The story of Roberdeau Wheat would seem to come from Hollywood, but it is a true story. He was the commander of a unit known as the Special Battalion during the Civil War. It was said he recruited many of the members himself. They were recruited from New Orleans docks, coffee houses (which sold anything but coffee), and, according to some stories, from the parish prison. The Special Battalion was largely Irish and German. They were so undisciplined and out of control, they were referred to as the Tigers. Eventually, the name “Tigers” was applied to the entire Louisiana Brigade. It was said Maj. Wheat was the only person who could control them. He controlled them with foul language, beatings and when necessary, with shootings.
“Robert” Wheat was born in Alexandria, Virginia to an Episcopal minister. The family moved to Nashville when he was 12. He graduated from the University of Nashville in 1845. He studied law and became a lawyer. As an adult, he stood 6’4” and weighed, according to various accounts, 240, 250 or 275 pounds. He was a large man when the average man stood 5’7 inches. His father considered him to be “wayward.” Yet, he was close to his mother.
He served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and found he had a taste for war. After the Mexican War ended, he came to New Orleans, finished his law studies and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1848. From New Orleans, he joined various filibustering expeditions in Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua. Filibustering has a negative connotation, today. But, in its day, it was seen as an outgrowth of the Manifest Destiny so prevalent at the time.
He was serving with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in Italy when the U.S. Civil War broke out. He came back to New Orleans to serve his country. After raising men for filibustering expeditions, he knew how to raise a unit for the Confederate army. He raised a Battalion – about 500 men – most of whom were loyal to him personally.
The Special Battalion participated in the First Battle of Manassas where Wheat was shot in the lung. During the battle, a South Carolina unit accidentally fired on the Special Battalion. The Tigers deliberately took aim and fired back. As one South Carolina soldier would later say, “They were the worst men I ever saw.”
Maj. Wheat recovered from his wound. In December, 1861, two members of his Battalion were found guilty of violating an article of war and were sentenced to be shot. Maj. Wheat asked they be spared. His request was denied. As the two men were being executed, Maj. Wheat sat in his tent crying.
In 1862, he was serving under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. He had a strange belief that he would be killed. He asked his men to bury him where he fell. And, indeed, at the Battle of Gaines Mill, he was killed.
Maj. Wheat, the great soldier and filibusterer, was also adored by one school girl in New Orleans. Robert Wheat was a family friend of the Solomon Solomon family in New Orleans. Solomon Solomon was a merchant in New Orleans and a friend of Wheat. Clara Solomon kept a diary. At the age of 17, she and her family visited Camp Moore, Louisiana, a camp near Baton Rouge used by the growing Confederate army. In early1861, before the Special Battalion would ship out to Virginia, she was thrilled to visit her hero. She was excited to see the “dear Major.” The Major was very busy and she was distressed at not seeing him, perhaps a little offended. Then on the grounds of the camp, she heard his booming voice, “Where are the Miss Solomons?” referring to Clara and her sister. She was thrilled. Throughout her diary, she mentions him, hoping he is safe. When he is killed, she is inconsolable. Referring to Maj. Wheat and a second unidentified soldier, she said, “Two young men cut down in the prime of their lives! Oh! Robert! That noble governing heart stilled forever!”
When she heard he had been wounded, she described him as genial, warm-hearted, jolly, generous, affectionate and universally beloved. She admired him. She and her sister, Alice, cried in unison upon hearing of his possibly mortal wound.
The Solomons were not wealthy. They were solidly middle class before the war. This mercenary and soldier had many honors in his brief life. But, we expect few honors meant as much to him as being a hero to two young Jewish, schoolgirls.
Phillip Thomas Tucker, Irish Confederates (Abilene, Texas: McWhiney Foundation, McMurray Univ. 2006), p. 30
James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers (DeCapo Press 1998), p. xiii.
My New Orleans, http://www.myneworleans.com/Louisiana-Life/May-June-2013/The-Saga-of-the-Original-Louisiana-Tiger/, accessed Oct. 12, 2018
Elliott Ashkenazi , ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 22, 32, 433.