President John C. Breckinridge, as the the whole  State of Louisiana by a plurality.
     As soon at the fighting began at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, war fever struck in both the north and the south. Louisiana was no different. Being the largest city in the state and in the South, New Orleans became the central place for recruits to gather to  be organized into fighting regiments and battalions.It is there, on April 25, 1861,  that the Tiger Rifles were mustered into Confederate service on April 25, 1861. I found at least two men from Calcasieu Parish who joined the Tiger Rifles at that time, Corporal Joseph Nichols and Private Joseph Perkins.
     Most of the recruits in the company were Irish immigrants who had been working on the Mississippi River steamboats, or had been working as longshoremen or laborers in New Orleans. There were also men from other nations, including Germany and Mexico, as well from all over the United States, both North and South. These men were motivated by defending the founding principles of 1776, which were limited, constitutional government, as outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the "Doctrine of  States Rights."
     The reason the Tiger Rifles became so famous, so early, was because of the fame of their leaders, their unusual and colorful Zouave uniforms, and their heroics in the first big battle of the war, the First Battle of Manassas, Virginia on 21 January 1861. The Tiger Rifles became Company B of the 1st Special Battalion (Wheat's) Louisiana Volunteers. The battalion commander, Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, was among the most well-known soldiers in the country in 1861. He had seen service in the Mexican War, and then became a filibuster (soldier of fortune) in the 1850s and fought in revolutions in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and in Italy. The company  commander, Captain Alexander White, who was rumored to have been the son of a Kentucky governor who killed a man over a card game, left the state and changed his name. White is known to have been in the Mexican War, where he served heroically in the Battle of Buena Vista, served in the U. S. Navy and then became a Mississippi River steamboat mate. He also may have fought in some of the filibuster wars in the 1850s.
     The zouave uniforms of the Tiger Rifles were given them by a wealthy New Orleans and Kentucky businessman named A. Keene Richards. White, who was also a native of Kentucky, may have been an old friend of Richards. The uniform was inspired by the French Army zouave regiments and became popular in both the North and the South just prior to the war. The Tigers were also equipped with the U. S. Model 1841 "Mississippi" Rifle, a beautiful and accurate weapon. They also received Baton Rouge Arsenal accoutrements and Bowie knifes rather than bayonets.
    The company also played a key role in the First Battle of Manassas. Wheat had requested that the battalion be placed in the greatest point of danger on the front lines, and in the battle  that was one the extreme left flank of the Confederate line along Bull Run Creek. On the 21st of July of 1861, the Union Army struck  first at Sudley Ford of Bull Run, which was the left flank of the Confederates. As part of the brigade of Col. Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans, the Wheat's Tigers, along with the 4th South Carolina and Virginia Artillery and Cavalry, rushed to stop the enemy flanking movement of the Federals, even though out numbered by over 10 to one.
    In that crucial first hour of the battle, Wheat launched several Bowie knife charges against the Yankees on Matthews Hill, which stopped them long enough for reinforcements, such as Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson's First Virginia Brigade, to come up on nearby Henry House Hill. When driven back by overwhelming numbers, the retreating Confederates, including the Tigers, were rallied on by Brig. Gen. Bernard Bee who famously called them to rally behind Jackson and the Virginians, who he said were standing like a "stonewall." The battle then concentrated around Henry Hill and the Confederates eventually routed the bluecoats and won a great victory.
     The Tigers received a great deal of press coverage and became instantly famous in both North and South. It was soon that all of  Wheat's Battalion were being called Tigers, and then all Louisiana troops fighting in Virginia became known as the "Louisiana Tigers." After the war, a Tiger from the 9th Louisiana Infantry, David French Boyd, became chancellor of Louisiana State University, and in 1896, the LSU football team took on the nickname Tigers, to honor their fathers and grandfathers who had fought so  gallantly  of the cause of Southern Independence. The name Tigers also is carried by the modern day 256th Infantry Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard, and a number of Louisiana high school athletic teams. The Tiger Rifles' lasting legacy is still honored in their home state of Louisiana.
     The book, The Tiger Rifles: The Making of a Louisiana Legend, is available  both at Amazon.com and at CreateSpace.com.

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