Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat and the Louisiana Tigers loom large in Civil War history. Such a famous, and ferocious unit, and its commander, met its end outside of Richmond in June, 1862.
At six feet, two inches, and weight about 240 pounds, Roberdeau Wheat was much larger than the average man of the day. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, he had an adventurous spirit that took him to join fighting in Italy, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba.
Wheat was one of those individuals who could walk the fine line between gentleman and common laborer. He was comfortable among rough dock workers and well-mannered politicians, able to maneuver in both worlds. When the Civil War began, he organized a unit from the immigrants working the docks of New Orleans. The war affected him personally when his brother Captain John Wheat was killed at Shiloh.
He loved to cook, even managing to find the ingredients to make Cabeza de buey al ranchero in camp: baked ox head, with the skin and horns on. Not everyone was impressed, and one officer wrote that it was “about as repulsive an object as my eyes ever beheld . . .”
The Tigers were officially the 1st Special Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers (2nd Louisiana Battalion).
The unit of 500 men contained many foreigners, including Irish and Germans. Some of these volunteers had previous military experience; all of them were tough and independent minded.
Some of the colorful company names of the regiment were the Tiger Rifles, Delta Rangers, Rough & Ready Rangers, and Catoulah Guerillas. One observer wrote that they were “the lowest scum of the lower Mississippi…adventurous wharf rats, thieves, and outcasts…and bad characters generally.” Another called them “the worst men I ever saw…. I understand that they are mostly wharf rats from New Orleans, and Major Wheat is the only man who can do anything with them. They were constantly fighting with each other. They were always ready to fight, and it made little difference to them who they fought.” Finally, another observation said, “Such a motley herd of humanity was probably never got together before, and may never be again.”
Racism takes many forms, and in the United States in the Nineteenth Century, there was great prejudice against the Irish, Catholics, Germans, and those from Southern and Eastern Europe. Americans as the time were very conscious of race, class, and ethnicity. The Irish in particular were seen as clannish, poor, and uneducated, as waves arrived from the Potato Famine. Seen as inferior to the Northern European Anglo Saxons, the Irish were considered an inferior race. New Yorker George Templeton Strong wrote that, “Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.”
The 1st Special Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers arrived in Virginia in time to fight at Manassas in July, 1861. Reveling in the nickname, the soldiers painted slogans on their hats: “Tiger Bound for Happy Land,” “Tigers Will Never Surrender,” “A Tiger Forever,” “Tiger in Search of a Black Republican,” “Lincoln’s Life or a Tiger’s Death.”
At first the troops wore red flannel “battle” or “Garibaldi” shirts and jean wool trousers “of the mixed color known as pepper and salt.” Their sported broad brimmed hats of various earthy tones, or gray or blue kepis. By the time of Gaines’ Mill many of them had worn out their Zouave uniforms and were issued gray coats and trousers.
The unit fought in Jackson’s Valley Campaign before moving to Richmond in June, 1862. The night before the battle of Gaines’ Mill, Wheat told companions that he had a feeling of death. The next morning he was melancholy, prayed, and read from a book of devotions. As he rode along, he talked of his religious readings and his mother, he felt that he would not see her again.
Before going into action, Wheat spoke to General Jackson “General, we are about to get into a hot fight and it is likely many of us may be killed. I want to ask you for myself and my Louisianans not to expose yourself so unnecessarily as you often do. What will become of us, down here in these swamps, if anything happens to you, and what will become of the country? General, let us do the fighting. Just let me tell them that you promised me not to expose yourself and they’ll flight like, er, ah, Tigers!”
Jackson shook his hand, saying, “Much obliged to you, Major. I will not go into danger unnecessarily. But Major, you will be in greater danger than I, and I hope you will not get hurt. Each of us has his duty to perform, without regard to consequences, we must perform it and trust in Providence.” After Wheat departed, Jackson said, “Just like Major Wheat. He thinks of the safety of others, too brave to ever think of himself.”
On the battlefield, Wheat drank from Moxley Sorrell’s flask, and said, “Moxley, something tells old Bob that this is the last drink he’ll ever take in this world and he’ll take it with you.”
As the Louisiana Brigade advanced across the open field towards Boatswain’s Creek, they came under heavy rifle fire. The Tigers momentarily halted and began to fall back. Wheat became “mortified and mad.” On his horse, he pushed to the front to lead and splashed across the muddy, swollen creek. There he was hit in the head and killed.
There is disagreement over his last words, with some accounts stating he said to aid bury him where he fell.
Lt. Henry Handerson of the 9th Louisiana observed it all, writing, “Just then, a little to my left and perhaps ten paces in advance of our line, I noticed Major Wheat picking his way slowly and carefully through the dense underbrush, quiet and determined apparently, but uttering no word and followed by note of his own, or indeed, any other command. A moment later he fell motionless, seemingly without a groan or a struggle, and I knew his restless career was ended.”
The effect on the troops was immediate and demoralizing. One soldier cried out, “They have killed the old Major, and I am going home, I wouldn’t fight for Jesus Christ now!” Handerson noted, “Now was the critical time when a voice of authority to guide our uncertain steps and a bold officer to lead us forward would have been worth to us a victory, but none such appeared.”
As the Louisianans fell back, other Confederate units came up to continue the assaults. That evening the Union line broke. The next day several Tigers looked for Wheat’s body, and he was buried where he fell by the creek.
One wrote, “Early the next morning I went to pay my last earthly duty to my noble friend, to bury him just where he fell. When I reached the spot I found one of Wheat’s captains, Sam Dushane, with three or four Tigers already there. They had already begun the burial, and were working hurriedly. It was not time for ceremony or delay. Jackson was moving, and so we had no business being away from our commands.”
Following their repulse, staff officer Campbell Brown rallied the Brigade in the rear. He wrote, “This took three-quarters an hour of hard work.” After the campaign, the question as what to do with the 60 surviving men left. Without Wheat, there was no one who had their respect enough to manage them. Brigade commander Richard Taylor wanted them gone because of their lack of discipline, and this was his opportunity. They were too small to remain an independent unit, and in August they were disbanded. Some men joined other Louisiana regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia, others did so in the Army of Tennessee.
Wheat’s sister Josephine travelled to Virginia to visit his grave. She wrote, “When I reached Richmond … I was informed by one of his officers that there was not a corporals’ guard left of the battalion… I visited my brother’s grave a week after his death and marked it with a small marble headstone. Riding for miles over the battlefields, I secured his sword and flag, which he was bearing in his hands at the head of his command. The flag is tattered and torn, and stained with his blood for he fell on it.”
His brother Leonidas wrote, “In compliance with his own wish, Bury me on the field, boys, his remains were at first interred near the spot where he fell, but it was afterwards found impossible to properly protect the grave, and therefore the body was removed the following winter …” Where the original grave was, and what became of that headstone, is not known.
His father, John Wheat, wanted his remains moved to Hollywood Cemetery, where he could have a proper burial and be easily visited. The funeral in January 1863 began at Monumental Church on Broad Street, where “A large concourse of military and civilians, plentifully interspersed with ladies, assembled at the church at an early hour to hear the funeral sermon… after which the coffin, containing the remains of the distinguished dead, was removed from the church to a caisson, drawn by four span of horses…. The line of procession was then formed: City Battalions, Public Guard, detachment of the Tiger Rifles, two bands, caisson, Louisiana officers, Gen Elzey, Gen Henningsen, … carriages containing friends . . .”
Louisiana State University’s football team adopted the Tiger nickname in 1896. The school’s colors are those of mardi gras: purple and gold. A mascot, Mike the Tiger, joined the team in 1936. Prior to the war, William T. Sherman had served as the school’s president.