Chatham Roberdeau Wheat


Chatham Roberdeau Wheat
Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat

Chatham Roberdeau Wheat (April 9, 1826 – June 27, 1862) was a Captain in the United States Army Volunteers during the Mexican War, Louisiana State Representative, lawyer, mercenary in Cuba, Mexico, and Italy, adventurer, and major in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

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Early life and career

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, the son of a preacher, Wheat moved with his family to Louisiana as a young boy.

Growing in size to 6 foot, 4 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, Wheat's physical stature was impressive. He was elected a Lieutenant then later as a Captain in the First Tennessee Mounted Regiment under General Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War.

He left the military due to illness and returned to Louisiana where he was elected a representative of New Orleans to the Louisiana State Legislature in 1848. He was admitted to the bar in 1849.

Subsequently, his wanderlust inspired him to undertake a series of international mercenary and filibuster adventures. He was commissioned a Colonel by Narciso Lopez in his Cuban filibustering expedition [1].

In 1855 he joined the Juan Álvarez campaign against Santa Anna where he was commissioned a Brigadier General in charge of artillery by the State of Guerrero.

He travelled to Italy to serve under Garibaldi but soon left when his state seceded from the Union.

Chatham Roberdeau Wheat was born on April 9, 1826, in Alexandria, Virginia, to the Reverend John Thomas and Selina Blair Patten Wheat. As a boy, Roberdeau followed his father’s Episcopal parsonages to Arundel County, Maryland, Wheeling, Virginia, Marietta, Ohio, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Nashville, Tennessee. When he was fifteen, Wheat was sent back to Alexandria to study under the Reverend William Nelson Pendleton, a West Point graduate, former U.S. Army officer, and future artillery chief of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. In 1842 Wheat returned to Tennessee to live with his family and entered the University of Nashville where he received his B.A. in 1846. (As cited in Schreckengost).

Soon after his graduation, in May 1846, the U.S. declared war on Mexico and nineteen-year-old Wheat enlisted into Captain William Porter’s Company G, 1st Tennessee Mounted Rifles, an infantry outfit. Because of his education, Wheat was quickly elected the junior lieutenant of his troop and acted as its adjutant. Once mustered into federal service, the Mounted Rifles were sent south to reinforce Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor’s army at Matamoros, Mexico. There, in the hot and bug-infested camps, Wheat became afflicted with the mysterious and sometimes deadly “camp fever.” Consigned to the hospital, the young lieutenant quickly attracted the attention of the commanding general’s son and volunteer aide, Richard Taylor, who remembered: “[Wheat] was a bright-eyed youth…wan with disease, but with cheery withal.” Subsequently transferred to army headquarters to help him better convalesce and to enliven General Taylor, Wheat became a “pet” of sorts of the headquarters section. (As cited in Schreckengost).

In January 1847, Wheat’s regiment was transferred to Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow’s 1st Brigade, Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson’s 3rd Division, that was, along with Maj. Gen. William J. Worth’s 1st Division and Brig. Gen. David “Old Davy” Twiggs’s 2nd Division, ordered to march 400 miles south along the Mexican coast to Tampico where it was to await the arrival of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott was tasked by President James Polk to build up his forces and transport them further down the coast by boat to the fortified town of Vera Cruz, take it by siege, and then march 250 miles inland to Mexico City, if need be, to force the Mexican government to come to terms. According to Lt. George McClellan, a trusted regular army engineer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Volunteers of Scott’s army were called “Mohawks” by the regulars for their wild, Indian-like ways. They were dirty, unkept fellows, McClellan averred, who were “outcasts [who] think nothing of robbing and killing the Mexicans.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

In early March, Scott loaded some 13,000 men, including those of the 1st Tennessee Mounted Rifles, aboard transports and landed them just south of Vera Cruz where they began to lay siege to the town. After a few weeks of bombardment, on March 26, the coastal bastion fell to the Americans and Scott marched his army westward—following Cortez’s famous invasion route—and engaged the main Mexican force under Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo Pass on April 18, 1847. During the fight, in which the 3rd Division attacked the entrenched Mexicans frontally while the 1st and 2nd divisions turned their left, Wheat’s regiment suffered horribly, mostly due to the antics of their brigade commander, Pillow, who was later censured (and also promoted). (As cited in Schreckengost).

Once the Americans won the hard-fought battle, Scott continued his march toward Mexico City until May 1847, when he stopped at Puebla to not only resume negotiations with the Mexican government, but to also reorganize his army as many of the Volunteers’ enlistments, including the 1st Tennessee’s, had expired. With most of the Volunteers gone, and reinforced by two new brigades of regular army infantry, Scott reorganized his 3rd Division by placing newly-promoted Maj. Gen. Gideon Pillow in charge and attaching Brig. Gen. Franklin Pierce’s and Brig. Gen. George Cadwalader’s brigades of regulars to it. Scott then formed the 4th Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Quitman, a proud Volunteer officer from Mississippi, with what was left of the Volunteers and a battalion of Marines under Lt. Col. Samuel E. Watson. General Patterson, with some 2,500 men (many of them still wounded), would remain behind at Puebla. (As cited in Schreckengost).

While most of the men of the 1st Tennessee Mounted Rifles chose to return home, Wheat and a hundred others decided to stay in Mexico and continue the fight. Wheat was subsequently elected their captain and Quitman assigned his independent troop to be part of his headquarters guard. At times, however, Wheat’s mounted company was ordered to run down guerrillas who were interdicting Scott’s column from Puebla to Churubusco. In this style of fighting, that of insurgency or counter-insurgency, warfare that Wheat would later come to master, General Quitman later remarked that Roberdeau was “the best natural soldier I ever knew.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

After fighting several more desperate battles at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec—conflicts which Wheat’s company did not directly participate as it was still part of Quitman’s headquarters guard—Scott’s “Gallant Little Army” captured Mexico City on September 14, 1847. Soon after, the men of Wheat’s company, “being well mounted, handsomely uniformed, splendidly equipped, and perfect in drill,” were assigned as provost troops in Mexico City with the District of Columbia Regiment. There they “’did the ornamental’ on great occasions for general officers.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

In December 1847, “his command having suffered severely in killed and wounded,” Wheat was sent home to fill up his ranks with new recruits. These he soon obtained in Nashville, where a flag was presented to his company by “the young ladies of Christ church school; on which occasion the color-bearer had on a complete suit of armor—helmet, breast-plate, &c. of polished brass—taken from one of Santa Anna’s body-guards.” When Wheat returned to Mexico with his replacements, however, Santa Anna had already surrendered to the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. In the settlement, the Mexican general agreed to cede the northern tier of his country (which included all or parts of the modern-day states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado—the Mexican Cession) to the U.S. in exchange for $18 million and the evacuation of all U.S. troops. (As cited in Schreckengost).

With victory in hand, the state volunteers were mustered out of federal service and Captain Wheat, now a decorated veteran, settled in New Orleans, the third largest city of the United States. There he opened a law practice and became actively involved in politics, stumping for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor, his former commanding general. Soon after the hotly contested election, which Taylor won, the nation became embroiled over what to do with the Mexican Cession. According to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, all new states below the Thirty-six-Thirty Line (that is, south of Missouri) were to be “slave-choice,” and all above would be “no-slave-choice.” And because most Southerners felt that the North got the lion’s share of the Louisiana Purchase land in 1820, their representatives protected Southern interests by putting a proviso in the compromise that each “no-slave-choice-state” which entered the Union would have to be matched by a “slave-choice-state.” This would keep, and had kept, a balance in the Senate between the two regions until Taylor became president. In 1849, the Republic of California, part of the Mexican Cession, applied to join the Union as a no-slave-choice state without a slave-choice partner to complement it. President Taylor desired that California enter the Union on any terms. In the political wrangling that followed, which almost led to the secession of South Carolina and the eventual destruction of Wheat’s beloved Whig Party, California was ultimately admitted as a no-slave-choice-state, tipping the balance of power in the Senate, at least in the short term, toward Northern interests. As such, Wheat and other Southern partisans saw the writing on the wall: both sections were fighting for control of the national government, and through it were trying to impose themselves on the other. Wheat wanted to make sure that his region was the one that came out on top. In Wheat’s mind, the best way to accomplish this was for the South to expand its particular or “peculiar” culture and institutions—which included the dichotomy of black slavery and white republican society—southward into Old Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, lands well-south of the Thirty-six-Thirty Line. This would not only ensure a balance in the Senate, but would also, if need be, give the South enough strength to secede from the United States and form its own nation. To facilitate this lofty goal, as well as that of the reopening of the African slave trade, Wheat and other enterprising Southern gentlemen, men such as Doctor George Bickley and sociologist George Fitzhugh of Virginia, Senator John Breckinridge of Kentucky, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia, Governor (former general) John Quitman of Mississippi, and Louisiana Senator and Ambassador to Spain Pierre Soulé, formed a clandestine, fraternal organization known as the “Knights of the Golden Circle.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

The term “Golden Circle” denoted the hope that this new Southern nation would encompass the entire Caribbean region and then some: all of the slave-choice states of the United States, Old Mexico, Central America, the northern portion of South America, and the rich sugar islands of the Caribbean, including Spanish Cuba. In this new tropical empire, the South’s institutions would not only be perpetuated, but also strengthened. Mississippi Senator Albert Gallatin Brown, for example proclaimed: “I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it…. I want Tamaulipas, Potósi, and one or two other Mexican states; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery. And a foothold in Central America will powerfully aid us in acquiring those other States…. Yes, I want these Countries for the spread of slavery.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

According to the Knights of the period, Southerners not only possessed the ability to expand their “superior race and culture,” but also bore the God-given duty to do so. In a world where it was conquer or be conquered, the “lesser races and cultures,” including misdirected Yankees, should not only be dominated and exploited, but also guided, assimilated, and enlightened by benevolent white Southerners or face inevitable natural extinction. This nascent form of Social Darwinism was elucidated by future Golden Knight William Walker, who wrote in 1860: If we look at Africa in the light of universal history, we see her for more than 5,000 years a mere waif on the waters of the world, fulfilling no part in its destinies, and aiding in no manner the progress of general civilization. Sunk in the depravities of fetishism, and reeking with the blood of human sacrifices, she seemed a satire on man, fit only to provoke the sneer of devils at the wisdom, and justice, and benevolence of the Creator. But America was discovered, and the European found the African a useful auxiliary in subduing the continent for the uses and purposes of civilization. The white man took the Negro from his native wastes, and teaching him the arts of life, bestowed on him the infallible blessings of a true religion…. The labor of inferior races cannot compete with that of the white race unless you give it a white master to direct its energies; and without such protection as slavery affords, the colored races must inevitably succumb in the struggle with white labor….In [the tropical climes of America] the Negro seems to be in his natural climate. The blacks who have gone thither from Jamaica are healthy, strong and capable of severe labor.… In fact, Negro blood seems to assert its superiority over the indigenous Indians of [the area].…Time presses. If the South wishes to get her institutions into tropical America she must do so before treaties are made by [treacherous Yankees] to embarrass her action and hamper her energy...in the effort to reestablish slavery in [the Caribbean Region]...The hearts of Southern youth answer to the call of honor, and strong arms and steady eyes are waiting to carry forward the policy which is now the dictate of duty as well as interest...The true field for the exertion of slavery is in tropical America." (As cited in Schreckengost).

Many Southerners, men like Roberdeau Wheat, apparently agreed with William Walker. Bound by a collective identity, they were seemingly on a mission from God to dominate, “regenerate,” “Americanize,” or “Southernize” the Western Hemisphere. Modeling this kindred spirit, Wheat progressed to the next logical step when he helped organize and participate in four so-called “filibuster expeditions” during the 1850s. A filibuster was an American soldier of fortune who conducted illicit military operations against Central American countries with which the U.S. was at peace. Although most filibusters, true soldiers of fortune like Charles Frederick Henningsen, apparently fought for personal gain, at least some men, especially from the Southland, men like Roberdeau Wheat, fought to spread Southern culture. Noted Southern partisan and Golden Knight George Fitzhugh best articulated the ideological base for what has become known as “filibustering” or “filibusterism” when he wrote the following diatribe in De Bow’s Review in December 1858: "For nearly forty years Mexico has been in a state of continually recurring revolution, of misrule, and almost anarchy. She has shown that, left to herself, she is wholly incapable of organizing and sustaining any permanent form of government. Her highways are infested with robbers, whose known crimes, so far from being punished by public authority, do not affect their social grade, nor exclude them from what is called good society, in their capital. The Indians on her northern frontier are making continual predatory incursions into her territory, and she is powerless to repel them. Her mixed population has all the vices of civilization, with none of its virtues; all the ignorance of barbarism, with none of its hardihood, enterprise, and self-reliance. It is enervate, effeminate, treacherous, false, and fickle. Like the savage and beasts of the forest, its love of liberty is but impatience of control, and hatred of law and government.… Should America, regardless of her interest, her safety, her glory, fail to intervene, France or England will step to avert the sad catastrophe that would celebrate its carnival of blood in the streets of Montezuma…. Yes, should America under the lead or paralysis...of Northern abolitionism, socialism, and black republicanism, fail in her duty...forgetful of the Monroe Doctrine….England will see to it that no war-whoop disturbs the slumbers of the imperial city….Mexico cannot stand alone. She must become a dependent tributary of some distant European nation, who would not govern her well, because it could not govern her understandingly, or be annexed to our Union, and become a group of free and independent [i.e., slave-choice] states, with all the rights, liberties, and privileges of the now existing states.Looking to the mighty benefits resulting to the human race from the annexations of ours, made at comparatively little expense of blood or treasure, can we doubt that there is a “manifest destiny,” the finger of Providence in this (so called) filibustering movement of America? After effecting so much good, shall we cease from our labors while so much remains to be done? Shall we be deterred by the epithet of filibustering, or the cant, fanaticism, and mistaken or pretended philanthropy of a part of the North?…. Unless we can command all the convenient transit across the Isthmus to California and Oregon, [Mexico and Central America] will annex themselves [to Britain or France.… Filibustering, whether by nations or individuals, is not like avarice—selfish, sordid, and narrow—but has always public good for its object. It proceeds from ambition; and ambition, rightly directed, is the noblest of human passions. It sacrifices, very often, all the endearments of home and country, encounters privation and suffering, and perils health and life, to benefit country or mankind, as asks only reputation and fame as its pay and recompense. It warms the missionary’s zeal, impels him to deeds of greater daring than a soldier ever undertook, carries him into midst of cannibal savages, where the foot of the white man has never before trodden… The learned, accomplished, and pious bishop of the Virginia diocese, maintains that the Negro slave-trade, and slavery in America, were means and agencies intended and provided by Deity to civilize and Christianize the blacks. This surely was filibustering; but the most needful of filibustering; for modern experience has demonstrated it to be the only means sufficiently coercive to civilize and Christianize the Negro...It is time to define what we mean by the term “filibustering.” [viz.:] “Wars of conquest waged by the strong against the weak, with little or no provocation,” fulfills our idea of filibustering.Alexander the Great was a filibuster, for, without provocation or pretext of injury or offence, he conquered a large part of Asia, and part of Africa and Europe. Yet he was a benefactor of mankind, for he diffused Greek civilization—the highest form of civilization—throughout many countries, whose civilization, always very low grade, was then rapidly decaying. Julius Caesar was also a filibuster, for, for he conquered Gaul pretty much on his own hook, alleging the flimsiest pretexts for his conduct. But he civilized and Latinized Gaul, and the civilization which he planted and engrafted remains to this day….Mohammed was a filibuster… All savage races which cannot be domesticated and enslaved, will be gradually exterminated. Many will fall by the sword, but more by their inability to compete in the field of industry with the more laborious, provident, and skillful whites. While we lament the fate that that awaits them, we would not avert it by inflicting far greater evils on the whites. (As cited in Schreckengost).

William Walker, another implacable filibuster of the period, echoed Mr. Fitzhugh’s sentiments but was much more succinct: "That which you ignorantly call “filibusterism” is not the offspring of hasty passion or ill-regulated desire; it is the fruit of the sure, unerring instincts which act in accordance with laws as old as creation. They are but drivellers [i.e., fools] who speak of fixed relations between the pure white American race, as it exists in the United States, and the mixed Hispano-Indian race, as it exists in Mexico and Central America, without employment of force. The history of the world presents no such utopian vision as that of an inferior race yielding meekly and peacefully to the controlling influence of a superior people." (As cited in Schreckengost).

The first filibuster expedition in which Wheat participated was commanded by the rebel Spanish General Narcisco Lopéz. Born in Venezuela to well-born parents, Lopéz was commissioned in the Spanish army and had fought against Simon Bolivar during the 1820s. By 1840 Lopéz had become a trusted minister to the Governor of Cuba. In 1848, on the heels of the U.S.’s conquest of Mexico and the revolutions that were sweeping Europe, Lopéz, fearing a liberalization of the empire, joined a group of ultra-conservative planters who were working to make the island an independent country with the institution of Negro slavery intact. When Spanish authorities exposed the conspirators, however, Lopéz fled to the U.S. to escape execution as a traitor to the crown.

Undeterred, Lopéz set forth to recruit various Cuban exiles and American veterans of the Mexican War to launch an invasion of the island, foment a rebellion, build an army of like-minded Cubans, conduct a coup d’etat, and install himself as president of a sovereign Cuba. To garner further support, he insinuated the possibility of having the island annexed to the U.S. as a slave-choice-state as Texas had been in 1846. (As cited in Schreckengost).


Once Lopéz declared this, he immediately obtained support from the Knights of the Golden Circle. Mississippi Governor John Quitman led the charge to aid Lopéz as much as possible by supplying money, equipment, expertise, and over 500 volunteers, mostly young men from Mississippi and Louisiana. Wheat himself was commissioned a colonel in Lopéz’s filibuster army and was put in charge of the Louisiana Battalion, which consisted primarily of “worthless characters and rowdies” from the levees and boweries of New Orleans. (As cited in Schreckengost).

On the night of May 2, 1849, Lopéz’s filibusters, which included Callender Fayssoux, Achilles and Albert Kewan, Theodore O’Hara, Louis Schlessinger, Donatien Augustin, John Pickett, J. R. Hayden, Thomas Theodore Hawkins, W. H. Bell, M. J. Bunch, Peter Smith, Ambrosio Gonzales, and Roberdeau Wheat, quietly slipped out of New Orleans aboard the packed steamer Creole. Two weeks later, on May 19, the dilettante filibusters landed near the Cuban town of Cardenas and forced their way into the square. After a bloody daylong fight, Lopéz’s men defeated some 700 Spanish Regulars and a hundred or so machete-wielding Cuban peasants. (As cited in Schreckengost).

With Cardenas secured, Lopéz loaded his victorious army back aboard the Creole to move down the coast to continue his destabilization program. On its way out of the harbor, however, the Creole ran aground and damaged its hull. To avoid sinking, the filibusters were forced to dump their arms, equipment, and ammunition overboard and consequently decided to return to the U.S. to refit and reorganize. Two days later, on May 21, about forty miles from Key West, the limping filibuster vessel was sighted by the Spanish warship Pizarro, seeking retribution for the sacking of Cardenas. In the race that followed, the Creole barely made it to Key West ahead of the Spanish frigate. To add insult to injury, once the defeated mercenaries came ashore, they were forced to scatter to evade capture by federal authorities. After this humbling first experience in filibustering, Wheat made his way to his family’s new home in Chapel Hill where his father was a faculty member of the University of North Carolina. Wheat hid out there until he was arrested by federal marshals for breaking the Neutrality Law of 1818 and shipped off to face trial in New Orleans. Other men who were indicted included Mississippi Governor John Quitman, John O’Sullivan, editor of the New York Democratic Review who had originally coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” and Laurent J. Sigur, editor of the militant New Orleans Daily Delta. (As cited in Schreckengost).

By March 1851, after a spirited exercise in American jurisprudence, all charges against Quitman, Wheat, and the others were dropped when a New Orleans grand jury refused to even bring the case to trial. “If the evidence against [the conspirators] were a thousand fold stronger,” proclaimed the New Orleans Orleanian, “no jury could be impaneled to convict him because public opinion makes law.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

Emboldened by the findings of the court, Wheat joined Colonel José Carvajal’s band of Mexican insurgents who were out to finish the job started by the U.S. in the last war by stripping the northern Mexican provinces of Tamaulipas, Nuévo León, and Coahuila from the Mexican Union and declaring them an independent federation called the “Republic of Sierra Madre,” with slave-choice reintroduced to spur American immigration. Because the South, Mexico, and the “world at large” would benefit from such a transaction, Wheat readily offered his services. Ever since the close of the last war, Wheat was convinced that that although Mexico was the “finest country in the world…the present occupants [of Mexico] were as incompetent to develop its resources as the Indians whom the Spaniards had supplanted.” He therefore thought that it would “be a charitable proceeding, as in the interest of civilization and reformed Christianity” to smash the “corrupt church in Mexico…the curse of the country” and replace it with Anglo-American institutions. Becoming Carvajal’s artillery chief (commanding but one tiny six-pounder smoothbore), Wheat and his 500 fellow insurrectionists, including Captain John “Rest in Peace” Ford’s troop of Colt Revolver-wielding Texas Rangers, continually harassed Santa Anna’s forces in true guerrilla fashion. In October, the enterprising filibusters went so far as to attack the key Mexican Army post at Matamoros, only to be driven back. After a few more months of conducting illicit operations, “Carvajal’s Rebellion” ran out of steam and Wheat, frustrated, snuck back across the border into Texas and returned to New Orleans. (As cited in Schreckengost).

In 1852, with his fame as a Southern partisan firmly secured, the local Whig Party bosses asked Wheat to run for the Louisiana State House. Having party backing, he easily won the election and served in Baton Rouge for one term. In 1854, apparently bored with the banality of state politics, Wheat joined insurgent General Juan Alvarez of Mexico who intended, unlike Colonel Carvajal, to completely overthrow the Mexican government, establish himself as its new president, and give Mexico a more American-like constitution, thus opening the way for better relations with the United States. Wheat was commissioned a brigadier general in Alvalrez’s army and was assigned to command its artillery forces. For the next several months, General Wheat campaigned with the rebels in the central mountains of Mexico, slowly but surely wearing down the paltry forces which were still loyal to Santa Anna. Finally on November 14, 1855, the insurgents took Mexico City and installed Alvarez as the new president. (As cited in Schreckengost).

This crowning achievement could have been the pinnacle of Wheat’s life. He was a general officer, the owner of a magnificent sub-tropical estate in “the finest country in the world,” and a close confidant to the president of Mexico. But for Wheat, this was not enough. In July 1856 he gave it all up and returned to New Orleans to organize a relief expedition to help save fellow filibuster William Walker who had overthrown the government of Nicaragua and installed himself as president the year before, making him, like Roberdeau Wheat, one of the greatest filibusters of the period. And for many of the men of the soon-to-be organized 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, especially those from Company A, the Walker Guards, William Walker would serve as the Tigers’ knight exemplar of how and why to expand Southern culture. (As cited in Schreckengost).


Samuel Lockridge, Frank Anderson, and Charles Doubleday, three of William Walker’s original “Fifty-seven” who had filibustered Nicaragua, Roberdeau Wheat, the renowned soldier of fortune from Mexico, and Henry Titus, a Missouri Border Ruffian who had been fighting Yankee “Jay Hawkers” in Kansas, answered Walker’s clarion call for relief (Cornelius Vanderbilt and his Central America allies had Walker surrounded) and led a relief expedition of 300 adventurous souls from New York and another 800 from New Orleans. Embarking on the steam ships Orizaba, James Adger, and Texas, Lockridge’s and Wheat’s filibusters took Greytown on January 9, 1857, and proceeded to fight their way up the San Juan River toward San Carlos and Virgin Bay, taking out a few Costa Rican strong points, such as Fort Serapaqui, along the way. During these operations, which Walker described as being “haphazard and ineffectual,” Wheat acted as Lockridge’s artillery chief, commanding two captured light guns. By February, the filibusters were working on Castillo Viejo, “Old Fort,” when two U.S. Navy steam frigates under Commodore Hiram Paulding, sent by newly-elected Democratic President James Buchanan to rescue Walker from the clutches of Vanderbilt’s allies, sailed up the river to extinguish Lockridge’s and Wheat’s relief efforts. (As cited in Schreckengost).

To facilitate the removal of these American free booters, Buchanan wisely offered free passage and freedom from prosecution to the filibusters if they agreed to leave Nicaragua post haste. The outgunned crusaders, including Wheat, reluctantly took up the president’s offer and embarked on the American steamer Illinois, arriving in New York City on April 29, 1857.(As cited in Schreckengost).

With Lockridge and Wheat out of his hair, Paulding was able to forge a tenuous agreement between the allies and Walker’s besieged army. The allies would be allowed to establish a new government in Nicaragua, and, in return, Walker’s men were to surrender directly to Commodore Paulding, and not to the Central Americans. Once all agreed to the terms, what was left of Walker’s army, about four hundred half-starved and disease-stricken men, were loaded aboard several American steamers for transit to New Orleans or New York City. (As cited in Schreckengost).

Arriving in New Orleans on May 27, 1857, Walker was welcomed as a conquering hero, a man who had been betrayed by his own government. In a speech given at the upscale Saint Charles Hotel in front of a crowd that reportedly numbered almost 10,000, Walker extolled the well-wishers to keep the faith and pledged to outfit another expedition. He proclaimed: "I call upon you, therefore, to execute this mission...to regenerate the amalgamated race…to Americanize Central America…. I feel that my duty calls upon me to return to [Nicaragua]. All who are nearest and dearest to me are there...those who lie dead beneath the jungle foliage, in the mango groves, in the sugar cane, or in the rubble of Rivas.… There sleep the men, soldiers, and officers whose rights I cannot fail to have respected…. I call upon you then, fellow-citizens, male and female, whose friends and relatives have perished, to lend your aid; upon the men to assist...in carrying out and perfecting the Americanization of Central America." (As cited in Schreckengost).


While Walker traveled throughout the rest of the South to further his goals, Wheat, still up in New York City and most probably embarrassed by the fiasco, abandoned the filibusters’ cause. He instead accepted a job to market inventor James Haskell’s breech-loading “Accelerating Cannon” to the U.S. Army and Navy and to governments that were friendly to the United States. Wheat was even able to sell a few of these intricate weapons to his old friend in Mexico, President Alvarez. (As cited in Schreckengost).

While Wheat was dealing in arms, in November 1857, Walker had raised enough filibusters, just under 300, including Hornsby, Anderson, Natzmer, and Fayssoux, and embarked from Mobile, Alabama, aboard the steamer Fashion for his second expedition to Nicaragua. One militant Southerner, hopeful of Walker’s success, proclaimed: “Thousands of hearts are throbbing with anxiety for [Walker’s] success as it is believed that the establishment of Anglo-Saxon rule in Nicaragua will add to the commercial prosperity of the South and the extension and safety of our peculiar institutions.” (As cited in Schreckengost).

Taking Greytown and the Old Fort, Walker continued up the San Juan River toward San Carlos and Lake Nicaragua when his former “savior,” Commodore Paulding, captured him and his army. Walker was subsequently shipped back to New Orleans where he, like Wheat a few years before, was tried in federal court for breaking the 1818 Neutrality Law. This time Walker was defended by New Orleans attorney Pierre Soulé, a fellow Golden Knight and the one-time ambassador to Spain. In the short trial that followed, a jury acquitted Walker of all charges. In 1860 Walker embarked on his third and final filibuster expedition to Nicaragua. Sailing past the Mosquito Coast of British Honduras, Walker was snagged by the Royal Navy and surprisingly handed over to Honduran authorities. On September 12, 1860, the “Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny” was unceremoniously executed by a native firing squad in Truxillo. (As cited in Schreckengost).

In the wake of Walker’s death, Roberdeau Wheat once again left the country to sell his services. This time he took a steamer bound for Europe to join General Gúiseppi Garibaldi who was in the process of helping his king, Victor-Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia, unify the Italian Peninsula. At this stage of the War of Italian Unification, Victor-Emmanuel and Garibaldi, with French help, had driven the hated Austrians out of the northern Italian principality of Lombardy and had annexed it to Piedmont-Sardinia. They were now going after the rest of the Italy: Naples and Sicily, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, Romagna, Marches, Umbria, Venetia, and Rome. (As cited in Schreckengost).

This was not to be a war of conquest, the king promised, but one of freedom and unity. The new and larger kingdom would be a constitutional monarchy, one with a parliament, elected by the citizenry, which would restrict the king’s powers. There had been a growing Italian Republican movement for years, and these men, discreetly spread throughout Italy, pledged to help Victor-Emmanuel in his unification efforts. In the spring of 1860, southern Italian Bersagliari, spurred by King Emmanuel’s successes in the north, rebelled against the Spanish-supported king of Naples and Sicily. In order to support these insurgents, Victor Emmanuel sent Giuseppe Garibaldi and his now-famous “Gallant One Thousand” to the island where they landed at Marsala on May 11, 1860. There the red-shirted Garibaldinis pushed inland, gathering nearly 800 native Bersagliari, and defeated forces loyal to the Neapolitan king at the battles of Calatafimi and Milazzo, securing the island for the Republican cause. In August, with the help of the British Navy, Garibaldi crossed the Straits of Messina and marched on Naples. Gathering even more volunteers, creating an army of over 20,000, Garibaldi took the city on September 7. He then drove north into Umbria, defeating the enemy at Castelfidardo on September 18 and at the Volturno River on October 2, 1860. (As cited in Schreckengost).

After these important victories, Roberdeau Wheat and some 600 British, Irish, or American volunteers, including Robert Going Atkins, an Irish adventurer and soon-to-be member of Wheat’s 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, landed in Naples to reinforce the Republican army. Although the war by this time was basically over, the English-speaking volunteers were enthusiastically accepted into Garibaldi’s fold. Wheat himself was commissioned a brigadier general in the Italian army and was present at Victor-Emmanuel’s coronation ceremony that formally declared him king of Italy in November 1860. (As cited in Schreckengost).

As Victor-Emmanuel was crowned king of a unified Italy, the United States was being ripped apart in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. Incensed that a man who was against the spread of slavery into the western territories, seven Southern states, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, brazenly declared their independence from the Union and began forming their own nation, the Confederate States of America. This would no doubt start a war and offer employment for the errant soldiers of fortune who were serving in Italy—men like Philip Kearny, Gustav Paul Cluserét, Felix Agnus, Valery Sulakowski, Percy Wyndham, and Roberdeau Wheat—and they boarded various packets to America to sell their services to the constituent sides. For Wheat, the ardent Southern patriot that he was, there was no question as to which side he’d fight for as he undoubtedly relished the chance to filibuster the U.S. government out of his native South. Sailing to New York, Wheat made his way down to New Orleans and reopened his old recruiting station. This new conflict, the War for Southern Independence, would be the climax of Roberdeau Wheat’s life and career: the ultimate filibuster. (As cited in Schreckengost).


Civil War and Death

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Wheat returned to New Orleans. Financed by backers of his previous Nicaragua adventures, he scoured the wharves of New Orleans to organize what became known as "Wheat's Special Battalion", or the "Louisiana Tigers", a hard fighting, hard living unit that performed well on the battlefield but was renowned for its lack of discipline. The battalion, which numbered 500 men, consisted of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, as well as natives of New Orleans. Most of the men were "street toughs". They were generally considered to be at the "bottom of the barrel" socially. They were very loyal to Wheat, who was a charismatic and remarkably humble leader of men.

Arriving in Virginia just in time to participate in the First Battle of Bull Run, Wheat and his Tigers performed well in combat. When his unit was placed under the command of then Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor in November 1861, conflict arose between the Tigers and Taylor. The conflict was resolved when Taylor commanded the execution of two enlisted Tigers who had been found guilty of drunkenness and insubordination.

Wheat and his battalion served in Jackson's Valley Campaign and the Peninsula Campaign. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines' Mill in June 1862. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Later in the war, the fabled "Hays' brigade," commanded by Harry Thompson Hays renamed themselves "The Louisiana Tigers" in honor of Wheat and his intrepid little battalion.

Notes

  1. ^ p.155 Tucker, Phillip Thomas Cubans in the Confederacy 2002 McFraland

References

  • Dufour, Charles L., Gentle Tiger: The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat, Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
  • Parrish, T. Michael, Richard Taylor, Soldier Prince of Dixie, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
  • Schreckengost, Gary. The First Louisiana Special Battalion: Wheat's Tigers in the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

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