All I had was a name. A name that meant little, but it sparked a search that turned into something obsessive.
When I first began studying the Civil War, I wanted to know what most historians or budding history scholars wanted to know. Do I have any connection to the war? Do I have an ancestor who played a part? So, naturally, I did what anyone would do to find answers. I researched. Ancestry.com, while a great source, can be unreliable and terribly addictive. Combing through my father’s family, I found I had a Confederate ancestor through my grandfather’s maternal side.
The name was “James Butt”, a private with the 6th Louisiana Infantry, Company A. He was in the war for about six months before he was discharged from the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond for cardiac disease. I took this information to one of the few places within a reasonable driving distance that might have told me more. Camp Moore in Tangipahoa, Louisiana, boasted a small research center in their museum dedicated to the study of Louisiana Regiments in the Civil War. Newspaper clippings, photocopied letters, battle reports, and more could be perused by the public with an on-site volunteer to help with any other questions.
I found James Butt in the muster rolls, but discovered a rather major difference between this Confederate soldier and the James Butt in my family tree. About 30 years of age separated them. The James Butt of the 6th Louisiana Infantry. At the time of the war, James was in his forties according to his census records and gravestone, but the James that enlisted with the 6th Louisiana was only eighteen according to the doctor’s assessment from Chimborazo. However, I found a second name. The one that captivated my attention. Ed Butt. He was listed before James on the company rolls, enlisted at Camp Moore, and was killed at Winchester in 1862. At this time, I didn’t know a lot about what had happened at Winchester or much about the regiment at all.
The volunteer assisting me that day suggested that I might need to take a second look at my family tree. Ed could have been an uncle, since brothers and fathers often enlisted within the same company. So, I did. What I found wasn’t comforting. James Butt had no connection to me and neither did Ed. There was not one “Edward” or “Edwin” or “Edmund” in my tree with that same surname.
I was crestfallen, but curious. I began digging further, trying to find Ed on Ancestry. Hours had been wasted online, searching for anything. There wasn’t a single Ed Butt in Louisiana or in the surrounding states that was recorded in a census or transport manifests – to suggest that he was an immigrant. Venturing to digital newspaper websites, I also found nothing. My faith in Ancestry had been reasonably shaken, but to have not one record of a man by this name drew me further into the mystery.
I decided to try the indirect method. I purchased the only published regimental history of the 6th Louisiana Infantry titled, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers: A History of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers by James Gannon and devoured it. I especially paid close attention to the history of the regiment leading up to the first battle of Winchester in May of 1862.
The 6th Louisiana Infantry with its ten companies of 1,146 men was primarily made up of Irish, German, and native-born Louisianans, with a sprinkling of other nationalists like French, Scandinavian, Scottish, Belgian, Canadian, Swiss, Cuban, and Italian. Companies B and F were over 70% Irish – out of Company F’s 115 enlisted men, there were a total of 100 from Irish backgrounds. Frustratingly for me, the one company that couldn’t account for the nationalities or birthplace of their men was Company A. Out of 120 men, 112 have birthplaces that are not recorded, including Ed’s.
Their trades varied from newspaper editors like its colonel, Isaac Seymour, to menial labor jobs. They were dock workers, riverboat crewmen, carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, sailors, clerks, printers, barkeepers, butchers, and wagon drivers. They made up the urban working class of New Orleans. Many were illiterate, having little to no education except what they learned on the streets. Louisiana Confederates became notorious for looting the dead bodies on a battlefield, but it was second nature to them. In the slums of the city, looting meant the difference between starving and surviving.
Eight of the companies were recruited from New Orleans, but all would muster in at Camp Moore on June 4th, just seventy or so miles north near the Mississippi border. Camp Walker, which was closer in proximity to New Orleans, had been the first option for the Confederate training camp, but was soon found insufficient due to the boggy environment and lack of clean drinking water for the men. After being at Camp Moore for some time, Private George Zeller, a German butcher wrote to his mother, “We have a very nice cool place here, plenty of good water to drink but have to walk about a have [half] a mile for it.”
While this place was ideal for training the new soldiers, the 6th Louisiana didn’t stay there long. On June 9th, half of the regiment boarded the train to head for Virginia. The other half would depart on June 11th. For many, it would be the last time they would tread upon Louisiana soil. It was for Ed Butt.
The regiment arrived at Manassas, Virginia on the 14th and 16th of June and camped several miles to the east of the junction at Fairfax Station along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. They were placed under the command of General Richard Ewell, who would earn the nickname “Dirty Dick” amongst the regiment for his seeming incompetency. Through a confusion of orders from fellow Creole, P.G.T Beauregard, the 6th Louisiana would not see battle at Manassas. Instead, they marched back and forth between Bull Run and Centreville. Many of the Louisiana men were downhearted and frustrated by the bad luck of not playing a part in the first major bloodshed of the war. Captain Monaghan of the Irish Company F wrote, “Thus ended the memorable 21st of July, a day glorious to our sacred cause but full of bitter regrets to me and my gallant company, who, notwithstanding a march of over 25 miles, did not get a shot at the enemy. I hope for better luck next time.”
The 6th Louisiana would pass an uneventful winter. The armies sat back, reassessing how exactly this war should be thought. In consequence, the 6th Louisiana was grouped with a few more regiments from their home state to make the first Louisiana Brigade under Brigadier General Richard Taylor. The men of the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th Louisiana, and Wheat’s Tiger Zouaves were not happy with this arrangement. Taylor was the brother-in-law of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the idea of favoritism rang loud through the brigade.
More for the 6th Louisiana, they knew Taylor was a strong supporter of the “Know Nothing” movement, whose members were outspoken against immigration – in particular the Irish. Their fears were justified in the way the Louisianans were treated in camp and in drill. Taylor had made a reputation for himself as boasting an explosive temper and nasty moods that he would take out on his subordinates. Part of his disagreeable bouts could be contributed to ill health including rheumatism and headaches. Major David French Boyd, the new Louisiana Brigade’s commissary officer spoke of the commander with mixed accolades. He recalled that Taylor was, “the most brilliant and fascinating talker that I remembered in the Southern army, but when he was sick he was ‘ugly’ and we had to keep away from him.”
One consolation lay with their regimental leader, Colonel Seymour. Affectionately called “the old man” for his long, flowing white hair, the Northern transplant to Louisiana was beloved by all those beneath him, despite his nominal military experience during the Seminole Wars. He was said to have had a strict, fatherly way with the boys which quickly earned their respect. In the spring, when he had made up his mind to resign his commission and go back to Louisiana, the men went above and beyond to convince him to stay. Such desperate acts included writing a personal letter to General Ewell to intervene in the resignation and deny it so they could keep their beloved colonel.
Camp life for the Louisianans were like any other within the Army of Northern Virginia. Childhood sicknesses ran rampant, dysentery, typhoid, etc. Members of Company A were not excluded. Private H.B. Hedges died of gastric enteritis, Private T.M. Cook also died of an unknown illness, Private George W. Brantley died of a long-term illness that went untreated by the camp doctors. The regiment braved up to this harsh adjustment period, but made time for fun too. Snow might have been a new experience for many who lived in the sweltering south all their lives. In those wintry months between drills, soldiers of the Louisiana Brigade would engage in a little friendly snow battle.
Idleness also brought out the rowdiness of the Irishmen of the brigade. Brawls and drunkenness was an ongoing problem throughout the war. One such scuffle resulted in the death of Private James McCormack, who was murdered by Private John Travers, one of Wheat’s Battalion. The renegade culprit was arrested and brought back to camp for trial.
This is just one of the many situations where the soldiers were disciplined. General Taylor would – in some ways – validate the going rumor that he disliked the Louisianans when he became the first general to court marshal and sentence a soldier to death by firing squad within the Army of Northern Virginia. Two Irishmen within Wheat’s Battalion – Michael O’Brien and Dennis Corkeran – both “in their boots” from drinking, made to bust out some of their detained friends in a guard house. The sentence of execution was harsh in comparison with the crime, but Taylor claimed that he needed to make an example of them. Taylor achieved full military obedience from his brigade, but not their heartfelt devotion. This act only stood to prove to the men – especially the Irish – that Taylor did not operate within their interests.
As I read about the general opinion of the soldiers with the 6th Louisiana, as I smile at their stories, and sorrow in the losses of beloved comrades, I wonder if Ed knew them. Did he sit around the fire with a select few every night? Did he get into drunken camp brawls too? Did he watch the execution of those men from Wheat’s Battalion? Did he play in the snow too? From the accounts from diary entries of other soldiers and the brief accounts Gannon gives in his book, I try to speculate what life might have been like for Ed during that 1861-62 winter.
The brigade’s time would come, however, with the command for Ewell to take his division west to assist General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in his efforts to push the Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley.
(to be continued)
Gannon, James P. Irish Rebels: Confederate Tigers, the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, 1861-1865. Mason City, IA: Savas Publ. Company, 1999.