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The Saga of the Original Louisiana Tiger
Chatham Roberdeau Wheat
Screaming at the tops of their lungs as they charged the hapless Yankees, they were a vision straight out of hell. Some of them wore outlandish Turkish-style Zouave uniforms – bright-red shirts, embroidered jackets, billowing knee-length blue-and-white-striped pantaloons and white gaiters, all capped with tasseled red fezs – which made them easy targets, but they seemed to care not at all. They descended in a fury, killing without qualm and – when time and safety permitted – slaying the wounded and looting the dead. Above them flew their battalion flag, itself a deliberate mockery of the solemnity of war. On it were embroidered the words “Gentle as a …” and the image of a lamb. They had been largely recruited from the wharves, gutters and dives of the New Orleans waterfront, and though their official designation was the 1st Louisiana Battalion, they were known and feared by Federals and Rebels alike as the Louisiana Tigers.
It was a name they wore with pride. Many had chosen to enhance their uniforms by painting on their caps such individually inspired slogans as “Lincoln’s Life or a Tiger’s Death,” “Tiger in Search of a Black Republican” and “Tiger Bound for the Happy Land.” One English journalist provided a firsthand account of their battle tactics: “They would maintain a death-like silence until the foe was not more than 100 paces off, then delivering a withering volley, they would dash forward with unearthly yells and [as] they unsheathed their knives and rushed to close quarters, the Yankees screamed with horror.”
Not all their targets were Yankees. During the First Battle of Manassas, a South Carolina contingent inadvertently directed friendly fire at them; the Tigers deliberately took aim and returned the fire. When there were no enemy troops to engage, the Tigers often fought among themselves. Recalled one South Carolina soldier: “They were the worst men I ever saw. They were always ready to fight, and it made little difference to them who they fought.” Wrote one Confederate in his diary, “They neither fear God, man or the Devil.” And a third called them “tigers in human form” and admitted, “I was actually afraid they would … knock me down and stamp me half to death.”
Only one man could hold their loyalty and control and direct their mayhem: their commanding officer, Maj. Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. Richmond native Sallie Putnam was familiar with the unusual relationship between Wheat and his troops: “The battalion of ‘Tigers’ … were, as their name denotes, men of desperate courage but questionable morals. … Among them were many a lawless character, whose fierce passions were kept in abeyance by the superior discipline of their commander. … [H]e was gentle, easy, graceful and dignified in society; toward the men under his command he was kind, but grave and reserved, and exacting in the performance of duty; in battle he was fiery, impetuous and resolute.”
A combination of “the iron hand of discipline” and “fatherly kindness” was noted by a fellow officer, who added, “Wheat had these two qualities … in a remarkable degree. His men loved him – and feared him. The power or spell he had over his men was truly remarkable.”
Chatham Roberdeau Wheat – or Bob, as he was known among his friends and fellow officers – was a walking contradiction. A handsome, dark-haired giant at 6-foot-4-inches and 250 pounds, the dashing, highly cultured and well-educated Wheat embodied the image of a man of breeding. Yet student of poetry and literature though he was and a Southern gentleman in the truest sense of the term, Wheat was a war-lover. He thrived on the danger, chaos and carnage, as well as the pomp, the bombast and the opportunities for glory. As one biographer wrote of him, “Wheat’s story is that of a man who learned to play soldier late in youth and thereafter was never able to shake off the fascination that battle held for him.” And when no wars were available to him at home, he traveled to foreign countries to fight in theirs. By the time his military career came to an abrupt end, Bob Wheat had earned a reputation as a skilled commander and a fearless soldier. Stonewall Jackson himself described Wheat as “too brave to ever think of himself.”
Wheat was born to a large and venerable Virginia family in April 1826. When he was 12, his father, an Episcopal minister, moved the family to Nashville, Tenn., which became Wheat’s home through early manhood. And although his father tended to look askance at his chosen pursuit and referred to him as “wayward,” he shared an unusually close relationship with his mother all his life, remaining in constant contact with her through his various adventures.
After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Nashville in 1845, Wheat studied law and briefly worked for a law firm. By this time, however, hostilities had erupted between Mexico and the United States, and with a Congressional declaration of war came a nationwide call for volunteers. Abandoning both his studies and his job, Wheat immediately enlisted in the Tennessee state militia. He was the first to join and was soon elected second lieutenant of the First Tennessee Mounted Regiment. It was a fortuitous choice; with his affable nature, impressive size and strength and natural gift of leadership, the 20-year-old Wheat – mounted on his blooded warhorse, Jim – made the perfect officer.
For his part, Wheat was more than ready for combat. “Grandpa and Pa have been in the wars,” he wrote his mother, “and I must, too.” Over the next year, Wheat led his men in several skirmishes, and when their one-year enlistments ended, Wheat, now a captain, re-enlisted, convincing several of his men to remain with him. Despite bouts with debilitating, near-fatal illness; horrific living conditions; and an Army often devoid of discipline, Wheat had become addicted to the lure of battle and would so remain for the rest of his life. In a sense, Wheat was a throwback to the knights of Arthurian legend. His attention to his appearance (“I am splendidly equipped,” he wrote) and his adherence to a strict chivalric code defined him as a true “beau sabreur” – a gallant warrior. Gen. John A. Quitman, under whom Wheat served in Mexico, called him “the best natural soldier” he ever knew.
After returning home at war’s end, Wheat finished his law studies in New Orleans and was admitted to the Louisiana Bar in 1848. He found the practice of law profoundly unsatisfying, however, and soon found a means of satisfying his lust for battle.
The first half of the 19th century was a golden time for young men in search of adventure. The cry of Manifest Destiny was on everyone’s lips, and Americans envisioned a national expansion that swept to the edges of the sea and beyond. One target that had been in America’s sights since the days of Thomas Jefferson was the island of Cuba. For both tactical and economic reasons, the “Pearl of the Antilles” seemed to represent a necessary adjunct to the fledgling United States.
As it happened, in 1849, a former Cuban official named Narciso Lopez was putting together an invading force for the purpose of liberating Cuba from Spain. He had tried unsuccessfully to take the island the previous year, and now he was in the United States soliciting support for a second attempt. Many Americans, sensing an opportunity to seize the island, supported Lopez’ campaign. Several young filibusters, or soldiers of fortune, signed on, inspired by the promise of glory, land and wealth in a newly liberated Cuba. Among them was Roberdeau Wheat, who joined as a colonel.
The invasion was a disaster. Wheat acquitted himself well, constantly rallying his dispirited troops and placing himself in the thick of battle, in one instance suffering a shoulder wound. Outnumbered and outgunned, however, Lopez’ forces were badly defeated. Wheat returned home and again took up his law practice – and again, soon left it to follow the sound of the drums.
A second Cuban invasion proved as disastrous as the first, but it didn’t take Wheat long to find another cause – and another war. This time, he joined the makeshift army of a Mexican “patriot” and former freebooter named Carvajal in an attempt to establish the Republic of Sierra Madre below the border. The insurrection failed, however, and Wheat – now 26 years old – returned to New Orleans and ran successfully for the Louisiana State House of Representatives. The restless adventurer quickly grew as bored with politics as he had with the practice of law, and he turned once again to his military muse. He attempted to join the celebrated filibuster William Walker in his brief conquest of Northern Mexico – an area which the megalomaniacal Walker declared the “Republic of Lower California,” with himself as president – but arrived in California in time to see the invasion crumble.
Wheat soon joined yet another Cuban insurrection, which fared no better than the first two. He then offered his services – and his sword – to a Mexican rebel named Juan Álvarez in his attempt to unseat Gen. Santa Anna and establish a government more favorably disposed to the United States. Álvarez made Wheat a general the day after the American’s 29th birthday. Álvarez was successful and led his 30,000 men triumphantly into Mexico City. Wheat was rewarded with land, money and a pearl fishery in Acapulco. After months of inactivity, however, Wheat resigned from the Mexican army for a more challenging adventure.
Once again, William Walker – the “Grey-eyed Man of Destiny,” as the press liked to call the tiny man with huge ambition – staged an invasion, this time of Nicaragua. And again, he peremptorily named himself president. Wheat, on hearing of the forces being mustered against Walker, immediately boarded a ship bound for South America, at the head of a relief expedition of 40 volunteers. After several skirmishes, interdiction by the British navy and a disastrous shipboard explosion that killed some 20 men, Wheat gave up all hope of reaching Walker and in April 1857 returned to the U.S.
The next two years found him working with an inventor in the creation of a cannon that would fire farther and with greater penetrating power than any gun of the period. Typically, he grew bored, and in 1859 the 33-year-old warrior returned to Mexico and the forces of Juan Álvarez. Within a year, he read of Garibaldi’s rebellion in Sicily, and he was soon steaming to Italy, ready to lend the Red Shirts his skill and experience. According to one newspaper account, Wheat “went through battle and skirmish, displaying the magnificent courage, the rare horsemanship and the personal chivalry of the cavalier.”
Meanwhile, the United States presidential election raised to world prominence the successful campaign of the fledgling Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Aware that the election portended civil war, Wheat returned to New Orleans and set up the recruiting station at 64 St. Charles St., where he had enlisted hundreds of men for his previous adventures. This time, the former general in a number of foreign causes would be fighting on and for his native soil. He raised some 500 men, who became known as Wheat’s Special Battalion. Although many were Irish and German immigrants, the bulk consisted of street thugs and wharf rats whose first – and, in some cases, only – allegiance was to Wheat. One company, designated the Tiger Rifles and officered by Capt. Alex White, was described by one contemporary as having been “recruited from the very dregs of the city and commanded by a man who had served a term in the penitentiary” – which was true.
By late May 1861, Wheat commanded five companies as their major, and on June 5, they were inducted into the Confederate service as the First Special Battalion. They marched to Virginia, where Wheat and his Louisiana Tigers fought in the first battle of the war – First Manassas, or Bull Run. They fought well, although Wheat himself was shot through the lung. Despite the dour predictions of the field surgeons, Wheat recovered from his wound and rejoined his regiment in mid-September. In December, two of his Tigers were found guilty by court martial of violating an article of war and – despite Wheat’s entreaties on their behalf – sentenced to be shot. As the firing squad, selected from among the Louisianians, fired on command, Wheat sat sobbing in his tent.
Wheat gallantly led his men throughout Stonewall Jackson’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during May and June 1862, earning the praise of Jackson himself, as well as that of a number of other general officers. At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, however, the law of averages finally caught up with Roberdeau Wheat. The day before the battle, he had a strong presentiment of his death, and he beseeched his comrades to bury him where he fell. Throughout the day, he spoke of his mother and wept and recited lines from his prayer book. The next day, during a particularly vicious exchange of fire, Wheat rode to within 40 yards of the enemy lines and a Yankee volley felled both man and horse. As he lay dying, he murmured, “Bury me on the field, boys.” The morning following the battle, two fellow officers and four Tigers dug his grave and solemnly spoke a prayer over him.
By the time Wheat died, his Tigers had been drastically reduced in number, from an initial enrollment of 500 to fewer than 100 men. On Aug. 9, 1862, the battalion was disbanded by special order and its remaining troops reassigned to other Louisiana regiments. They had always fought with distinction and often just for the love of fighting. Perhaps the most accurate memorial to the Louisiana Tigers, and to Wheat himself, was written by Confederate Maj. David Boyd: “Wheat’s Battalion was a unique body, representing every grade of society and every kind of man, from the princely gentleman who commanded them down to the thief and cutthroat released from parish prison. … Such a motley herd of humanity was probably never got together before, and may never be again.”