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As the Irish Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment in the New York State Militia was training for battle near Alexandria, Virginia, at the end of June 1861, another immigrant unit arrived in northern Virginia in clothes that exaggerated their own foreignness. This strangely dressed battalion would become one of the most famous units of the Confederate Army.
The Louisiana Tigers battalion drew its men primarily from the Irish working class in New Orleans. Its mostly impoverished soldiers took the field in some of the most outrageous uniforms worn by any men in the war. The Tigers were a Zouave unit, which meant they wore clothing patterned on the uniforms of French North African troops. The original Zouaves were Berber tribesmen recruited by the French to fight in Algiers. The Tigers would become one of the hardest fighting units in the war, but if you know the history of the Irish community in New Orleans you might ask why they fought at all.
The model below shows a Louisiana Tiger in a “Zouave” uniform based on uniforms worn by French troops in North Africa. While the Tiger would have worn a Berber-style cap on parade, the men wore straw hats to protect themselves from the sun during summer military operations. The Zouave uniform has been described as “the opposite of camouflage.” It was designed to attract attention. (Click here for source.)
New Orleans, the biggest city in the Confederacy, was also the South’s only city where nearly half of the population was born abroad. It had the largest concentration of Jewish immigrants, 4,000 to 5,000, in the South.1 It had small populations of Latinos, French immigrants, and Italians. But the city’s two largest groups of newcomers were Germans and Irish.2
We tend to think of New Orleans as city run by Creoles descended from French settlers, but in 1860 it was incredibly diverse, and woefully divided. By the start of the Civil War, non-French speaking whites outnumbered French immigrants, Creoles, free blacks, and slaves combined. The non-French whites included native-born Southerners (called “The English” by Creoles) who had moved to the area after the Louisiana Purchase, as well as large numbers of immigrants.3
Immigrants had been coming from Europe since the 1830s, when they had been crowded into neighborhoods like “Little Saxony” and “The Irish Channel.” But by 1860, Irish and Germans could be found almost everywhere. Even in the Creole bastion of the French Quarter, immigrants outnumbered the native-born Creoles.4
The diverse mix of immigrants gave the city its well-known accent, retained even today, which is less Southern and more Brooklyn.
New Orleans drew heavy immigration from Ireland because of the peculiarities of the cotton trade. All cotton from the slave states lining the Mississippi was sent down river to New Orleans where it was loaded onto sailing ship to be sent to England’s textile mills. Once it was offloaded, ships would be light and top heavy. Since the South never took in as much weight in imports as it sent to England as exports, cotton ships needing ballast would take on Irish immigrants at very cheap rates simply to keep the ships from tipping over on the return voyage. Irish peasants, unfamiliar with American geography, were often told that New Orleans was near New York and that once arrived in Louisiana they could arrange travel to join their families there or in Boston.5
Normally immigrants avoided slave states. They knew that a free workman could never compete in wages with slaves and that underbidding slave labor was a recipe for starvation. The geography of New Orleans, however, opened up a dangerous job market for the unskilled Irish worker.
New Orleans is the largest port on the Mississippi. It is set amidst swamps and lakes. Canals needed to be built to drain the swamps and provide navigable channels for ships. Levees had to be constructed to preserve the city from flooding. Ships at the docks had to be tended and loaded. This was what was referred to as “water work” and it was considered too dangerous for slaves.
An Irish laborer cost more to hire per day than the upkeep costs of a slave. However, the slave represented a capital investment for his “owner.” Water work was dangerous. Men drowned or sickened and died from the diseases of the swamps. If a slave drowned, his owner lost his capital.6
A New Orleans river pilot explained the economics of using the Irish for water work to a traveler:
“Every time a boiler bursts [on a ship], they would lose so many dollars worth of slaves, whereas by getting an Irishman at a dollar a day they pay for the [labor] as they get it, and if it is blown up, they get another [Irish worker].”7
Irish were brought to New Orleans in large numbers to build the New Ship Canal in 1831. Some were imported from Irish centers in the North like Philadelphia by project chief Simon Cameron, who would later serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of War. The Irish workers soon organized a union and published a denunciation of Cameron for “selling” them as slaves to the canal company. They denounced the company for paying them in company script, which they could only spend at the company store where prices were often twice as high as other stores. They said that promised healthcare was administered by a “quack” doctor. The day after Christmas 1831, they went on strike and were thrown out of their company housing to wander homeless. The workmen insisted in the press that they would “not tamely submit to the numberless acts of injustice” against them, but their strike was broken by replacement workers.8
An Irish actor who visited the canal project wrote that the Canal Company “wrings profits from their blood” when he saw the conditions the men worked under. Estimates of the number of immigrant workers who died in that one project are put at around 3,000. Death was so commonplace on this job that a popular Irish song about it was sung:
Ten thousand Micks, they swung their picks
To dig the New Canal
But the choleray was stronger than they
And twice it killed them all.9
Irish labor was so expendable that plantation owners brought New Orleans’ Irish upriver to their plantations to clear swamps so that they could later be worked safely by slaves.10
Irish immigrants were not only found on land. They made up half of the crews of the famous riverboats of New Orleans. Most of the city’s dockworkers were Irish, and their longshoreman’s association was the city’s strongest union before the Civil War.11
When Irish workers were abused by the city’s monied elite they struck back with boycotts, labor stoppages, and violence against their bosses. They used the same tactics to drive the city’s free blacks out of a variety of unskilled jobs. Blacks fought back by demanding that the Irish be excluded from domestic service occupations. The conflict left years of bitterness between the two groups.12
During the 1850s, a growing anti-immigrant movement developed in the city. Immigrants were hit from two directions. The “English” joined the growing national Know Nothing movement. Many Creoles, who distained the anti-Catholic Know Nothings, nevertheless saw the new immigrants as a threat to the French character of the city. The New Orleans Daily Creole “portrayed the Irish as criminals…and the Germans as anarchists and abolitionists,” according to one local historian. Oddly, because the new immigrants either spoke or learned English rather than French, they were seen by Creoles as dangerous agents of the Americanization of the city.13
Creole anti-immigrantism would fade during the half-decade before the Civil War when the Know Nothing’s American Party became the political organ of the “English.” Know Nothing toughs targeted immigrants and Creoles alike for intimidation and violence. In 1855, gangs of Know Nothings beat up Irish voters to keep them away from the polls. Know Nothings posted at voting sites called out slogans like, “Clear the polls you damned Dutch and Irish sons of bitches,” to intimidate foreign-born voters. During the following year’s local election, violence was so widespread that riots broke out and two Sicilian immigrants were lynched by an anti-immigrant mob.14
When the national election was held in November 1856, Know Nothings put on fake beards and blackened their faces before going through the streets assaulting naturalized citizens who wanted to vote. The terror tactics were effective. The Democratic vote, which was heavily immigrant, fell by 50 percent between the 1852 and 1856 elections. By the end of the year, the Know Nothings controlled all branches of city government. They immediately began firing immigrants on the city payroll, especially targeting Irish-born teachers.15
Some city leaders called for calm. Unitarian Minister Theodore Clapp urged the native-born to take a hard look at the city’s dependence on the Irish. “How could we get along without them?” he asked those who were set on violently driving the immigrants out.16
The Irish, Germans, and Creoles formed a defensive alliance in 1858 to use armed force against their tormenters. Pro-immigrant groups of conspirators stormed a local armory capturing weapons, including cannons, which they used to occupy Jackson Square, the center of life in the city. They barricaded the area, creating a “fort” as a rallying point for those fed up with Know Nothing rule. Immigrants streamed into the square to join the rebels. The “English” Know Nothings mobilized their own armed bands and a standoff ensued. When the two sides disbanded after several deaths, the fissures that gave rise to the uprising were not resolved and the Crescent City would remain divided as the American Civil War began.17
Louisiana Tigers, with Berber hats, in combat.
When war broke out, the city leaders turned to the same despised Irish for defense. The State of Louisiana authorized the formation of an Irish Brigade, but the Irish did not respond to the call to enlist. Alienation from the broader community appears to have played a part in the reluctance of the Irish to serve a city that had rejected them as voters just months earlier.18
Since an Irish Brigade couldn’t be assembled, the city tried to at least recruit a regiment. That too failed, and so a half-sized “Special Battalion” of about 500 mostly Irish soldiers called “Wheat’s 1st Louisiana Special Battalion” was mustered into the state’s service. The entire unit was quickly dubbed “The Tigers” after their most Irish company, the Tiger Rifles. 19
Kate Stone, the twenty-year-old daughter of a wealthy “English” cotton planter from rural Louisiana referred to the Irish Tigers as “the very dregs of the city.”20
Another Southerner wrote about the Tigers:
I got my first look 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…knock me down and stamp me half to death.21
While the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion has sometimes been compared to the Fighting 69th of New York, there were important differences. The New York regiment had been in existence for years before the Civil War. It had been organized by the Irish of New York for Irish communal purposes. The regiment was officered and led by Irish-born New Yorkers who articulated a distinctively Irish nationalist credo. The 1st Louisiana was organized by native New Orleanians after the outbreak of war. It included large contingents of immigrants from other parts of Europe as well as native born soldiers. Its commander, Major Roberdeau Wheat, while well-liked by the men in the ranks, was not a leader in the Irish community. He was the native-born son of an Episcopal minister. Most importantly, the Louisiana battalion made no pretense that its men would one day serve in an army of Irish liberation or were part of a broader nationalist narrative.
Various reasons have been offered for why Irish workingmen joined the Tigers, in spite of their poor treatment by the “English” who became New Orleans’ leading Confederates. These reasons include fear that abolition would undercut Irish union organization by flooding the labor market with freedmen from rural plantations, coupled with Irish antagonism to the Northern Republicans as allies of the hated Know Nothings. The English reporter William Russel offered a simpler explanation. An economic depression hit the docks when the war broke out and trade was disrupted. For the impoverished workers, the choice was to “fight or starve.”22
Whatever the reasons for their enlisting, when they arrived in Virginia, the Irish Tigers were just weeks away from a bloody clash with their fellow countrymen from New York.
1. The Business of Jews in Louisiana 1840-1875 by Elliot Ashkenazi, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa (1988) p. 104
2. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization ed. by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joan Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1992) p. 119.
3. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization ed. by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joan Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1992) p. 118-119, 164.
4. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization ed. by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joan Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1992) p. 165.
5. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 34
6. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 44
7. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 48-49
8. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 44-45
9. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 46
10. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 47
11. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 47
12. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 50-51
13. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization ed. by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joan Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1992) p. 165-168.
14. The Know Nothing Party in New Orleans by Leon Cyprian Soule, Louisiana Historical Association, Baton Rouge (1961) pp 72-79
15. The Know Nothing Party in New Orleans by Leon Cyprian Soule, Louisiana Historical Association, Baton Rouge (1961) pp. 81-82
17. The Know Nothing Party in New Orleans by Leon Cyprian Soule, Louisiana Historical Association, Baton Rouge (1961) pp. 95-97
18. Lee’s Tigers by Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1987) Chapter 1
20. The Civil War: The First Year, The Library of America (2011) p. 372
21. The Lousiana Tigers in the Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863 by Scott Mingus, Sr., Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (2009) Chapter 1, p. 3 in Kindle edition
22. The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) p. 158-159
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.
4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South
7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War
8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union
9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?
14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?
15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army
Roberdeau Wheat had THE best shirt in the war ❤️