By Gary Schreckengost
Recruited from New Orleans’ teeming waterfront by soldier of fortune Roberdeau Wheat, the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion more than lived up to its pugnacious nickname–Wheat’s Tigers–at the First Battle of Manassas.
Of all the units that took the field at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, none exceeded the flair and intensity of the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, “Wheat’s Tigers.” Raised from the dregs of New Orleans, the Tigers, who were primarily Irish immigrant dockworkers, were as tough and resolute as their combative commander, Major Roberdeau Wheat.
Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, born on April 9, 1826, in Alexandria, Va., studied law at the University of Nashville and then served in the 1st Tennessee Cavalry as a lieutenant during the Mexican War. After the war, he moved to New Orleans, where he began his career as a filibuster–or mercenary–participating in several expeditions to Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Italy, and rising to the rank of general in both the Mexican and Italian armies.
In 1861, when his native South declared its independence, Wheat rushed to New Orleans to raise a regiment to defend the newly proclaimed Confederate States of America. Re-establishing his old recruiting station at 64 St. Charles Street, near the docks, he attracted three already forming companies, Captain Robert Harris’ “Walker Guards,” Captain Alexander White’s “Tiger Rifles” and Captain Henry Gardner’s “Delta Rangers,” to his banner and formed a fourth on his own, the “Old Dominion Guards.” The men of these companies were largely Irish immigrant dockworkers or ship hands who inhabited the southern edge of the city, near the Mississippi River. One observer expressed a widely held view that they were the “lowest scum of the lower Mississippi…adventurous wharf rats, thieves, and outcasts…and bad characters generally.”
At least some of the men, especially those in Harris’ Walker Guards, were also former filibusters who had served with Wheat in Nicaragua back in 1857. They mustered into service in their old filibuster uniforms–off-white cotton drill trousers, white canvas leggings, red flannel battle shirts and broad-brimmed, low-crowned straw hats. Once enlisted, the men also wrote provocative slogans–such as “Lincoln’s Life or a Tiger’s Death,” “Tiger by Nature” or “Tiger in Search of Abe”–on their hat bands.
Wheat next worked on outfitting his nascent command in the Zouave fashion. Zouaves were originally Algerian units that served in the French army and were considered among the elite fighting forces in the world. The Algerians wore their traditional, flamboyant uniforms during their French service, inspiring a sartorial style that was duplicated by Northern and Southern regiments during the Civil War. To uniform his Tigers as Zouaves, Wheat enlisted the support of A. Keene Richards, a wealthy New Orleans businessman and one of Wheat’s former filibuster financiers. The men were issued red wool fezzes with blue tassels; loose-fitting red woolen, placketed battle shirts; red woolen sashes; dark-blue wool, waist-length Zouave jackets with red trim; blue-and-white striped sailor’s socks; blue-and-white striped cotton pantaloons cut in the baggy Zouave fashion; white canvas leggings and black leather grieves.
Wheat uniformed himself in a dark-blue, double-breasted frock coat and trousers and looked much like a field grade officer in the U.S. Army. He also sported a buff general’s sash to commemorate his filibuster commission in the Mexican and Italian armies. For headgear, he wore a red, French-style kepi bedecked with gold lace to denote his rank.
By early April 1861, all the New Orleans units that intended to volunteer for Confederate service gathered at the Metairie racetrack, two miles northwest of the waterfront. There, Wheat’s men were issued Model 1841 “Mississippi” rifles that had been seized from the U.S. arsenal at Baton Rouge in January 1861 and large bowie-style knives. With their new weapons and accouterments, mostly Mexican War surplus, the Tigers were quickly introduced to military drill and discipline by Wheat. Once drill was over, the Tigers drank, played cards or fought, often disrupting camp.
On May 13, Wheat was ordered to move his rowdy companies to Camp Moore, in northern Louisiana. Wheat hoped to attract four more companies to his command to form a full regiment, but he was unsuccessful. His rough Zouaves actually repelled potential allies. One man wrote of Wheat’s Tigers: “I got my first glimpse at Wheat’s Battalion from New Orleans. They were all Irish and were dressed in Zouave dress, and were familiarly known as Louisiana Tigers, and tigers they were too in human form. I was actually afraid of them, afraid I would meet them somewhere in camp and that they would do to me like they did to Tom Lane of my company; knock me down and stamp me half to death.”
Wheat was forced to stand by while seven other men with less military experience were commissioned colonels and their assembled companies were mobilized into Confederate service in regiments. Spurred to desperate action, he decided to make a deal with state officials to commission him a major and to recognize his four companies temporarily as the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion. With his status thus secured, Wheat hoped to attract four or five more companies and become the colonel of the soon-to-be organized 8th Louisiana Regiment.
In the political wrangling that followed, Henry Kelly, not Wheat, became commander of the 8th Louisiana. With Kelly’s ascension, Captain J.W. Buhoup’s company of Catahoula Guerrillas voted to leave Kelly’s command and throw in their lot with Wheat’s special battalion. Unlike the rest of the battalion, the Catahoula Guerrillas consisted of sons of wealthy planters, doctors and lawyers from Catahoula Parish in northern Louisiana. Outfitted in dark-gray battle shirts and blue kepis, they were complete social opposites from Wheat’s New Orleans dockworkers.
By June 6, Wheat felt that he could no longer wait for regimental command. He resolved to take the five companies that he had, about 415 men total, muster them into Confederate service and head for Virginia. In so doing, he gave up his bid to form a regiment from his special battalion, and his unit was officially named the 2nd Louisiana Battalion by state officials. To the officers and men of the battalion, however, they would always be known as the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, or simply as Wheat’s Tigers.
On June 13, Wheat’s battalion entrained for Virginia. Passing through Mississippi and Tennessee, the Tigers arrived at Manassas Junction, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s assembly area, on June 20. As the men disembarked at the depot, some soldiers from the 18th Virginia Regiment noticed that several of the Tigers had been bucked and gagged for disorderly conduct.
The battalion was subsequently assigned to Colonel Philip St. George Cocke’s brigade, stationed well forward of the army, north of Centreville. Upon arrival, Wheat requested the honor of holding the most advanced position of the Confederate Army. Cocke obliged and sent the Tigers up to Frying Pan Church, just south of the Potomac River. The Tigers were in fact so close to the Potomac, the northern boundary of the Confederate States, that they could hear the Yankees’ 4th of July celebration in Washington.
Wheat and his Tigers were not alone for long. They were joined by two troops of Virginia cavalry under Captains John D. Alexander and William R. Terry and by Colonel J.B. Sloan’s 4th South Carolina Infantry. The whole lot, probably to Wheat’s dismay, was put under the command of Colonel Nathan Evans of South Carolina. Evans’ men began conducting light infantry operations, patrolling and setting up ambushes.
While at Frying Pan Church, the battalion fought its first action on July 14. The Federals tried to force a crossing at Seneca Falls on the Potomac, 15 miles northwest of Washington. The place happened to be guarded by Company B of the Tiger Rifles. “They had a nice little skirmish,” Wheat reported, “killing three of the enemy and [their] loss was one man shot in the leg (both legs broken).” Zouave James Burnes was the man wounded in the engagement, making him the first of the battalion’s many battle casualties.
On July 16, Evans was ordered to withdraw from his advanced post and redeploy behind Bull Run Creek with the rest of the army. His command, now designated a brigade, was assigned to guard the extreme left of Beauregard’s line that extended from Sudley and Poplar fords in the north to Farm Ford and the Centreville-Warrenton Stone Bridge in the south. Making his headquarters at the Van Pelt House, which was situated atop a ridge some 900 yards west of the Stone Bridge, Evans located his main camp on the western slope of the ridge, shielding it from Federal view.
Once the brigade was emplaced, Evans had his men cut away the foliage on the western slope of Van Pelt Ridge down to the creek, clearing fields of fire. Farm Ford, Wheat’s responsibility, was left in its natural state. Its only road was on the west, or Confederate, side of Bull Run. Off to the west, continuing up the ford road, was the imposing Carter mansion, which was located on the south side of the road. The mansion, an 18th-century Georgian-style house, was on the northeastern slope of a ridge that continued in a southwesterly direction toward the Manassas-Sudley Road. Beyond the mansion another 500 yards or so, the Farm Ford road forked again. To the right it led off to the northwest, toward Sudley Ford, on the Manassas-Sudley Road. To the left it led southwest atop the ridgeline, past a quaint house owned by Edgar Matthews, and then on to the Manassas-Sudley Road.
On July 18, Union Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s 35,000-man army opened hostilities by probing Beauregard’s defenses several miles south of the Stone Bridge at Mitchell’s and Blackburn’s fords. Convinced that Beauregard’s defenses were too strong to force a crossing there, McDowell decided to shift the bulk of his army to the north and west and attack Beauregard’s left soon after dawn on Sunday, July 21.
For this new attack, Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s division was to be sent in first. Tyler was to march his division out of Centreville and down the macadamized Warrenton Turnpike to feint at the Stone Bridge. Meanwhile, the main column, two divisions commanded by Colonels David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman, would march down a rough road and turn Beauregard’s left at Sudley Ford.
At about 3:30 on the morning of the 21st, Evans’ pickets, deployed on the east, or enemy, side of Bull Run, reported that they heard commands in the woods beyond. Half an hour later, their fears were realized when they saw some shadowy figures approaching their position through the dark woods without identifying themselves. Determining that the force was not friendly, the pickets broke the morning silence and opened up on them.
Wheat quickly got his men up and led Captain Buhoup’s Catahoula Guerrillas forward to reinforce Captain White’s company, picketing Farm Ford. In the meantime, Colonel Sloan of the 4th South Carolina formed the rest of his regiment into line of battle and sent two companies forward to reinforce his picket line. Private Drury Gibson of the Catahoula Guerrillas remembered, “We were anxious to meet the enemy, in fact our hearts jumped for joy when we saw their bayonets through the distant forest.”
With characteristic restlessness, Wheat decided to cross the creek and investigate. Riding across the creek into a field on the other side, Wheat spied a Federal column waiting on the pike. Soon after he entered the clearing, Wheat was spotted and forced to make a hasty retreat back to his side of Bull Run.
As Wheat splashed back across Bull Run, Evans began to receive reports that an even greater danger was brewing to his far left, near Sudley Ford. Captain Edward Porter Alexander, the army’s principal signal officer, had spotted movement and a brief metallic flash several miles to his northwest. Determining that this was a force to be reckoned with, Alexander quickly sent a message down to Evans: “Look to your left, you are turned.”
At about 7:30 a.m., a full three hours after the skirmish began, Evans, in consultation with Wheat, determined that the Federal attack to his front was merely a feint and resolved to deploy his brigade, under fire, to meet the new threat. Informing Beauregard and Cocke of his intentions and leaving four companies to hold the Stone Bridge, Evans ordered his remaining 11 companies, all of Wheat’s battalion and six of Sloan’s companies, plus a section of guns, to head toward the Carter mansion to stop the Federal turning column.
Wheat led his men up the road to the Carter mansion. There he deployed the battalion behind a split-rail fence about 400 yards north of the house. Once done, he led his gray-clad Catahoula Guerrillas forward as a picket and then continued up the path in the direction of Sudley Ford.
While Wheat conducted his reconnaissance, Lieutenant George Davidson’s two-howitzer battery arrived, and Evans deployed them on the Tigers’ left, about 100 yards north of the house. From there, they could sweep the road and field to their front. Next came Sloan’s six companies, which Evans deployed in reserve behind Lieutenant Davidson’s guns.
About 15 minutes later, Wheat came galloping back down the road with the alarming news that the Federals were not coming down the country road as expected, but instead were heading straight down the Manassas-Sudley Road toward the Warrenton Turnpike. Evans decided to move his command once again, toward the Manassas-Sudley Road.
Evans led his command, with Wheat’s battalion in the van, farther to the left by skirting the southern base of the ridge that stretched from the Carter mansion down to the Manassas-Sudley Road. About 500 yards from the road, in a small vale between Buck Hill and the southern slope of Matthews Hill, Evans ordered Wheat to peel his battalion off to the right, up Matthews Hill and to the right of a rectangular pine thicket.
Before ensuring that Sloan’s right and Wheat’s left connected properly, Evans rode down to the pike to place Davidson’s fieldpieces in the new position, leaving Sloan and Wheat to their own devices. To make matters worse, before he left, Evans had instructed Sloan “to open fire as soon as the enemy approached within range of muskets.”
While Evans rode back to the pike and Sloan began his deployment, Wheat cautiously moved his men ahead, across a rivulet and up past the pine thicket, where he momentarily stopped to assess his position. His battalion was at the bottom of Matthews Hill, which was actually an undulating ridge that ran northeast and southwest. Immediately to his left, perpendicular to his battle line, was a cornfield enclosed by a split-rail fence. To his rear was the pine thicket. To his front, about 50 yards away, was a swale continuing up the slope another 300 yards or so, where the ridgeline topped off. There, at the crest, Matthews Hill was bisected by a fence-enclosed farm lane that connected the Manassas-Sudley Road with Edgar Matthews’ house.
Wheat decided to deploy the bulk of his battalion in the swale, with both flanks touching a fence line, while he led his skirmish company, the Catahoula Guerrillas, forward up the slope. As Wheat led the Guerrillas up the hill, Sloan sent out his own company of skirmishers through the pine thicket, apparently unaware of Wheat’s location. Creeping through the tangled pines, unable to see more than 20 yards, some of the Palmetto Staters spotted movement to their front.
Remembering Evans’ orders to open fire as soon as the enemy approached, the trigger-happy skirmishers fired into the leftmost company of Wheat’s battalion, which was shuffling into the culvert. In the salvo that followed, the South Carolinians mortally wounded two men from Company B, Zouaves Hugh McDonald and James Wilson. Aroused, the Tigers got up, turned about and returned fire. A small battle could have ensued then and there if Wheat had not rushed down the hill on his horse and straightened out the matter.
At about 9:15, soon after the friendly fire incident, Wheat crested Matthews Hill with his Catahoula Guerrillas. He was ready to order up the rest of his battalion when he spotted Federal skirmishers spilling out of the woods to his front, about 200 yards away. Instantly, he ordered Buhoup’s men to get down and take cover behind the split-rail fence. The enemy had arrived.
The Federal skirmishers whom Wheat spotted belonged to Colonel John Slocum’s 2nd Rhode Island of Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade, the lead element of McDowell’s main effort. Behind the 2nd Rhode Island, stacked up on the Manassas-Sudley Road, was Captain William Reynolds’ Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, the 2nd New Hampshire, the 71st New York and the 1st Rhode Island. Behind the 1st Rhode Island was Colonel Andrew Porter’s brigade, which consisted of Captain Charles Griffin’s battery, a battalion of recently recruited U.S. Marines, the 8th, 14th and 27th New York, a battalion of U.S. Army Regular infantry, and a battalion of Regular cavalry.
As the Federal skirmishers began to ascend Matthews Hill, Wheat ordered his pickets to open fire. Reacting quickly, the startled Rhode Islanders dropped to the ground and returned fire as best they could. After about five minutes of this, Colonel Hunter ordered Slocum to take the hill.
In the face of this full-blown regimental attack, the first seen on American soil in more than 40 years, the Guerrillas were able to hold out for only a few minutes. As the Rhode Islanders closed in, Wheat ordered Buhoup to fall back down the slope and re-form to the left of the Tiger Rifles, who were still sheltered in the culvert. Wheat would now be forced to fight a reverse-slope defense.
At 9:30, Hunter, Slocum and the men of the 2nd Rhode Island swept across the top of Matthews Hill, seizing it for the Federals. At that moment, Evans’ entire line, including Davidson’s guns, let them have it. “A perfect hail storm of bullets, round shot and shell was poured into us,” remembered Private Sam English of the 2nd Rhode Island, “tearing through the ranks and scattering death and confusion everywhere.”
The Rhode Islanders somehow held on to their newly won position. This enabled Hunter to bring up the next unit in his line of march, Captain William Reynolds’ battery of six rifled guns. Under intense enemy fire, Reynolds’ guns were rushed forward into battery on the east side of the Manassas-Sudley Road, linking up with the 2nd Rhode Island’s right flank. For almost an hour, the two sides blazed away at each other at close range. Hunter and Slocum, the 2nd Rhode Island’s division and regimental commanders respectively, were wounded during the exchange.
By 10 a.m., Matthews Hill was enveloped in thick smoke; visibility was cut to a mere 50 yards. The Federals, silhouetted atop Matthews Hill, made a much better target than the Confederates did, masked as they were by the culvert and the cornfield. Wheat sensed that the Federals were ready to break and thought that another push would drive them from the hilltop.
Wheat ordered his men to leave their position and move up the hill, guiding to the left and sweeping diagonally over the fence and into the smoke-covered cornfield, which would mask their forward movement. Wheat’s timing and sense of the situation were off, however. He should have launched his counterattack soon after the 2nd Rhode Island crested the ridge. That was the time when they were the most vulnerable. Now, a little after 10:15, almost an hour later, the Rhode Islanders were much better ensconced.
In small groups, the Tigers made their way slowly but surely through the hazy cornfield as Federal shot and shell buzzed over their heads. About 50 yards from the Federal line, to the right-front of the 2nd Rhode Island, the Tigers began to emerge from the cut-up stalks of corn. After a few more minutes, once the officers were able to concentrate their men as best they could, Wheat ordered a charge. The Tigers bolted from the shrouded cornfield, firing their last round, and ran full-bore at the Federal line. Some slung aside their rifles and brandished their bowie knives in preparation for close-quarter combat. To one member of the 2nd Rhode Island, the charge “seemed to me to be the most terrible moment of this terrific contest.”
When the Tigers were within 20 yards of the Federal line, the 2nd Rhode Island gave a hideous scream and racked the Confederates with musketry. The lone volley was so powerful, well-timed and decisive that Wheat’s charge was stopped cold, and most of the Tigers careened off to the left, retreating down the hill toward Sloan’s position. “Never will I forget,” proclaimed one of Reynolds’ artillerymen, “how [Wheat’s] rebel flag looked as it bobbed out of sight under the hill.”
The situation was now critical for Evans. His relatively stable right, once held by Wheat, was gone. His precarious left, held by Sloan, was being systematically slaughtered by Union cannons. Worse yet, the enemy, after much delay, was bringing up reinforcements for the 2nd Rhode Island. On the other side of the road, above Wheat’s new position, Colonel Andrew Porter was bringing up his brigade. A full Union division, about 5,000 men, now faced Evans’ 1,100 Confederates.
While the Federals formed to dispose of Evans’ pesky command, about 800 yards to Evans’ rear, on the northern slope of Henry Hill, a new player entered the fray as Confederate Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee drew his ad hoc brigade into position. He formed his troops so that they had a full view of the contest on the opposite height.
From his higher position atop Henry Hill, Bee could see that Evans was holding out against incredible odds. He sent a courier down to the hard-pressed South Carolinian to urge him to fall back to Henry Hill, a position that was stronger than the one he currently occupied. But Evans instead dared Bee to come down and support him. Faced with Evans’ intransigence, Bee reluctantly led his men forward. “Here is the battlefield,” he said, “and we are in for it!”
Under heavy enemy artillery fire, Bee marched his command forward across the pike, up and over Buck Hill, and onto the slope of Matthews Hill, where he sent his lead regiment, the 4th Alabama, up through the pine thicket and into the same swale that Wheat had held a few minutes before. The 2nd Mississippi, next in line, was sent to the left of the 4th Alabama, linking up Sloan’s depleted 4th South Carolina. Bee’s last two regiments, the 7th and 8th Georgia, under Colonel Francis Bartow, moved to extend the Confederate right toward the Matthews house. Bee had arrived none too soon, for the advance elements of Heintzelman’s Federal division had began to arrive to support Burnside’s stymied line.
Wheat, out on his own and under steady fire from Union infantry and artillery, believed that he was “in the face of a very large force; some ten or twelve thousand in number.” Despite the preponderance of enemy fire, he ordered his men to advance from the shelter of the woods and into the field of cut hay to connect with the rest of Bee’s command. Only a handful of Tigers obliged, however, and even they moved reluctantly out into the field, where they concealed themselves behind some haystacks as best they could. In the process of ousting the rest of his men from the woods, Wheat was hit by a Minié bullet that whizzed down from the top of Matthews Hill. The bullet clipped his left arm, drilled into his left side and perforated one lung before passing out the other side.
Wheat fell to the ground, and a group of his men, including Captain Buhoup, quickly surrounded him and rolled him onto a blanket. Then they began to lug their burly commander back to the wood line. The enemy fire was so galling that Wheat shouted, “Lay me down, boys, you must save yourselves!” His pleas were ignored.
As Wheat was dragged into the relative safety of the woods, the battalion’s color-bearer threw his bullet-ridden flag over him to help stop the bleeding. A few minutes later, a mounted officer rode up to Wheat to rush him to the nearest field hospital.
Wheat’s wounding proved momentous. Once he was evacuated, the battalion, with no field officer to rally it, broke up and melted away, the men heading for the rear, some following Wheat himself. Their withdrawal eventually unhinged the rest of Bee’s line, which was already pressed beyond the breaking point.
By noon, Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s divisions had wrested control of Matthews Hill from the Confederates. Once they reached the pike, they were joined by the men of General Tyler’s division, who had finally pushed through Sloan’s four remaining companies at the Stone Bridge. General McDowell also arrived at the field and, happy with how the battle had evolved thus far, decided to press the attack.
As McDowell concentrated to deliver the coup de grâce, the bulk of Bee’s shattered command retreated south and east, across the pike, up the northern slope of Henry Hill, and into a patch of woods. There they were joined by Colonel Wade Hampton’s battalion of South Carolinians, just arrived from the Confederate right. Hampton agreed to continue his march down to the pike in order to cover Bee’s retreat. After a brief fight, Hampton’s men, fighting alone, were also overwhelmed by McDowell’s advancing forces and forced to fall back to Henry Hill.
The next Confederate units to arrive at Henry Hill included Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson’s brigade of five Virginia regiments and Colonel Eppa Hunton’s 8th Virginia Infantry. These units were able to form a sturdy line in front of the woods on the eastern slope of Henry Hill. Thus shielded by Jackson’s “wall,” Evans, Bee and Bartow were able to consolidate their scattered commands with the help of General Beauregard himself, just arrived at Henry Hill.
Like Wheat’s battalion, Sloan’s 4th South Carolina was broken up into companies. Four of its companies, one-time defenders of Matthews Hill, attached themselves to Hampton’s Legion. Another company attached itself to the 49th Virginia Infantry. The other five companies of Sloan’s regiment fell back to the Lewis House, where they attached themselves to the remaining Zouaves of Wheat’s battalion.
While Beauregard was busily constructing an entirely new line atop Henry Hill, McDowell sent his army forward. As the Federal advance moved into the woods, however, it was hit unexpectedly by fire from Colonel Arthur Cummings’ blue-coated 33rd Virginia Infantry. In the fight that followed, the confused Federal infantry broke and retreated back up the Manassas-Sudley Road. As they did so, from the south, 150 troopers from Colonel J.E.B. Stuart’s 1st Virginia Cavalry charged right into their disorganized mass, routed the infantrymen and drove them farther up the road.
Seizing the opportunity, Jackson immediately ordered his whole line forward. During the ensuing back-and-forth fighting at Henry Hill, Colonel Robert Withers and his 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment were ordered to remove themselves from Bull Run and reinforce Beauregard’s line on Henry Hill.
Withers recalled that he was ordered to move forward past the McLean House through a mass of retreating men. “As many of these were unhurt,” said Withers, “I urged them to go back with us into the fight, all refused except two ‘Tigers,’ who, from their brogue were evidently Irish.” One of the Louisianans, continued Withers, “ran up the slope to an orchard occupied by the skirmishers, got behind an apple tree, and fired two or three times, when he was shot through both legs. He squatted down, and turning his head over his shoulder, called to his comrade: ‘I say, Dennis, come up here and give them hell, for they’ve got me!'”
With more forces at his disposal, Beauregard ordered his whole line to advance and drive the Federals from Henry Hill. During the attack, the Zouaves from Wheat’s battalion, like the rest of the line, were hit by a Federal fusillade. Lieutenant Thomas Adrian of Company B fell with a leg wound. Seeing the Tigers’ subsequent hesitation, Adrian, while lying on the ground and bleeding profusely, shouted: “Tigers, go in once more, go in my sons, I’ll be great gloriously God damned if the sons of bitches can ever whip the Tigers!”
Apparently inspired by Adrian’s plea, the Tigers, with the rest of Bee’s line, rallied, turned and drove the Federals back. Tiger Zouave Robert Richie subsequently reported to the New Orleans Daily Delta: “Our blood was on fire. Life was valueless. The boys fired one volley, then rushed upon the foe with clubbed rifles beating down their guard; then they closed upon them with their knives, ‘Greek had met Greek,’ the tug of war had come….[It] did not seem as though men were fighting,…[but as if there] were devils mingling in the conflict, cursing, yelling, cutting, and shrieking.”
By dusk, McDowell’s army was driven totally from the field and retreated all the way back to Washington. The first great battle of the war had ended in Southern victory.
Wheat’s little band of Louisiana Tigers had been instrumental in bringing about the Southern success. Its actions on Matthews Hill gave Beauregard time to shuffle enough forces to make a stand on Henry Hill. And on Henry Hill, the place where the Federals were ultimately driven back, the Tigers again distinguished themselves, charging and then holding a section of guns. Beauregard noted that the Tigers and the balance of Evans’ brigade “maintained their stand with almost matchless tenacity…dauntless courage and imperturbable coolness,” and cited Wheat for his “brilliant courage.” Beauregard went on to say, “[I]n the desperate, unequal contest, to which these brave gentlemen were for a time necessarily exposed the behavior of officers and men was worthy of the highest admiration, and assuredly hereafter to all those present may proudly say: ‘We were of that band who fought the first hour of the battle of Manassas.'”
First-time contributor Gary Schreckengost, a resident of Elm, Pa., is working on a book about Wheat’s Tigers. For further reading, see: Lee’s Tigers, by Terry L. Jones; or Gentle Giant: The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat, by Charles L. Dufour.
[ Top | Cover Page ]