In the Beginning

Origins of the Washington Artillery

by  Glen C. Cangelosi, M. D.

copyright  2008



 Frenchman Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718 as a settlement in the French territory known as Louisiana.

Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville

 Bienville named New Orleans in honor of the Duc d’Orleans, then regent of the kingdom. It became the capital of Louisiana in 1722, the same year engineer Le Blond de la Tour plotted a simple gridiron of streets later to be known as the French Quarters and, eventually, the French Quarter.

 Bienville’s successor, Etienne de Perier de Cenier, a lieutenant in the king’s army, inherited the colony from him in a state of turmoil. There were internal problems involving supply shortages as well as external problems involving threats from the surrounding American Indian tribes. The latter threats may have been the stimulus for Governor Perier (1726-1733) organizing Louisiana’s earliest known militia unit called the “Compagnie de Milice de la Louisiane” (Militia Company of Louisiana) to supplement the limited number of regular troops of the French army stationed there. This militia unit was composed of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Perier’s fear was intensified in 1729 when two hundred and fifty colonists were massacred by the Natchez Indians at Fort Rosalie (now Natchez, Mississippi), an act that created a state of panic in New Orleans. In response, Perier ordered the construction of city defenses- a moat and ramparts (now Rampart Street in New Orleans) and even issued arms to his citizens for added protection.

 In 1730 this Compagnie de Milice de la Louisiane marched off with French troops to take revenge on the Natchez Indians. The unit returned to New Orleans victorious; its commander, Captain S. R. de Laye, wounded in action, returned as a hero.   But the American Indians remained a concern for those early French colonists in 18th century Louisiana, and Louisiana’s militia was needed in 1736 to fight the Chickasaw tribe, and again in 1739 against the Choctaw.

 The Louisiana militia was expanded in 1753 to four companies and reorganized into the larger “Battalion de Milice de la Louisiane”(Militia Battalion of Louisiana). Following the end of the “Seven Years War” in 1763, France lost Canada and her other North American colonial possessions. Canada and that part of Louisiana lying east of the Mississippi River were relinquished to the British. Anxious to rid France of the remaining American colony, King Louis XV ceded the rest of her colonial possessions, which included the land west of the Mississippi River and the city of New Orleans, in a secret treaty to his Spanish cousin King Charles III on November 3, 1762. The Battalion de Milice de la Louisiane was present when the French finally turned over the territory to the Spanish the following year, taking part in the welcoming ceremonies of Spanish governor-general Don Alejandro O’Reilly. O’Reilly, one of Charles III’s favorite generals, was strangely enough an Irishman!

 O’Reilly quickly established the Cabildo as the seat of Spanish government, proclaimed Luis de Unzaga as governor of Louisiana and then took charge of establishing military order. Seeing the benefit of a trained local militia to supplement his regular troops, O’ Reilly organized his own militia in 1770 called “El Regimento Infanteria de Luisiana” (The Infantry Regiment of Louisiana). In need of qualified members, he called upon the French members of the defunct Battalion de Milice de la Louisiane.   They obliged him and were accepted as the “Segundo Batallon” (Second Battalion) of the Spanish militia. These Frenchmen included infantry soldiers as well as a company of artillerists, the latter group under the name of “Compania Artilleria”.

Don Bernardo de Galvez

 In 1778 Louisiana’s Spanish governor, Don Bernardo de Galvez, relaxed trade restrictions to allow the Americans in New Orleans to supply their troops in the Atlantic colonies in their fight against Britain during the American Revolution. Galvez, anticipating Spain’s entry into the war, sent the Second Battalion to successfully fight the British during expeditions at Manchac, Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola. Their commander was Don Pedro Favrot of New Orleans. Strangely enough, this early ancestor of the Washington Artillery took part against the British during the American Revolution, but under a Spanish flag! Following the revolution, this same Second Battalion, Infantry Regiment of Louisiana is recorded in the 1781 Spanish plans for the defense of New Orleans and included the artillery unit “Compania Artilleria”.  The militia unit continued to drill until 1803 when Spain ceded Louisiana back to France, who in turn ruled for only 20 days until the Louisiana Purchase was completed, turning the territory over to the United States. By 1803 the Second Battalion’s members were composed of both French and Spanish New Orleanians.

William C. C. Claiborne

  The transfer of land from France in 1803 enlarged the United States by more than its size at that time and the great province of Louisiana became the largest territory of the nation. Louisiana’s first governor, William C. C. Claiborne, recognized the need for well-organized troops. He was instrumental in organizing a volunteer militia, especially of American citizens. On April 10, 1805 Claiborne approved an act for “regulating and governing the militia of the territory of Orleans.”

  In 1808 the British threatened another invasion. Louisiana appropriated $200,000 for the organization of the militia and in 1813 an act authorized that “all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 16 and 50 years should be subject to military duty.” Men flocked to the enlistment stations, ready to defend their homeland.  

Andrew Jackson

 When the War of 1812 erupted, General Andrew Jackson followed the actions of his predecessors by calling once again upon the local militia. Artillery members of the old Compania Artilleria, Segundo Battalion, Regimento Infanteria de la Louisiane offered their services to the American government. They were composed of two companies and became part of the newly organized Battalion of New Orleans Volunteers militia. This unit was federalized in 1814 just in time to fight with Jackson’s troops in the trenches outside New Orleans against the British during the famous Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. (Although the Treaty of Ghent had been signed previous to the battle, British General Packenham did not receive the news in time.) The names of these two individual artillery companies have yet to be documented.

George Washington

 The War of 1812 was followed by over 30 years of peace. When the first official American militia was formed in Louisiana following that war, the two artillery companies of the Battalion of New Orleans Volunteers became part of it. Quite possibly, this is when one of those artillery companies chose the name “Washington”, in honor of George Washington. This choice of name was quite popular during the early 19th century because when George Washington died in 1799 his legend still reigned across America. His birthday was a day of celebration in which militia units throughout the country paraded. Therefore, sometime between 1814 and 1819 one of the artillery units of the Battalion of New Orleans Volunteers changed its name to the Washington Artillery. Newspaper accounts in 1819 reflect the earliest known use of the name “Washington” with one of these artillery companies. The Louisiana Courrier, dated January 11, 1819, reported that on the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans on January 8th the governor of the state reviewed local militia companies. Among the military units listed was the Washington Artillery (foot), Captain W. Ward commanding.

Later that year, The Orleans Gazette and Commercial Advertiser newspaper published a notice dated November 26, 1819 that “Washington Artillerists … assemble in front of the Presbyterian Church, in full uniform, at 2 o’clock.” (C. Willard commanding) 

(courtesy  Robert & Linda Melancon)

  In February, 1821, the governor of Louisiana was authorized by the legislature to buy four 4-pounder cannon with carriages, for the use by New Orleans militia uniformed organizations. Each of these units were required by law to drill at least once per month. It was this same year that a new militia unit called the Louisiana Legion was organized. “Legion”* simply meant a military unit composed of four companies, each organized with infantry, cavalry, and artillery. (*footnote-Actually, the term “legion” dates back to Roman times when it designated a military unit of 1000 men, composed of landowners only, and was derived from the Latin word meaning “conscription”. As with its American counterpart, it was composed of “citizen soldiers” concerned with protecting their homeland and property.) The two artillery companies of the older Battalion of New Orleans Volunteers, one of which was known as the Washington Artillery, merged to become the fourth company of this new legion. This newly consolidated artillery company, the Washington Artillery, was housed in the rear of the Cabildo. The lattice ironwork of the balcony still displays the initials “L. L.” (Louisiana Legion) along with the flaming bomb, a symbol of artillery.  This was the earliest known armory of the Washington Artillery. 


Arsenal behind the Cabildo

In keeping with its status amongst the community, the Washington Artillery was given the honor of firing a cannon salute and forming the honor guard when the Marquis de Lafayette, fighting companion of George Washington in the American Revolution, visited New Orleans in 1825.

 This early history of the Louisiana militia gives some background into the lineage of the well-documented days of the Washington Artillery and lays the foundation for further research in documenting the true official organizational date of this military unit. By viewing the evidence of overlapping continuity of personnel from each reorganized and renamed artillery unit, the ancestry and lineage of the Washington Artillery is evident. With this proud background, it is also quite apparent why pride in this organization drew new members from the social elite of New Orleans year after year and why when asked many Washington Artillerists would say, “Washington Artillery wasn’t named after George Washington. He was named after us!”