The Orleans Guard existed as early as 1838, and were well known for being excellent marksmen even in the days of smoothbore muskets. Sometime after 1852 they disappeared, much like many other early militias. On the 10th of December 1860, Colonel J. Numa Augustin reformed the Orleans Guard. Ten days later South Carolina seceded from the Union, and Louisiana would not be far behind. On the 25th of January 1861 South Carolina seceded from the Union. The next day, at 1 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, bells rang and one hundred cannons from the Washington Artillery roared like thunder through the streets of New Orleans. With war looming on the horizon, citizens rushed to enlist in whatever regiment or battalion they could find. For the elite creole citizens of New Orleans, Colonel Augustin’s regiment provided a welcoming home.
They spent the first year of the war at home. Here they drilled to perfection, hosted grand balls, operas, and fundraisers, just as the original Orleans Guard did decades before them. They paraded the streets, and easily drew the admiration of the local citizens. “They wore dark blue kepis, and jackets or short coats and pants of the same color, all trimmed with red, black belts and cartouche boxes, and muskets with bayonets.” (New Orleans Daily Crescent, 11 February 1861) They had a distinctive button adorned with the French eagle, surrounded by the words “Garde d’Orléans”. They were sharp and crisp not only in appearance, but in movement. The ladies swooned.
Among their ranks, at least officially, was a forty-two year old private who resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, and his new position as Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Though he would quickly accept a position as General in the Confederate Army, he would still be called every morning during Roll Call. Private P. G. T. Beauregard absent on duty. He would remain fond of his unit, and gifted them a new flagstaff made from a splinter of the flagstaff used by Fort Sumter on that fateful morning.
The honored flag that would be hoisted by that sacred staff was given to them by Madam Leprétre at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Streets. The flag was taken to Jackson Square, where it would be formally consecrated by the Reverend Archbishop Odin before thousands of cheerful military personnel and adoring ladies.
On the 18th of March 1862 the Orleans Guard Battalion embarked on the Jackson Railroad towards Corinth, and would advance into the annuals of history near that fateful church on Shiloh Hill.
"Off to the Wars. – Of no corps that has ever left this city are greater things to be expected than of the battalion of Orleans Guards, which embarked yesterday afternoon on the Jackson Railroad. It consists of the very flower of our ancient population – men who are generally thought too carry the point of honor, if anything, a little too far. Disgrace cannot be coupled with their name. The scene of the march to the depot, escorted by the French Legion, Colonel Rochereau, and by thousands and thousands of our citizens, is one which will long be remembered by those who saw it. Many a fond adieu was spoken. Let there be no regret among those who remain behind, for when duty calls honor must respond."
New Orleans Daily Crescent, 19 March 1862.
On the 2nd of April, in Corinth, Mississippi, Major Queyrouze received orders to prepare the battalion for the march towards Pittsburg Landing. They were to draw five days worth of rations, and one hundred rounds of ammunition for each man. On the 3rd they left without the rations. On the 4th they received a small amount of meat and biscuits, and were told to eat only a fraction of it. Two days later at 5 o’clock in the morning, the battalion formed in a line of battle. Before they could even get to the fight, they discovered the abandoned camp of the 6th Iowa.
It is here where their story really begins. They took their time to pillage the camp, and liberated it of its bountiful provisions. Hot bread straight from the ovens, fruits, delicacies, and even wine, all for the taking. For half an hour they stuffed their pockets, haversacks, and mouths with every bit of food they could. They would soon reform, pass through another camp, and just before they passed through a third, one of the most horrific incidents of war befell them. Owing to their dark blue uniforms, the 6th Kentucky and a Tennessee regiment opened fire on the Orleans Guard. In the brief exchange, two of the guardsmen would die.
They regrouped, and soon marched towards their proper enemy. Half a mile from the Tennessee River the Union forces had fortified their position. They had already repulsed the 16th Louisiana. Colonel Mouton of the 18th Louisiana ordered his men forward. They returned shortly after broken and defeated, their shirts covered in blood, and their faces disfigured. “Bataillon! En avant! Marche!”, came the cry of Major Léon Queyrouze, sending the Orleans Guard Battalion to the same fate as that which befell their brothers in the 16th and 18th.
On the charge towards their enemy, the battalion suffered tremendous loss. Twenty-five percent of their numbers lay dead or wounded on the field, among them was Major Léon Queyrouze. Their beloved flag, and its sacred staff, would pass hands five times, as two of its bearers were killed, and two more were wounded. Fifty yards from the enemy they opened fire, driving them from their position. The terrible sound of thousands of men marching towards them rang in their ears, and darkened their spirits. Their relief came when they saw the white oval centered on a blue flag, General Hardee had come to their rescue, and continued to push the enemy forward.
What was left of the Guard was ordered to picket duty that night. The next morning they were pushed back from their position by fresh enemy troops. They then consolidated with the 18th Louisiana, and were ordered to turn their dark blue jackets inside out, revealing the white lining underneath. The battle nearly over, they entire army began to retreat. General P. G. T. Beauregard, himself an honorable member of the Orleans Guard Battalion, took hold of that sacred banner and flagstaff, and rallied the troops for another charge. Tried as they did, they could not carry the day. The defeated army slowly made their way back to Corinth.
The Orleans Guard Battalion lost thirty-three percent of their numbers in that bloody battle. Their commander had been wounded in the knee, and would never be able to return to command, though his service for the Confederacy would continue. It was a long walk home, and they were too tired and too hungry. When they finally made it back to Corinth, they treated it as paradise, and their tents as palaces. Though many of these men would reform and join other units to continue the fight, the Orleans Guard Battalion itself would end up being a casualty of the Battle of Shiloh.