This article is part of The Immigrants’ Civil War. Scroll to the bottom for a complete list of articles.
The 1st Louisiana Tigers Special Battalion was a unit mostly composed of Irish immigrants. They hunkered down in the dense bushes on the west side of Bull Run, a small Virginia stream, on the morning of July 21, 1861. Up close they were quite a sight: Among the most colorful units on the field at Bull Run, the men dressed in the uniform of the Zouave, and looked like Berber troops in French North Africa.
They were guarding the one dry way to cross the creek: the Stone Bridge. The rest of the Confederate army was far to the right of them. Fewer than 500 men, they were the last unit on the far left of two combined Confederate armies of more than 30,000 men. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had placed the Irish New Orleanian soldiers there, had decided that the Union attack would hit his right and that the Tigers would see little action early on beyond some light skirmishing.1
During the hours after sunrise, the Tigers heard men moving into position across Bull Run. They could not have known it, but more than 15,000 Union soldiers were on the march towards the Tigers’ position on the Confederate left.2 (Click here for an animated, narrated map of Bull Run)
The Irish Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York State Militia, commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran, was in motion long before daylight. At 2:30am they began what for some of them would be the last day of their lives. A few days earlier the 69th had been brigaded with other regiments and placed under the command of a then-unknown colonel, William Tecumseh Sherman. The men didn’t like him. He had a reputation as a “martinet,” a commander who valued the rule book over the comfort and well-being of his soldiers. High strung, and soon to suffer what many would call a nervous breakdown, the battle at Bull Run would not elevate Sherman’s reputation.3
The men of the 69th stumbled through the hot humid darkness of a Virginia summer night towards the creek. Their brigade took up position near the Stone Bridge, almost opposite the Louisiana Tigers. There both units would sit for hours as the Union battle plan developed.4
Modern photo of the reconstructed Stone Bridge over Bull Run. Both the Tigers and the Fighting 69th began the day of the battle in this sector. (Source: National Park Service)
The Battle of Bull Run was essentially a fight between two gaudily dressed and heavily armed mobs. Lincoln’s army, raised in April following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, was about to disband. Soldiers had enlisted for just 90 days, and many units would be ending their terms of service before the start of August. If the army was not used quickly, it would dissolve before its first battle.
Lincoln pressed his commander, General Irwin McDowell, to strike immediately, reasoning that while the Union troops were green, so too were the Confederates. Neither army was adequately trained and units had been so hastily organized that many soldiers did not even know the names of their brigade and division commanders.5
Union armies (shown in blue) protected Washington (under the command of McDowell) and western Pennsylvania and Maryland (Patterson). Confederate armies (shown in red) protected the important railroad line at Manassas Junction (Beauregard) along Bull Run and the Shenandoah Valley (Johnston) in western Virginia. As McDowell moved to attack Beauregard at Bull Run, Johnston secretly moved his Confederates to join Beauregard. The elderly General Patterson did nothing to try to stop him. McDowell met a Confederate army nearly twice as large as a result. (Source: Staff Ride Guide, Battle of the First Bull Run by Ted Ballard)
The Union Army included many units formed by immigrants in the North. Colonel Louis Blenker commanded a brigade of four regiments, including the Garibaldi Guards, made up mostly of men born in Central and Southern Europe. Blenker and German abolitionist Carl Schurz had rallied Germans to the Union army just two months earlier in New York. The Union army also had non-“ethnic” regiments that nonetheless had large numbers of immigrants in them. The most famous of these was the 11th N.Y., or Ellsworth’s Zoauves. This unit was recruited exclusively from New York City firemen, who at the time were predominantly Irish. The 11th N.Y. would play a controversial role in the battle and would later become the scapegoats for the Union defeat.6
Soldiers head off to Bull Run in uniforms of all designs, many dressed in the garb of French Berber troops from North Africa called Zouaves. Union Zouaves are depicted in this painting by Winslow Homer.
The Confederates did not have the same multi-national aspect as their Northern opponents, with one exception. Of all of the Confederate states, Louisiana was more heavily dependent on immigrant soldiers than any other. We know where 7,000 of the Louisiana soldiers who went to fight in Virginia in 1861 were born: 2,303 were from Louisiana, 2,485 were born in other states, and about a third were immigrants—even though only one-in-nine people in Louisiana was foreign-born. Of those immigrant soldiers, 1,463 came from Ireland, 412 from Germany, 160 from England and 74 from France. Recruits also came from nearly 20 other countries.7
There were only six Polish soldiers in the Louisiana forces, which is surprising considering that two Louisiana regiments were designated as Polish. One of those regiments, the 15th Louisiana, was misnamed. Called the Second Regiment of the Polish Brigade, it included virtually no Poles, and there was no Polish Brigade in the Confederate Army. New Orleans in 1861 had fewer than 200 Polish immigrants in the whole city.
The city was, however, home to many Germans and Irish, and these men filled the ranks. The 15th Louisiana was not organized until after the battle at Bull Run, but one of its future companies, the Crescent Rifles, was in the thick of the fight. The company’s most famous participant in the Battle of Bull Run was an Irish woman, Rose Rooney. She was a vivandier, a woman who enlisted with the regiment to provide support services and to nurse the wounded. During the battle, she tore down a rail fence while under heavy fire, allowing a battery of artillery to get into position. She was credited by the men for her courage in battle and many believed she had preserved her unit by her actions. Rose Rooney served all four years of the war with her company and was listed on her unit’s roster until the final Confederate surrender at Appomattox. After the war she would hold an honored place among Confederate veterans.8
As the morning progressed, the commander of the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, Major Chatam Wheat, and their brigade commander, Colonel Nathan Evans, could tell something was afoot across Bull Run, but they didn’t know what until a signal flag transmitted the message that Union troops were fording the stream miles to the left of the Tigers. Evans, in one of the most important command decisions of the day, immediately shifted the Tigers and several hundred other men to blunt the attack.9
The Tigers were desperately outnumbered, but their commanders knew that if they did not hold the Union army up, the Northerners would crush the poorly deployed Confederate line. The New Orleans men took up a defensive position on Matthew’s Hill, forcing the Union troops to deploy for battle and lose precious time in their race to collapse the Confederate left flank before General Beauregard, whose headquarters was miles away, even knew he was under attack. It would be two long hours before the Confederate high command understood the dire situation it faced. Could the Louisiana Tigers and the few nearby supporting units hold out?
At first the situation must have seemed impossible. From their elevated position they could see regiment after regiment marching towards them. Soldiers from Maine, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut headed down the road and slowly formed into battle lines.
But for the Union troops, as for the Confederates, this was their first battle. Units took time to get into unfamiliar formations, and as new units arrived on the field they sowed confusion in the men already on the battle line. Since some of the Union troops wore gray uniforms, soldiers from one Northern state opened fire on troops from another. And the Union soldiers, who had been marching for nearly a dozen miles since early morning, were exhausted before the battle began. Now, at 10:30 in the morning, the heat of a Virginia summer day began to overwhelm them.
The Tigers, for their part, were inspired by their leaders. Their immediate leader, Major Wheat, was both loved and respected by the Irish Zouaves. He would leave the field one of the first Confederate heroes that day. His brigade commander, Colonel Evans, was a man who understood how key this unit was to victory.
As Union troops marched up Matthews Hill, the Tigers laid down a ferocious fire on them. When more Union forces approached, Wheat did the unthinkable with his small command—he led the Tigers in an attack on the much larger Union force! When some of his men threw down their rifles in the hand-to-hand combat later and relied instead on their knives and their street fighting skills, the legend of the Tigers was born. One soldier in the 2nd Rhode Island called the charge “the most terrible moment of this terrific contest.”10
The confusion spread throughout the Union forces by this bold move proved more deadly to the Northern cause than the actual casualties that resulted from it. With the Confederate position defended by only a scattering of units, the Unionists delayed advancing again. During the delay, Confederate reinforcements began arriving. The Union army would now spend an hour fighting for strategic land they could have occupied in minutes if the Tigers had not delayed them.
The Tigers themselves were disorganized by the charge. Most of them were cut off from returning to their starting point, and the soldiers began to scatter, with some fighting as a unit, and others joining nearby regiments in the battle. Captain Wheat himself was shot through both lungs. His men, at considerable risk to themselves, dragged his body off the field to what they expected to be his death bed.11
The Confederates Push Back
By noon, the Confederates had to pull back from Matthews Hill to the higher Henry Hill behind it. There, Thomas Jackson would earn his nickname “Stonewall.” His fresh brigade of Virginians occupied the back of the hill when Confederate refugees from Matthews Hill, the Tigers among them, fled the now-overwhelming Union forces and reorganized themselves behind Jackson’s “Stonewall” of men. Union troops pursuing the retreating Confederates couldn’t see Jackson’s brigade until they crested the hill and his men’s volleys of musketry and cannon slammed into them.12
At 1:30pm the Union forces were bogged down trying to drive off the Confederates organized by Jackson. The Union commander, General Irwin McDowell, ordered two batteries of artillery onto the hill, sending up just a few hundred men to support them. Normally, a commander would not move so many valuable cannons close to the enemy without 4,000 soldiers or more to protect them from capture. The 11th New York Fire Zouaves were to lead this inadequate protective force. A Zouave officers called out to his men, “Come on boys and show them what New York can do!” one Fire Zouave later wrote, “and with that, the pet lambs were led to slaughter.”13
Civil War cannons were heavy, unwieldy weapons. The soldiers manning them could not defend themselves against charging infantry or cavalry, and on Henry Hill, they would face both. The artillery batteries, followed by the New York Fire Zouaves, crested the hill, only to see Stonewall Jackson’s well-led forces in line against them. When the Union soldiers saw a Confederate regiment advancing on them, they turned their guns to fire, only to be told by an officer that the men moving towards them were fellow Union troops.
When the “Unionists” eventually opened fire on them, the real Union soldiers soon learned their mistake, but at the cost of many of the men and most of the horses they needed to move the cannons. The New York Firemen sprang up to help the the artillery men, but they appeared to observers to be in shock at the death all around them. They fired a scattering of shots and then many of the Firemen broke for nearby cover. The priceless artillery, left without defenders, was overrun by the Confederates. For more than two hours, Union troops, including the 14th Brooklyn, would fight unsuccessfully to recapture the cannons. They became the strategic target of the entire Union force at Bull Run.14
During the morning, the Fighting 69th had been out of action. Sherman’s Brigade had been held back at the Stone Bridge. As Union troops began streaming up Henry Hill in uncoordinated attacks—in which a single Northern regiment would be pitted against several Confederate units—Sherman’s brigade moved across Bull Run and towards the fighting.
The Union forces paid with their lives for their commanders’ lack of coordination in trying to recapture the batteries. Although McDowell had as many troops at the base of Henry Hill as the Confederates had on it, instead of moving up the hill in a unified fashion, or trying to move around it to force its evacuation, he seems to have simply sent whatever unit he happened upon up the hill to be cut down by the waiting Confederates. Sherman’s brigade moved on the hill in the same fashion as these earlier unfortunates.
First up Henry Hill for Sherman was the 13th New York, which was chopped up by Confederate fire. Next came the 2nd Wisconsin with the same outcome. The 79th New York, which was a Scottish regiment from the city, saw its Colonel James Cameron, brother of the Secretary of War, killed on the slopes of the hill. Last up was the 69th New York. An officer remembered the advance up the hill: “Batteries opened on them right and left, hurling grape into their very faces, while from the shelter of the woods a stream of lead was poured on them.” The 69th was driven back by the heavy fire but “after each repulse, the regiment charged…When [Captain Thomas Francis] Meagher’s horse was torn from under him by a rifled cannon ball, he jumped up and exclaimed, ‘Boys look at that flag—remember Ireland.’”15
Miraculously, with help from another New York regiment, the 69th was able to recapture the battery. John Stacom, a soldier of the 69th, described the moment to The New York Times: “We felt quite elated, seeing Gen. MCDOWELL complimenting Col. CORCORAN on the success of our victory.” The cost had been heavy. Among the Irish killed in the fight was the 69th’s second in command, Lt,. Col. Haggerty. Haggerty had pursued a “Louisiana zoave” who was retreating from the charge of the 69th. The Tiger turned on him and shot the officer down.16
“We Suffered Terribly”
The moment of triumph did not last. When the New York men looked back they could see that no new regiments were coming to support them. In fact, the battered Union army was beginning to stream away from the battlefield. Fresh Confederate regiments were pouring in on the right, and on the left the other New York regiment was being driven back by a counterattack. “Suddenly a large [Confederate] reinforcement came up, and opened on us with terrific effect,” Stacom told the Times, adding sadly, “we suffered terribly.”17
The men of the 69th now fought for their lives, and fought to avoid the disgrace of losing their regimental flags. One officer recalled the scene: ”The standard bearer of the green flag of the sixty-ninth was shot down, but the flag was instantly raised again. The second man was shot, and a rebel tore the flag from his grasp… [H]e shot down the rebel, rescuing the flag…but he was soon overpowered…and the trophy taken from him.” Soldiers from the Fire Zouaves joined the struggle and a Zouave officer shot the Confederate captor and returned the flag to the 69th.18
This Currier and Ives print from the collection of the Library of Congress shows Colonel Corcoran (mounted) leading the 69th New York on Henry Hill. The red-shirted soldiers in the foreground are members of the 11th NY Fire Zouaves. The green flag of the 69th is in the center of the picture. In the background, men of the Irish regiment are shown shirtless, having stripped down for battle.
The vulnerable 69th now slowly backed down Henry Hill. When Confederate cavalry under soon-to-be legendary commander Jeb Stuart threatened to charge them, they formed a square, a formation designed to hold off horsemen, and marched in formation across the creek they had crossed five hours ago. Two other regiments nearby reacted with panic to the threat of Stuart’s men. Amid screams of “Black Horse Cavalry!” they ran right through the 69th, essentially ending its cohesion. Colonel Corcoran tried desperately to reorganize his men. A week after the fight, Col. Corcoran wrote to his wife from a Confederate prison about the dislocation of his regiment:
My regiment came off the field in admirable order, and were on the road to Centreville, where I halted to rest. Two regiments that had not been in line and were returning in disorder, hung on my flank, and when the cavalry were seen advancing toward us, these regiments broke precipitately through my lines, throwing us into disorder, and caused a general flight.
I dismounted… and got the color bearer to halt, and called on the men to rally around the flag, but just at this moment a discharge of carbines from the pursuing cavalry and our own artillery drowned my voice, and destroyed all my efforts to muster the men. I had only nine men who heard me and halted, and those, with two officers and myself, were immediately surrounded and taken to Manassas that night.19
The disorganization only got worse as panic spread among the troops racing back towards Washington. As a member of the 69th recalled: “There was a regular… confusion of soldiers without arms, members of Congress and editors without hats or coats, ladies in buggies… [newspaper] correspondents…almost scared to death, while behind all came the rebel cavalry, cutting and slashing.”20
More than a thousand Union soldiers, many of whom were foreign-born, were captured by the Confederates, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of the Southerners. This was soon exaggerated into an image of native-born Confederates squaring off against an army of foreign hirelings, as evinced by Private Drury Gibson in a letter home to his sister on August 1, 1861: “The northern army seems to be principally composed of foreigners, such as Elksworths Fire Zouaves, they are fighting for plunder.”21
Ironically, Drury Gibson’s own unit, the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, the Tigers, itself included many Irish immigrants.
The commander of the 1st Louisiana, Major Wheat, would survive wounds that he had been told would kill him. In his after-action report, Wheat noted how his men persevered after he had been shot:
[The men] bore themselves gallantly throughout the day in the face of an enemy far outnumbering us. Where all behaved so well, I forbear to make invidious distinctions, and contenting myself with commending my entire command to your favorable consideration. I beg leave to name particularly Major Atkins, a distinguished Irish soldier, who as a volunteer Adjutant, not only rendered me valuable assistance but with a small detachment captured three pieces of artillery and took three officers prisoner.22
Like many Americans on both sides in the war, Private Drury Gibson was blind to the contribution of immigrants to his own cause. Major Wheat was loved by his men because he was not.
Resource for Understanding the First Battle of Bull Run
An excellent source of information about the role of Irish in the battle can be found here: Irish in the American Civil War.
The blog Bull Runnings provides access to many valuable documents connected to the battle.
The U.S. Army makes its guide for officers studying the battle available here as part of its Staff Ride series.
Note on Military Units
A company was the basic unit of Civil War armies. Ideally, a company had around 100 men in it. A regiment consisted of about 10 companies and typically had 1,000 men in it. A brigade was made up of two or more regiments, and a division of two or more brigades. None of these units were able to turn out their ideal strengths for battles due to losses in combat, sickness, and men absent from the units.
Note on Battle Names
Most Civil War battles have two names, one given by Union troops and the other by Confederates. Bull Run is the Union name for the battle, but Confederates referred to it as Manassas. I decided to let the web decide what name I’ll use. According to Google, searchers are 10 times as likely to look for Bull Run as they are to search for Manassas.
1. Battle at Bull Run by William C. Davis, Doubleday, Garden City (1977) pp. 66-67; Supplement to the OR-Vol. I Reports Addendum to Series I Vol. 2 pp. 194-195 Rep. of Major Wheat Aug. 1, 1861; Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Essay by P.G.T. Beauregard pp. 196-227.
2. Supplement to the OR-Vol. I Reports Addendum to Series I Vol. 2 pp. 194-195 Rep. of Major Wheat Aug. 1, 1861; O.R.-Series I Volume 2 [S#2]-Chapter IX, pp. 558-560 Report of Brig. Gen. Nathan Evans July 24, 1861
3. OR Series I-Volume 2 [S#2]-Chapter IX pp. 371-372 Report of Captain James Kelly July 24, 1861. Kelly complains that the 69th were “greatly fatigued” because it was the only unit that was not allowed to transport its supplies by wagon. The men had to carry their supplies. Men of the 69th also criticized Sherman for refusing to allow their sick to be transported back to Washington before the battle.
5. Battle of First Bull Run by Ted Ballard, Center of Military History (2003) pp. 3-6
6. Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments by William L. Burton, Iowa State University Press, Ames (1988)
7. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) p. 14
8. Compendium of C.S. Armies: Louisiana; Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia by Terry Jones Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) p. 13.
9. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) p. 50-51; ; O.R.-Series I Volume 2 [S#2]-Chapter IX, pp. 558-560 Report of Brig. Gen. Nathan Evans July 24, 1861
10. Gottfried, Bradley M. (2009). Maps of First Bull Run: An Atlas of the First Bull Run (Manassas) Campaign, including the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, June – October 1861 (Kindle Locations 660-661). Savas Beatie. Kindle Edition.]; Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia by Terry Jones. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) pp. 52-53. The knife fighting incident, while undoubtedly true, was also exaggerated in the Southern press and by Confederate soldiers. One account has three entire companies of Tigers attacking with just knives!
11. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) pp. 51-52
12. Battle of First Bull Run by Ted Ballard, Center of Military History (2003) pp. 18-21
13. Gottfried, Bradley M. (2009). Maps of First Bull Run: An Atlas of the First Bull Run (Manassas) Campaign, including the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, June – October 1861 (Kindle Locations 954-956). Savas Beatie. Kindle Edition. OR –Series I-Volume 2 [S#2} Chapter IX, pp. 345-348 Report of Major William Barry July 23, 1861. See also Report of the Conduct of the War Vol. 2 Testimony by Capt. Charles Griffin January 14, 1862 pp. 168-177.
14. Report of the Conduct of the War Vol. 2 Testimony by Capt. Charles Griffin January 14, 1862 pp. 168-177
15. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David P. Conyngham, published by William McSorley (1866) pp. 36-37
16. OR Series I Vol. 2 [S# 2]-Chapter IX pp. 371-372 Report of Capt. James Kelly 69th NY Mil. July 24. 1861; STATEMENT OF A RETURNED SOLDIER OF THE SIXTY-NINTH. The New York Times, published July 26, 1861
17. STATEMENT OF A RETURNED SOLDIER OF THE SIXTY-NINTH.The New York Times, published July 26, 1861
18. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David P. Conyngham, pub. by William McSorley (1866) p. 40
19. LETTER FROM COL. CORCORAN. The Manner Of His Capture By The Rebels. Richmond, Va., July 29, 1861.
20. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David P. Conyngham, published by William McSorley (1866) p. 39
21. Gibson letter is available at the Bull Runnings resources page.
22. Supplement to the OR-Vol. I Reports Addendum to Series I Vol. 2 pp. 194-195 Rep. of Major Wheat Aug. 1, 1861
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites