Those Wharf Rats from Louisiana

On May 4, 1863, situated on a rise overlooking the field of battle at Salem Church, Generals Jubal Early and Robert E. Lee stood side by side monitoring Early’s Division as it spearheaded an attack on General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps. The two were witness as a Brigade of Louisiana Tigers charged into the Federal line.

“The air was fairly hissing with round shot, shell, grape, canister and minie balls.” Still, the Louisiana Tigers pushed forward, seemingly impervious to enemy fire. Soon contact was made and the federal line appeared to crack; and then it collapsed all together. The Tigers swept on to a second line, which similarly buckled. Soon the whole Union position appeared to be crumbling. Jubal Early was so electrified by the outcome he threw his hat to the ground, and yelled: “Those damned Louisiana fellows may steal as much as they please now!” Lee sighed and responded by saying: “Thank God! The day is ours!”

Salem Church map

Charge of the Louisiana Tigers at the Battle of Salem Church

The first commander of these renowned warriors was a southern planter named Richard (Dick) Taylor. Born January 27, 1826, on the family’s Springfield Plantation in Jefferson County Kentucky, he was the only son of Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States. Much of Richard’s early life had been spent in frontier forts as his father was a career military officer. When apart from his dad he spent a good portion of his early life attending private schools in both Kentucky and Massachusetts. He would later pursue academic studies at both Harvard and Yale.

Dick Taylor

Richard (Dick) Taylor

During the Mexican War Richard Taylor would serve, voluntarily, as his father’s aide-de-camp. Forced to leave Mexico due to a bout with rheumatoid arthritis, however, Richard would return home to manage the family’s estate. In 1850 he persuaded his father, then President of the United States, to purchase a moderately sized cotton plantation for him, in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. In so doing Taylor’s connection to that state was established.

When the Civil War broke out General Braxton Bragg asked Dick Taylor to come with him to Pensacola, Florida to assist with the training of Confederate troops. Though Taylor had been opposed to secession, he agreed to do so.

Dick Taylor’s stay there would be brief. When the 9th Louisiana Regiment was organized in early 1861, Taylor was elected colonel of the regiment. Members voted for him in the believe that his connection to President Jefferson Davis would allow them to be rapidly dispatched to a combat zone. Until the time of her death, Davis had been married to Dick Taylor’s sister, Sarah.

The connection seemed to work as the regiment was promptly shipped off to Richmond. The unit would arrive at Manassas on July 21, 1861, on the very day of the First Battle of Bull Run. Unfortunately for them, though, they would arrive too late in the day to participate in the first major clash of the Civil War.

On October 21, 1861, Dick Taylor was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of the Louisiana Brigade. Assigned to General Richard S. Ewell’s Division, this new posting would allow them to become a key element in Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign.

Dick Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade

6th Louisiana Infantry – Col Isaac G. Seymour

7th Louisiana Infantry – Col Harry T. Hays

8th Louisiana Infantry – Col Henry B. Kelly

9th Louisiana Infantry – Col Leroy A. Stafford

Wheat’s Battalion (“Louisiana Tigers”) – Maj C. Roberdeau Wheat

Wheats batallion

Wheat’s Battalion of Louisiana Tigers

The fierce reputation the Louisiana Tigers would soon earn was well deserved. Author Terry Jones would note: “Louisiana probably had a higher percentage of criminals, drunkards, and deserters in its commands than any other Confederate state…” Though it was Major Roberdeau Wheat’s Battalion from which the Louisiana Tigers would get their name, their reputation for “wholesale rioting, looting, and robbery” they earned on their own.

Jackson would rapidly find a use for Taylor’s brigade “as an elite strike force that set a rapid marching pace and dealt swift flanking attacks.” On May 21, 1862, they were attached to General Stonewall Jackson’s command and were destined to be a key component in the Rebel victory at Front Royal. Here they would distinguish themselves by traversing a burning bridge over the Shenandoah River while under enemy fire, and by seizing a large Federal supply train.

By late evening on May 24, General Richard Taylor’s Brigade of Louisianans was exhausted. They had marched, and countermarched, more than twenty miles. They had fought a skirmish at Middletown, and they had looted captured wagons belonging to “Commissary Banks.” Their motion had been constant and they would not settle in to rest until nearly 3:00 a.m. the following morning.

By sunrise on May 25, battle seemed imminent. The first soldiers roused and placed into line to oppose General Nathaniel Banks’s Army at Winchester, was General Charles Winder’s Stonewall Brigade. More than fifteen hundred strong, and with little more than two hours rest, these soldiers were ordered to advance and form a skirmish line near Hollingsworth’s Mill along Abram’s Creek. Here two farm lanes pushed off to the west circling around the Federal position at Bower’s Hill. Two sections of Union artillery and seven regiments of infantry had been placed there, and were currently raising havoc with Rebel forces.

1st Winchester map

Map Showing Dick Taylor’s Flank Attack at the 1st Battle of Winchester

By 7 a.m., Jackson had massed fifteen regiments on the west side of the Valley Pike, opposing Colonel George H. Gordon’s 3rd Brigade. Colonel John Campbell and Colonel William Taliaferro’s brigades were soon added to reinforce and extend the Confederate line farther to the left.

It was Brigadier General Charles Winder, commander of the Stonewall Brigade, who suggested the army’s next move. McHenry Howard, aides-de-camp to General Winder recalled: “General Jackson presently came on the scene and asked how the battle was going on. General Winder told him the enemy ought to be attacked on his (the enemy’s) right flank. ‘Very well,’ Jackson said, ‘I will send you up Taylor,’ and rode off.”

McHenry Howard

McHenry Howard

General Taylor’s men had also been awakened by 5:00 a.m. and had been ordered to prepare for battle. Within minutes, however, one of Jackson’s orderlies came riding through the heavy morning fog and told Taylor he must advance immediately. Taylor rode ahead and found General Jackson with his artillery. At that very moment they were “being pounded in a duel with federal guns placed on a hill anchoring the Union right.” “Jackson pointed to the enemy battery and told Taylor he must circle around to the left and silence the guns before they decimated the Confederate artillery.”

Taylor rode back to his brigade and began pushing his men toward the enemy’s guns. Soon General Jackson appeared at his side. The Tigers let out a cheer upon seeing him which was immediately hushed by Taylor so that their position might not be compromised. Instead, the Louisianans lifted their hat in salute, a gesture which was immediately returned by Jackson.

It was soon apparent the commotion had been detected by federal artillerymen as Taylor’s men began to receive cannon fire. Several men were hit by the projectiles which caused many others to duck reflexively. Witnessing this as an act of cowardice, Taylor screamed at his men. “What the hell are you dodging for? If there is any more of it, you will be halted under this fire for an hour.” Most of them straightened themselves up “as if they had swallowed ramrods.” Jackson scolded Taylor saying, “I am afraid you are a wicked fellow.”

With the morning fog serving as cover, Taylor was able to deploy his men unseen. About 7:30 Taylor motioned his men forward which was executed in “a steady walk” and without firing a shot. Suddenly the sun broke through the fog. Off to the left of the line a squadron of 1st Michigan cavalry was spotted. When the cavalry charged, Colonel Kelly’s 8th Louisiana fired a quick volley routing them completely.

John Worsham

John Worsham

Private John Worsham, a member of Company F, 21st Virginia Infantry recalled: “General Taylor rode in front of his brigade, drawn sword in hand, occasionally turning his horse, at other times merely turning in his saddle to see that his line was up. They marched up the hill in perfect order, not firing a shot. About half way to the Yankees he gave in a loud and commanding voice, that I am sure the Yankees heard, the order to charge!”

Rather than redeploying his men to counter the Rebel buildup on his right flank, Union Colonel George Gordon ordered Major Wilder Dwight to go the right to count the enemy. By the time Dwight complied with his orders and reported back to Gordon, it was too late. General Taylor and his Tigers were already pitching into Gordon’s troops.

Henry Kyd Douglas, the youngest member of General Jackson’s staff, was an observer to the assault rendered by the Louisianans. He wrote: “General Taylor threw his brigade into line where directed, and it moved forward in gallant style. I have rarely seen a more beautiful charge. This full brigade, with a line of glistening bayonets bright in that morning sun, its formation straight and compact, its tread quick and easy as it pushed on through the clover and up the hill, was a sight to delight a veteran.”

John Worsham noted “there was all the pomp and circumstance of war about it that was always lacking in our charges; but not more effective than ours which were inspired by the old rebel yell, in which most of the men raced to be foremost.”

Taylor’s charging Louisianans easily overwhelmed the 27th Indiana, and  29th Pennsylvania. This forced Lieutenant Colonel George Andrews to withdraw the 2nd Massachusetts as well. Soon every federal soldier was running for his life. The federals desperately tried to reform their line to resist the attack but it was hopeless. The whole Union force was routed back into the streets of Winchester.

Jackson was surprised by the quick success of Taylor’s men. He turned to Douglas and said: “Order forward the whole line, the battle’s won.” As Taylor’s men came sweeping by, Jackson cried out: “Very Good! Now let’s holler!” Jackson “raised his old grey cap, his staff took up the cheer, and soon from the advancing line rose and swelled a defining roar, which born on the wind over Winchester told her imprisoned people that deliverance was at hand.”

For the troops from the Pelican State, who had sacrificed their lives to free Winchester, their deeds were promptly recognized. Taylor’s Brigade “was the toast of the army.” “Jackson galloped up to Taylor and gratefully shook his hand in a silent gesture, which the Louisianian claimed was worth a thousand words from another.” Taylor wrote: “All the Virginia troops in this Army say that we beat any body they ever saw in a charge and now they say we can stand as long under a murderous fire as any troops in the World.”

Private Worsham noted: “Gen. Jackson captured vast stores: several hundred beef cattle, several hundred wagons with their teams, eleven thousand new muskets in boxes that had never been opened, a large amount of ammunition, and over three thousand prisoners. Jackson lost a very small number of men, but he had led us for three weeks as hard as men could march. In an order issued to his troops the next day, he thanked us for our conduct, and referred us to the result of the campaign as justification for our marching so hard. Every man was satisfied with his apology; to accomplish so much with so little loss, we would march six months! The reception at Winchester was worth a whole lifetime of service.”

Though the battle had taken place on a Sunday, when Jackson and his troops entered Winchester the church bells remained silent. “The streets were lined with people, but not on their way to sanctuaries; they had come to meet their own troops, who soon forgot their fatigue in the joy of their reception.” The residents of Winchester “were in a state of jubilant excitement.”

The cost of the victory to the troops from Louisiana was profound. Fourteen men were dead and eighty-nine wounded. Several officers were included in these numbers. Major Arthur McArthur of the 6th Louisiana was killed, and Lieutenant Colonel Francis would lose his left arm to amputation when his elbow was shattered by a minae ball.

Courage and obstinance in battle would be part of the legacy left behind by the Louisiana Tigers. In less than a month they would be the ingredient whose costly charge enabled the capture of the Coaling and secured victory at Port Republic. There would also be numerous other Confederate victories over the remaining three years of war in which the Tiger’s would play a pivotal role.

During the course of the war over three thousand Louisiana soldiers were killed in battle. Their mortality rate was nearly twenty-five percent. Their sacrifice was great. When the two Louisiana Brigades, ten regiments in all, finally surrendered, there were only 373 men left in the ranks. The 10th Louisiana had just sixteen men present at the surrender while the 9th had only sixty-eight.

“They were a rough and tumble lot – eager to fight, even more eager to drink and play. Cursed and branded as devils by civilians, welcomed as a godsend by cornered generals, the Louisiana Tigers contributed a colorful chapter to that era of American history known as the Civil War.” General Dick Taylor would play a major role in that legacy.

 

Douglas, Henry Kyd. I Rode with Stonewall: The War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff, The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, N.C. 1968

Ecelbarger, Gary. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Ok. 2008.

Jones, Terry L. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. La. 1987.

Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC. 1992.

Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction. Da Capo Press. 1995

Worsham, John H. One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry, his Experience and what he saw During the War 1861-1865. Wentworth Press. 2016

Stonewall Back in Town

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Chancellorsville

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