He sometimes was called Rob, Bob, or Roberdeau, but his actually first name was Chatham. At six feet, four inches and weighing about 240 pounds, Chatham Roberdeau Wheat was a giant of a man. Legends about him loom larger than life as well. But who was the real person?
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, his father was an Episcopal minister, of all things. The family moved to New Orleans and that is where he spent his youth. At age fifteen, he, returned to Alexandria to study under the Reverend William Nelson Pendleton, the future artillery commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1842 Wheat moved to Tennessee to live with his family who had relocated there and attended the University of Nashville where he received his B.A. in 1846.
Wheat fought in the Mexican War, then briefly served in the Louisiana legislature. He was also admitted to he bar in 1849. He craved adventure and left to serve as a soldier of fortune fighting in Italy, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba. When the Civil War broke out he was serving in Italy but returned to his home city and began organizing a unit. One brother, Captain John Thomas Wheat, was killed at Shiloh in April, 1862.
Wheat loved to cook and loved life in general. One dish he enjoyed preparing was Cabeza de buey al ranchero- a baked ox head, with the skin and horns intact. One comrade noted that it was “about as repulsive an object as my eyes ever beheld.. a most unappetizing odor.” Wheat likely reveled in the shock factor. He once prepared a special “Tiger Dinner” for Generals Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, Jubal Early Gustavus W. Smith, and Earl Van Dorn. He had the unique ability to maneuver amid the world of gentlemen and wealthy as well as the seedy and lower class.
His unit, commonly called the Louisiana Tigers, was officially the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, later known as the 2nd Battalion Louisiana Volunteers. It had about 500 men.
New Orleans was the largest city in the South, and many immigrants worked the docks and warehouses. In 1860 about 40% of the city was foreign-born. One observer called them “the lowest scum of the lower Mississippi…adventurous wharf rats, thieves, and outcasts…and bad characters generally.” The Irish in particular were detested. One Louisiana writer noted, “The [slaves] are worth too much to be risked, If the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke nobody loses anything . . . if a boiler bursts [the owners] would lose so many dollars’ worth of slaves; whereas by getting Irishmen at a dollar-a-day they pay for the article … and if it’s blown up, they get another.”
Wheat’s Tigers were recruited from these rough and tumble men. Besides Irish, there were also Hungarian, French, Polish, and other nationalities in the ranks. They adopted company nicknames like the Tiger Rifles, Delta Rangers, Rough & Ready Rangers, and Catoulah Guerillas. A Confederate officer called the Tigers “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. Such a motley herd of humanity was probably never got together before, and may never be again,”
Racism took many forms in the nineteenth century, and there was a great deal of prejudice against the Irish, especially following waves of immigration from the Potato Famine. Americans at the time were very conscious of race and class, as it colored their view of the world. New York lawyer George Templeton Strong noted, “Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese . . .”
So why were they called Tigers? The men adopted the name to reflect their fierce fighting. They painted slogans on their hats like, “Tiger Bound for Happy Land,” “Tigers Will Never Surrender,” “A Tiger Forever,” “Tiger in Search of a Black Republican,” and “Lincoln’s Life or a Tiger’s Death.”
They arrived in time to fight at Manassas in July, 1861, where Wheat was wounded in the foot. They then fought in the Valley Campaign under Jackson in the spring of 1862.
The Tigers were part of the column attacking Union forces at Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862 near Richmond. That morning Wheat met with Stonewall Jackson, saying, “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 Wheat’s 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 they parted, Jackson noted, “Just like Major Wheat. He thinks of the safety of others, too brave to ever think of himself.”
That afternoon the Tigers entered the fray with the Louisiana Brigade, attacking against Union defenders on high ground above Boatswain’s Creek. When the Tigers stalled and fall back, Wheat became “mortified and mad.” Mounted on a horse, he pushed his way to the front to lead another attack, and was hit in the head. There are disagreements over his last words, but several accounts say that he said to bury him where he fell. There was no time for that at the moment, for the battle was raging with full fury.
Private Harry Handerson of a nearby Louisiana regiment observed, “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. . .”
One Tiger cried, out in despair, “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.”
Survivors gathered around his lifeless body the next day, one writing: “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.”
His sister visited shortly after, writing “When I reached Richmond … a day or two after his death, I was informed by one of his officers that there was not a corporal 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.” It is an example of how far someone would go to see a relative’s grave
His brother Leonidas stated, “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 …” Several siblings and his father, John Thomas Wheat, had him reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery. What became of the battlefield headstone is not known, nor is the first burial site known.
In an elaborate funeral in January, 1863 at Monumental Church in Richmond, “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…. To convey it to Hollywood Cemetery. The line of procession was then formed: City Battalion, Public Guard, detachment of the Tiger Rifles, two bands, caisson, Louisiana officers, Gen Elzey, Gen Henningsen, … carriages containing friends ..”
With only 60 men left in the unit, and without Wheat’s leadership, the future of the Tigers was uncertain. Gen. Richard Taylor wanted them gone, they were too hard to manage despite being fierce fighters. This was his opportunity, as they were far too small to be a regiment. In August, 1862 the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion was disbanded at Raccoon Ford. Some men joined the other Louisiana units in the Army of Northern Virginia, others did the same in the Army of Tennessee.
And if you’re wondering, yes, Louisiana State University adopted the nickname Tigers for its football team, in 1896.