The Mercenary and the School Girls

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.

Irish As Troublesome Troops

The Irish were often seen as good soldiers, but as not the best disciplined soldiers. After the rebellion of the 1640’s ended in defeat for the Irish and again after the Williamite wars of the 1690’s ended in defeat for the Irish, a great many emigrated to European countries. Many Irish served in the armies of Catholic countries, including Spain, France and Austria. In Spain and in France, these Irish soldiers became known as the “Irish Brigade.” In the 18thcentury, a regiment generally included about 1,000 soldiers. The regiment was commanded by a colonel. A brigade would include two or more regiments.

Before the wars in the 1600’s, the Dillon family owned tens of thousands of acres in County Meath and Roscommon. After the Dillons lost their land,  they attained considerable fame in the French military. They contributed over 70 family members to the French army.

Like many Irish descendants, the cause of Irish freedom was always close to the heart of the Dillons. General Arthur Dillon spoke in 1792 to a meeting in Paris about the enslaved condition of the Irish. He said he hoped the time would come soon when he could devote his sword to the service of his own home, one day. He told the story how King Louis had once complained to him that of all his troops, the Irish gave him the most trouble. Arthur Dillon replied, “the enemy make the same complaint, Your Majesty.”

So, it is perhaps not surprising that in the Louisiana Sixth Regiment, the most Irish of the many Confederate regiments, the new general, Richard Taylor felt it necessary to execute two Irishmen. Two of their comrades had been placed in the stockade. One night, Michael O’Brien and Dennis Corkeran, got drunk and tried to break out their fellow soldiers. Gen. Taylor, even though a new commander, decreed they must be executed. They were the first executions in the Army of Northern Virginia. The regiment was drawn up in a square and all had to watch. They were shot by a firing squad. Half the members of the firing squad had blanks, so no one would know if they shot killed their comrade. One soldier recorded: “They fired, the two poor men fell down dead. They were picked up and put in a coffin and buried at once. Most every fellow that was standing cride.”

The punishment struck many as an over-reaction to drunken behavior. One Northern newspaper said the incident showed the prejudice held by Confederate officers toward the Irish-born soldiers. As time would show, whatever bias Gen. Taylor may have held regarding the Irish, all that changed by the end of the war.

Stephen McGarry, Irish Brigades Abroad, (History Press, Ireland 2013), p. 216

James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers, (DaCapo Press 1998), p. 14-15.

 

“You may bet your life on that sor”

After weeks of hard fighting and long marches, the men of the Louisiana Sixth Regiment, sometimes known as the Irish Brigade of the South, had heard that the Union general, James Shields was in the area. Shields was Irish born and had Irish troops. One of the Sixth Regiment Irishmen remarked, “Them Germans is poor creatures, but Shields’ boys will be after fighting.” The Irishman was referring to a prior battle in which the German soldiers – composed of mostly recently arrived German immigrants – performed very poorly in battle. They ran in the face of a strong advance by the Louisiana Irishmen. The Sixth Regiment soldier was saying that if the Union regiment has Irish soldiers, then they will fight better than they did earlier.

Gen. Taylor, once a Know Nothing in Louisiana, responded that his boys could match Shields’ soldiers any time. That remark brought a loud assurances from “half a hundred Tipperary throats.” “You may bet your life on that sor,” said one.

James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers(De Capo Press 1998), p. 42.

The Irish Brigade

The New York 69thRegiment is justly famous as the Irish Brigade. The 69thwas often in the thick of the fighting and suffered horrendous casualties. The South also had its Irish Brigade. The Louisiana 6thRegiment was largely recruited from New Orleans. It is fitting perhaps that the Regiment started in the Olive Branch Coffee House in New Orleans. William Monaghan, a native of Ireland, starting recruiting for an Irish Brigade. He must have had a sense of humor when he selected his first recruiting location. Mr. Monaghan was a notary in a city in which notaries drafted contracts and legal instruments. He was much better educated than the Famine Irish. Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had by far the greatest number of Irish immigrants in the South. The New Orleans port was then the second largest in the country. The fare from Ireland to the U.S. was cheapest to New Orleans.

The Sixth Brigade was not completely Irish, but Irish constituted the largest number of enlistments by far. Of the ten companies in the Regiment, seven were form New Orleans. The first colonel of the Regiment was Isaac G. Seymour, a newspaper publisher and Ivy League graduate. He was originally from Connecticut. He opposed secession. But, when war looked likely, he stepped forward to do his duty. The Crescent City had many “immigrants” from states north of Virginia. The booming economy had attracted many “Yankee traders” during the two decades before the war.

The Louisiana Brigade was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia. It included three regiments including the Sixth Regiment. Within weeks, Richard Taylor was assigned as the general of the Louisiana Brigade. Son of the former president, Zachary Taylor, Richard was a prominent sugar planter in Louisiana and a former member of the Know Nothing Party. Officially named the American Party, the Know Nothings seemingly grew overnight when the Whig party collapsed in the early 1850’s. The Know Nothing party quickly filled the gap with a virulent anti-immigrant fervor. The Know Nothings killed two Irishmen in New Orleans in 1854. Two years later, they brought in thugs from distant locales into New Orleans to suppress the Irish vote. They opposed all immigrants, but especially the Irish. There is no known evidence that Richard Taylor did not care for Irish, but he was active in the American party. That does suggest he agreed with the anti-immigrant fervor.

In December, 1861, Gen. Taylor executed two Irish soldiers, despite the plea of their commander. Executions were not unknown in either Army during the war, but they were not common either. These were the first executions in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was making an example of these two Irishmen and he said as much.

In May, 1862, the Louisiana Brigade was assigned to Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah River Valley. The Brigade did very well during the campaign , distinguishing themselves with a brilliant charge during the first Battle of Winchester. Gen. Jackson told Taylor his men had done very well. During the Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson was famously surrounded by three different Union armies. He succeeded only by ruthlessly marching his men far beyond the level of endurance for any sane man. In one long night march, so black that owls could not see their way, Gen. Taylor was marching with a smaller contingent of the Sixth Regiment. He was impressed with the tenacity of the Irish soldiers who never faltered, who often had to wheel around and fire at their Union antagonizers. The Irish and Taylor were executing one of the most difficult maneuver in warfare, a rearguard action as Union cavalry stuck to their heels. Gen. Taylor would later say about the Irish, “They were steady as clocks and chirpy as crickets, indulging in many a jest whenever the attentions of our friends in the rear slackened.”

The Irish themselves would say about the long rearguard action that night, “It was a fine night intirely for diversion.” The Federals would gallop up, discharge their muskets at the fleeing Irish, whereupon, wrote Taylor years later, the Irishmen answered, “Devil thank ‘em for that same.” Gen. Taylor would write in his book years later that his heart warmed to an Irishman ever since that night.

James P. Gammon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers(DeCapo Press 1998), p. IX, 41