Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)

Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)
CWLA seeks to provide an online resource of any and all material of the Civil War relating to Louisiana with a special interest in the war in Acadiana in southwest Louisiana.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

John McGrath, "In a Louisiana Regiment" Part II

John McGrath began his military career as a Sergeant in the Delta Rifles of the 4th Louisiana Regiment. We have several of his accounts posted at Louisiana Civil War documenting his role in the 4th Louisiana. McGrath also took the time to write the New Orleans Picayune and include a brief write up of his early days in 13th Louisiana. He actually focuses his attention on joining "Avegno's Zouaves" as a Lieutenant. The six companies of the Governor Guards' Battalion ("Avegno's Zouaves") combined with four independent companies to form the 13th Louisiana in September of 1861.

In a Louisiana Regiment.

New Orleans Picayune, Aug. 2, 9; Sept. 6, 1903

...The tattered old flag, discolored by the destroying hand of time, shorn of its beauty, hangs in Memorial Hall, a dingy and silent reminder of the past, with few to gaze upon it who know what it once represented or whence it came. With the exception of one or two others, the writer is the only survivor of the officers of the Avegno Zouaves, at least of those residing in Louisiana. All others long since answered the last roll call and laid them down to sleep in God's eternal bivouac.

Long years have passed since the time of which I write, and yet it seems but yesterday, with bands playing stirring quick steps, arms aslant and steady, warlike tramp, we entered the sacred portals of St. Louis Cathedral, of New Orleans, that the venerable bishop might bless the banner, now drooping languidly, infirm with age, like unto the survivors of those who once wildly swore to defend it and bring it back in triumph to the Crescent City.

Alas! the victory was not ours, nor would anyone recognize the once strong battallion in the few war-worn and weary veterans who came straggling back at the end of four long, bloody years.

The official language of our battalion was French; we were drilled in French, commanded in French, and orders were issued in French, and as I was the only officer who did not understand the language, you can well imagine my awkwardness. However, I soon became familiar with the commands most frequently used, and it was not long before I could get my company through dress parade in a more or less creditable manner. Orders came after awhile from General Twiggs to discontinue the French language and to adopt English, and matters went along more smoothly as far as I was concerned. The company to which I was assigned was composed principally of Irishmen, who resented the change quite fiercely. One of our fellows, who enlisted under the name of Jones, but whose name was [106] Branagan, while somewhat more than half drunk, approached the writer, and, touching his kepi, said: ‘Leftenant, I don't know what oi'll do. You want us to drill in English, and the divil a wurd I know but French.’ Absurd as it may appear, he spoke the truth. He had never been a soldier before, and when he had learned to drill by French commands, they were all the military terms he knew. ‘Right shoulder shift arms’ was something far beyond his comprehension and he was forced to learn anew.

As the battalion was formed by the enlistment of recruits who were assigned to companies without regard to their wishes or desires, and as no two men had ever seen each other previous to enlistment, there was only one thing in common between them, and that was to get all the fun and all the whiskey possible, and this they did to the great annoyance of the officers. It must not be understood that by this statement that the men were low vagabonds, for they were not. They were simply young and wild and were going to war, probably never to return, and when the clash of battle came none were braver, none more loyal to the cause, and none more easily handled in fight or controlled in quarters. There were bad men among them, but good soldiers predominated.

We had barracks at the foot of Conti street, where recruits were sent as enlisted, and where uniforms and blankets were issued to them, and from whence they were sent under guard to the old Pontchartrain Depot for shipment to Mandeville. They were not guarded to prevent desertion, but simply as a precaution against straggling and drunkenness. Among others, I was sent upon recruiting service, and selecting Baton Rouge as the point of advantage, opened office and secured some thirty-five or forty recruits. There were a few young Baton Rougeans left behind by the many volunteer companies which from time to time had left for the seat of war, so I was compelled to depend upon strangers, with four or five notable exceptions. There were a few who, for one reason or another, had remained at home, and among those was one who had joined and quit almost every company raised in the parish. He was a drunken, reckless little scamp, whom the police and citizens were anxious to get rid of, and I was early approached and begged to enlist him. Objecting at first, I finally consented, and the Chief of Police hunted him up and brought him before me. ‘Do you wish to become a soldier,—?’ I asked, and receiving a favorable response, I informed him that if he enlisted I would compel him to go; that he would not be permitted to back out, as he had been doing. ‘All [107] right, Cap.; I want to serve my country. Just give me your list and I will sign.’ ‘Oh, no, my boy; we don't manage in that way; but just step across the street to the office of the justice of the peace and take the enlisting oath, and I will attend to the rest,’ said I. ‘Ain't you going to give me something? Gim'me a dollar,’ said the dodger. Handing him the money, we entered the office of the venerable Judge Walker, and the young fellow was shortly after a Confederate soldier. As soon as he had taken the oath, he remarked, a smile of cunning on his face, that he would meet me next day in time to catch theNew Orleans boat. ‘No,’ I said. ‘There will be no more parting. The constable will take you down under the hill where the other recruits are quartered, and there you will remain strictly guarded until we leave.’ The smile instantly vanished; he was sobered by the intelligence, and quietly remarked: ‘Well, I'll be d——d if I ain't trapped!’ He had a father and several sisters whom I had not taken into account, who soon came weeping and begging for the release of the worthless vagabond. I thought of the great relief of the taking off of the fellow would be to the townspeople, and remained obdurate and hard-hearted. Besides, I had no right to discharge an enlisted soldier. The boat was due about noon, and not caring to march on board at the head of my Falstaffian army, I appointed a corporal from among my embryonic heroes, with strict instructions to take——on board, whether he would or not. Hearing the boat's whistle shortly after, I started for the landing. What a picture presented itself to my vision! Some forty men, most of whom were drunk as lords, were marching two by two, singing ‘Dixie,’ while the rear was brought up by three of the strongest, partly dragging and partly carrying the only native among my recruits, and those in turn were followed by an old father and the sisters imploring the men to turn ‘Buddie’ loose, and when tears and prayers failed to soften the hearts of the soldiers, they showered imprecations good and strong upon their heads. ‘Buddie’ was taken aboard and seated upon the capstan by a big raftsman detailed for the purpose. ‘Set thar, sonny, and stop your whimpering, er I'll turn you up an spank ye,’ said the big fellow. Buddie heeded not, but gazing ashore at his weeping relatives and familiar scenes of his childhood, exclaimed: ‘Well, I'll be d——d. They have got me off to the war at last, and I wouldn't give a picayune for my life.’

My recruits reached camp in due time, and most of them proved excellent soldiers, and many finally fell in the front ranks in battle, and are now sleeping in unknown and unmarked graves. Buddie was an exception all along the line. He spent most of his time in the guard-house or in the hospital, and was an unmitigated, all-around scamp. Knowing it would only be a matter of time before he would be sent in chains to work upon the fortification, I went one night to the guard tent, where he was a prisoner, and, taking him aside, informed him that I would secure him his release if he would desert. Agreeing, I gave him money to pay his way home and have never laid eyes on him since. Was I justified in encouraging desertion? I believe I was in this case.

I have dwelt longer than I should have done in relating this incident, but I had two objects in view—one was to show the trouble and annoyance frequently experienced by recruiting officers, and the other to emphasize the fact that respectable, law-abiding citizens invariable make the best soldiers.

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Coppens' Zouave Battalion

Coppens' Zouave Battalion
Lt. Colonel George Coppens (seated) and brother, Captain Marie Alfred Coppens.Image sold at auction on Cowan Auctions, for $14,375