— Part 1 of 2 —
Have you ever given much thought to college sports nicknames? Many come from nicknames used during times of war.
The Tennessee “Volunteers” is from the War of 1812 when the state more than filled its quota of volunteers. Notre Dame gets its “Fighting Irish” from the Civil War when Irish immigrants were met at the boat and sent directly into military service. The Irish were considered the most expendable of the soldiers and were sent into the worst of the fights. The fighting Irish made a name for themselves on battlefield after battlefield.
The North Carolina Tar Heels first picked up their name during the American Revolution, when they were described as fighting like they had tar on their heels and couldn’t be pushed back! During the Civil War they again earned this nickname in places like Big Bethel and Gettysburg.
How about it, LSU fans? Ever heard of the Louisiana Tigers?
In June 1861 the famed Union Convention was taking place at the Greene County Courthouse. It was made up of a virtual who’s who of East Tennessee politicians who felt Tennessee should not have seceded from the Union. They were in session to ask the state legislature to allow East Tennessee to remain in the Union, which would be a revival of the State of Franklin. While Greeneville was pro-Confederate, the county was 2-1 in favor of the Union. Despite its leaning in the town, the Union flag was flying in front of the courthouse during the convention.
On June 9 as speakers orated at the courthouse against the new Confederacy, a train pulled into the station on Depot Street. It was coming from Knoxville with soldiers in route to Richmond. The train had pulled onto a side trestle awaiting the southbound train from Bristol.
These soldiers were not just the run of the mill, everyday Confederate soldier. They were the Louisiana Tigers!
This was virtually a circus of tigers let loose on Greeneville. They were only in town a few hours, but the locals talked about the Tigers the rest of their lives! Off the train and down Depot Street they came like a swarm of locusts.
WHO WERE THE TIGERS?
Before I get too far along, let’s look at just who were the Louisiana Tigers.
The newly formed Confederate government asked its states’ governors to send regiments to help defend the capital of Richmond against the anticipated invasion by the north. Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton Moore realized he could ill afford to send much-needed troops to Virginia. After all, he had the mouth of the Mississippi River and the busy ports of New Orleans to protect. Moore came up with a plan, one that countries around the world had used, and one even the U.S. would use through World War II.
He would empty his jails, prisons, asylums, reform schools and orphanages of those willing to serve. The man handpicked to lead them was a Virginian by birth who received his law degree in Nashville and served as a U.S. Army captain of the 1st Tennessee Mounted Regiment under Winfield Scott in the war with Mexico. He had served as a Louisiana state representative and as a mercenary in wars in Cuba, Mexico and Italy. He was now Confederate Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. He was a giant of a man at 6 feet, 4 inches and 275 pounds.
He may have been a giant, but his hands were full for sure.
Wheats men were a potpourri of high society lawyers, sons of planters and merchants, and those “others” — the others being pickpockets, gamblers, thieves, murderers, dockworkers and prostitutes. Yes — Wheat had about a hundred men who were women liberated from jail. They dressed like men, looked like men, and were as well armed with knives and pistols as were the men. They could fight, curse and drink as well as the men. Their military duties were as washer women and cooks, but they could stand their ground against anyone.
A COLORFUL BUNCH
The Tigers received their uniforms from A. Keene Richards, a wealthy New Orleans businessman, because he was “so impressed by their drill and appearance.” Richards elected to outfit the company in the Zouave fashion, dark blue wool Zouave jackets with red cotton trim, distinctive red fezzes with red tassels, red flannel band collar shirts with five white porcelain buttons, and outlandish “Wedgwood blue and cream” one-and-one-half-inch vertically striped cottonade ship pantaloons that would become their signature. They were also provided with blue and white horizontally striped stockings and white canvas leggings.
Most of the lieutenants and captains of the battalion uniformed themselves in dark blue wool single-breasted frock coats or short jackets with matching trousers, red or blue wool kepis with stiff black leather bills, red officers’ sashes, and white canvas leggings worn over or under the trousers. Wheat chose to wear the uniform of a field-grade officer in the Louisiana Volunteer Militia, a red kepi bedecked with appropriate Austrian gold lace, a double-breasted dark blue wool frock coat with brass shoulder scales, and red wool trousers. He also sported a buff general’s sash, no doubt to commemorate his past commissions in the Mexican and Italian armies. No doubt about it: The Tigers were a spectacle.
Wheat’s troops included a lot of Irish, Germans who only spoke German, French who only spoke French, and Creoles who spoke a bit of their own language and bits of others. Some spoke five languages while many could not understand each other.
One thing they all loved to do was drink and fight. To many of Wheats’ men drinking, fighting and thievery were a normal part of life. Their favorite food groups were”
The French did like their wine also.
When people ask me why the Tigers stopped in Greeneville, I always answer, “They drank all the whisky they collected in Knoxville and had to restock.” That may not be too far from the truth!
Wheat’s chosen skirmishers were issued the coveted M1841 “Mississippi” Rifle, made by the Robbins and Lawrence Gun Company of Connecticut. Gov. Moore’s insurgents had seized these accurate weapons, among the best in service at the time, from the Federal Arsenal at Baton Rouge in January 1861. To offset their absence of bayonets, the Tigers were either issued or brought along their own Bowie-style knife or ship cutlasses, implements which were described as “murderous-looking … with heavy blades … 20 inches long with double edged points … and solid long handles.”
With their weapons and equipment in hand, the men of Wheat’s battalion were trained in the latest light and heavy infantry techniques by the Old Filibuster himself in the pine stands which surrounded Camp Moore. Once their exhausting and sometimes frustrating sessions were over, many of the Tigers often drank, played cards and got into fights with themselves or other units. One man scoffed that the Tigers were “the worst men I ever saw … I understand that they are mostly wharf rats from New Orleans, and Major Wheat is the only man who can do anything with them.”
As the Tigers left New Orleans it became evident that discipline would be an issue. A group of Tigers highjacked their own troop train, stopping it in Montgomery, Alabama, to loot the town. Wheat and his officers killed several of the men in order to regain control. The Tigers created mayhem long before Allstate! In fact, they created mayhem everywhere they stopped.
So, in June 1861, this bunch made its way down Depot Street here in Greeneville like a flamboyantly dressed swarm of locust.
To see what happened next, see next Saturday’s edition of The Greeneville Sun.