Battles in the East, Portraits of Privates

Hunting Down a Soldier – Part 2

To catch up on my adventures in research, check out Part 1.

The 6th Louisiana Infantry’s baptism of fire would come on May 23rd, 1862 at the town of Front Royal, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. General Richard Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade under General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson” chased Maryland skirmishers through the town and storm a battery of artillery under Colonel John Reese Kenley. Though the 6th Louisiana had been personally ordered to take the guns themselves, the Federals retreated from their position and across the North and South Fork of the Shenandoah River. The Federals made a weak stand on Guard Hill against the charging forces, but inevitably fell back to Winchester. The 6th Louisiana suffered no casualties in the running battle against Union General Nathaniel Banks, even though the skirmishing that would continue over the next two days as they continued their march northward down the valley.

6th Louisiana Flag, on display at Confederate Memorial Hall, New Orleans (author photo, 2020)

It was in Winchester on May 25th, that the Louisiana Brigade would get to show what they could really do in action. Banks had hunkered down his 6,500 troops around the southern end of town, bracing for the assault that would come on the morning of the 25th. Jackson began with an attack upon the Union left flank with the bulk of General Richard Ewell’s division at Camp Hill. Attempts to take the Union flank failed again and again until he turned to Bowers Hill on his left flank. His famed Stonewall Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Charles Winder were under a heavy artillery bombardment that prevented them from advancing.

Jackson called Taylor up, pointed to the ridge and said, “You must carry it.” Taylor instantly mobilized his Louisiana Brigade. They moved behind Winder’s line, using them and the Abraham Creek that ran northwesterly to the extreme Union flank as both guides and screening. From right to left in the line came the 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th, Wheat’s Tigers, and the 10th Virginia regiment attached with the brigade.

Six guns from atop the ridge belched upon the troops and one of Taylor’s ugly moods emerged when he saw his men ducking and dodging in response.

“What the hell are you dodging for?” he screamed. “If there is any more of it, you will be halted under this fire for one hour!” Jackson, upon hearing this reprimand, put his hand on Taylor’s shoulder and admonished him in return saying, “I am afraid you are a wicked fellow.” Jackson left the general with this insult and ran off to tend to his former brigade to the right.

The reproach worked, however, and a mile of marching brought them to the base of the ridge on the Union’s right flank. Colonel George Gordon in charge of the brigade on Bowers Hill ordered his 29th Pennsylvania and 27th Indiana to extend their lines and meet the Louisianans. As soon as the 3,000 Tigers were spotted by the Federals on the hill, a hailstorm of musketry greeted them. They steadily advanced up the slope under this fire, not letting loose a single shot, according to one Virginian onlooker.

A body of Federal cavalry made a charge, but the 8th Louisiana fended them off with a single volley. Only then did Taylor order the charge. The Louisiana Brigade surged forward with a tremendous Rebel Yell that they would come to use often in battle. The fire from the Federals on the ridge did hardly anything to stop the tidal wave of gray rushing toward them. The entire right Union flank crumbled to the Louisiana charge and the six guns were finally silenced.

A Georgia private from Ewell’s Division on the opposite side of the battlefield witnessed the charge and said, “Moving as if on parade, with alert bearing, rhythmic steps, eyes on the foe, they swept smoothly over the ledge and fence to possess the heights.”

Henry Kyd Douglas, one of Jackson’s staff officers said, “I have rarely seen a more beautiful charge. This full brigade, with a line of bayonets bright in that morning sun, its formation straight and compact, its tread quick and easy as it pushed on through the clover and up the hill, was a sight to delight a veteran.”

Jackson himself claimed it was a “gallant advance” and “Dick” Ewell cheered until he was hoarse. Even Taylor, who had little previous respect for his own brigade said in his report, “The brigade, with cadenced step and eyes on the foe, sept grandly over copse and ledge and face, to crown the heights form which the enemy had melted away.”

The Louisianans didn’t stop there and fully chased the enemy through the streets of Winchester and for five miles beyond. The battle was won and the victory boosted the morale of the regiment who had been itching for a fight for nearly a year now.

Ed Butt, Muster Roll noting death at Winchester (fold3)

The regiment, however, would suffer its first casualties of war. Five were killed and twenty-seven injured. Of the killed were Captain Arthur McArthur of Company A, Thomas Murphy of Company A, Edward Doyle of Company D, Private Steven Newport of Company I – who died of his shoulder wounded after the battle -, and Ed. W. Butt of Company A. Most of these casualties were inflicted during the daring charge up to Bowers Hill and would set a tone for the remainder of the war.

The Louisiana Brigade would go on to build their reputation as Tigers in the face of the enemy. Brave charges like at Port Republic shortly after the battle at Winchester, and at Gaines Mill through the insurmountable Boatswain’s Swamp. They would suffer the rushing of blue coats along the unfinished railroad at Second Manassas, on the banks of the river at Second Fredericksburg, across the fords at Rappahannock Station, and the dreaded Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania Courthouse. They would storm across the cornfield at Antietam, penetrate nearly three lines of Federals at Chancellorsville, mount Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, march through the dark close woods of the Wilderness, sally on their way to Washington’s door at Monocacy, across the open field at Third Winchester, assault Fort Stedman at Petersburg, and make their final stand at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865.

They would also mourn the loss of officers, such as Colonel Isaac Seymour. His son, still in New Orleans, would be arrested for publishing a heartfelt eulogy in opposition to the Union occupation of the town. By the time the 6th Louisiana surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, only 4 officers and 48 privates were left to say, “I was there through it all”.

For Ed Butt, however, May 25th marked the end of his military career. He was buried in the Stonewall Cemetery of Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, interned with the rest of those Louisianans who fell on May 25th and in the other two subsequent battles that the Louisiana Brigades would engage in around Winchester.

When I was finally able to visit his grave, what I saw broke my heart. His plot is clearly listed in the cemetery records, but the surface has been completely worn away. The inscription of his name, rank, regiment, and death date have been lost to time. Not even a graphite rubbing could produce any hint of an engraving. All that’s left is a granite stone, illegible, and forgettable.

Gravesite of Ed Butt, 6th Louisiana Infantry, Company A

There’s a traditional thought among the Mexican culture that there are three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.

My thoughts continued to wander to this idea as I continued to search for Ed Butt. It’s impossible to speculate with any accuracy who he was or where he came from There is no trace of him in the available census records for the Union and Sabine parishes, after which the company was named, nor any other parish in Louisiana. My search continued into the surrounding states and there were some individuals with the same initials and last name, but nothing was conclusive.

The origin of his surname could have been English, French, or a variation of German. But then again, there are many Irishmen who have very English names. He could have enlisted in the military under an alias, as some were known to do, and therefore “Ed Butt” wasn’t even his real name. He could have been a criminal looking for a way to evade the law and enlisted with the company under that alias. He could have been a sailor from foreign shores, trapped in New Orleans by the blockade and decided to join the army as a way to pass the time. And although the idea is incredibly controversial, Ed could have been a woman soldier in disguise. He (or she) might have been from Louisiana, or maybe from New York since there were some Northerners enlisted with the 6th Louisiana. The possibilities are endless until this dead end can be blasted away by a new piece of evidence.

All we have is a name, a regiment, and a death date. We also know that he reenlisted into the regiment at Camp Carondelet on February 7th, 1862, and that he was absent in the hospital sometime in March and April of 1862. Every other record has been lost or are tucked away in an archive somewhere.

Certificate from Camp Moore and a photo of the commemorative brick.

I think of his name, of the family he might have had, and my heart aches for someone I have no real connection with. I don’t want him to die that third and final death. To ensure that didn’t happen, I felt compelled to do something to commemorate his short service. At Camp Moore, their front courtyard is composed of engraved bricks, sponsored by individuals or families who wish to have their soldiers remembered. For small fee, I had my own brick engraved for Ed W. Butt.

I want to explain that this measure does not represent any support for the Confederate cause. It was more to satisfy my conviction that no soldier should be forgotten or lost to history. Ed’s story isn’t uncommon either on the Confederate or the Union side. Monuments to the “Unknown Soldier” are a testament to that alone. As historians, we owe it to those men who fought and died for what they believed, to not let them die that final death. That’s why we continue to tell their stories and try to immortalize their memory.

Gannon, James P. Irish Rebels: Confederate Tigers, the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, 1861-1865. Mason City, IA: Savas Publ. Company, 1999.

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