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How I came to discover an unidentified ambrotype of a legendary New Orleans warrior.

In the fall of 1860, a New York Herald reporter visited a group of American and British adventurers in England preparing to aid Giuseppe Garibaldi in his quest to unite Italy. “And, goodness gracious, can it be?”  the newspaperman mused in his account. “Yes, surely—that red-faced, broad shouldered, large-eyed man, I have seen be fore. God bless me, General, is that you…? Who would have thought of seeing General Wheat. There was no mistaking him.”

It was indeed Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, soon to become Major Wheat of the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, CSA, tamer of the rambunctious “Tiger Rifles” of New Orleans and dashing leader of the unit that would be widely known as Wheat’s Louisiana Tigers during America’s Civil War. By 1860, when he was in England, Wheat was already renowned for his remarkably varied military experience. When war came to Wheat’s own homeland, his expertise would set him apart from the usual run of Rebel volunteers.

Born in Virginia on April 9, 1826, and largely raised in Tennessee, this son of an Episcopal preacher had found life as a Louisiana lawyer and legislator too tame. Active service in Mexico as a captain of Tennessee mounted volunteers under Winfield Scott spoiled him for civilian pursuits. Thereafter he enlisted in the cause of Manifest Destiny, giving himself over to unsanctioned armed struggle against governments nominally at peace with the United States.

Wheat fought to overthrow what in his eyes were backward, corrupt, priest-ridden, dictatorial regimes in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere. If in the process new territory was added to the ever-growing expanse of his native land, so much the better. New slaveholding states would serve to balance the addition of more free states, he reasoned, and thus prevent a rupture of the union. His views earned him the designation of filibuster, derived from the Spanish term for the French who beat them at St. Augustine in 1567 (not to be confused with the modern legislative obstructionist tactic), and later used to stigmatize military adventurers. It also earned him several wounds, a reputation for mastering unruly troops in combat, the rank of brigadier general of artillery in the army of Mexico—and considerable fame.

In terms of his physique, gustatory zeal, combat experience and appreciation of fine horseflesh, Wheat was a 19thcentury incarnation of Sir Walter Scott’s soldier of fortune, Sir Dugald Dalgetty, as depicted in A Legend of Montrose. That resemblance was strengthened by Wheat’s great pride in his maternal Scottish ancestry, which included lowland Scot General Daniel Roberdeau of the Continental army.

One reason the Herald reporter could readily identify Wheat was his strapping build, which was enough to make anyone sit up and take notice. In his 1957 biography Gentle Tiger: The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat, Charles L. “Pie” Dufour describes Wheat as “active as an athlete,” adding: “his six-foot-four frame carried his 275 pounds with ease and grace. In the saddle, one of his comrades noted, Wheat resembled ‘a mounted Falstaff.’ He had black hair and moustaches and flashing black eyes that seemed to light up in battle.”

His sister, Mary, exclaimed in an 1853 letter, “O what a monster he is, 261 pounds.” Wheat’s prowess as a trencherman was documented as early as 1845, when he started at the top of the bill of fare at a New Orleans restaurant and didn’t stop eating until he was one-third of the way through the list. An observer in Nicaragua de clared in 1857, “Gen. Wheat was in prime condition and fat as a mackerel.” An amusing description comes from Wheat’s own pen. Anticipating an encounter with two whales off the shore of Acapulco, he suggested that if his boat capsized, his only salvation would lie in a whale presuming “I’m one of ’em.”

Imagine then my excitement a few years ago when I spotted a photo of what looked very much like Wheat at the annual show of the Maryland Arms Collectors. Displayed along with several other pre–Civil War images was a small unidentified sixth-plate ambrotype, a reversed portrait with mat and preserver but no case or provenance. It showed a mustachioed officer clad in peculiar garb with fringed epaulettes on his shoulders, who looked neither Union nor Confederate. He was manifestly a large man, and his face looked strikingly familiar—in fact, he looked like Bob Wheat. I took the plunge and purchased the ambrotype. Then I put it aside, and years went by. I almost forgot I had it.

How do we know what Wheat looked like? In addition to numerous extant written descriptions, Dufour’s biography reproduces two portraits. One is a full-length oil painting depicting a slim young U.S. officer circa 1847, sans facial hair, with his left hand holding the pommel of his sword while his right arm rests on his horse. Today it is displayed in Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans. The other is a privately owned photo of a three-quarter-length figure taken in a double-breasted frock coat—presumably dark blue—with fringed epaulettes, sword at his side, dating from the Confederate period.

In addition, there is a wood engraving in the May 23, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly showing a bust-size view of “General Wheat” in civilian attire, “From A Photograph By [New York City–based] Meade Brothers.” The figures in the unidentified ambrotype and the engraving appear heavier than the one in the Confederate image, but this may be explained by a letter from Wheat headed Acapulco, November 27, 1859, in which he reports that he is in splendid health, “and take so much exercise that I am losing my fat very fast,” not to mention the intentionally slimming design of tailored frock coats of that period.

I recently rediscovered my ambrotype and set out to verify my identification. The first step was to consult experts in the identification of period photographs. Well over two dozen specialists generously shared their views, and nearly all agreed that it appeared to be Wheat. Their comments persuaded me to investigate further, leading to a careful study of Wheat’s activities and whereabouts in 1855-60, as well as his peculiar garments. The fact it’s an ambrotype (successor to the silvery-finished, mirrorlike metal daguerreotype) is important to establishing the image’s date. An ambrotype is a negative glass plate coated with collodion that, backed with a black surface such as velvet, becomes a positive. Patented in 1854, ambrotypes took hold in 1855.

Wheat traveled extensively between 1855 and 1860. An honorary lieutenant in San Francisco’s California Guard, he also participated in William Walker’s scheme to control Nicaragua, in addition to serving as a volunteer in the Italian Risorgimento. But none of the uniforms associated with those forces seemed to fit in with my portrait. The evidence instead pointed to Mexico, where Wheat accepted a brigadier general’s commission on April 10, 1855, in the forces of Ignacio Comonfort and particularly of Juan Alvarez, who was then engaged in an attempt to overthrow President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

At first glance, it seems odd this gringo would cast his lot with Alvarez, an aged, crippled mestizo veteran of the Wars of Independence and the Yanqui invasion, whose ragtag fighters were taking on the Mexico City establishment. But Wheat had his reasons. First, it would give him a chance to be a part of active military operations (he had failed to gain a commission in his own country’s Regular Army). Second, he would be engaged in a cause in which he believed: the destruction of a tyrant, the notorious butcher of the Alamo and other fields, who was allied to a church hierarchy. Third, it was a chance to make money, perhaps even become wealthy through mining, land grants, an oyster fishery and a good salary. Fourth, he would be serving under leaders who were brother Freemasons (though Santa Anna, too, was a Mason). Last, it would gratify his sheer love of adventure.

Wheat’s gamble paid off, at least for a time. Alvarez ousted Santa Anna and briefly occupied the presidency. But the riches Wheat had dreamed of proved illusive, and he requested retirement on July 7, 1856. In 1857 he set out for Nicaragua, never reaching his goal. Returning home, he promoted a new breechloading cannon in New York, then re turned to Mexico. Not until the summer of 1860 did he quit Mexico for good.

What about his uniform? The epaulettes are consistent with Wheat’s rank as a Mexican general. He appears to be wearing a mid-thigh-length pleated white cotton overshirt, tied with a sash at the waist. This matches period illustrations of the garb worn by Mexican troops, especially the Pinto Indians Wheat led, and is also similar to overshirts that appear in more recent photographs of Pintos. Alvarez and his men were known for their unmilitary appearance during this period. Draped over his shoulder in the manner of a serape (as favored by some of Alvarez’s insurgents) is a Scots plaid. I can only guess at its significance. But an item from the San Francisco Daily Alta California of February 8, 1856, may provide a clue:

If you want to be in fashion, wear a shawl. If to ladies an attraction, wear a shawl. If to sheep and cows a terror, or like shanghais in full feather, or even rags upon the heather, wear a shawl; if your hips are badly moulded or your shirt and vest unfolded, or unpleasant to behold, wear a shawl—if you are courting some fine linnet, wear a shawl; you might wrap your lassie in it—in your shawl….In a word, it is a most useful article, as you may wrap your feet, head, body, knees, make a seat, a blanket, a bed, a muff, a pillow, a wrap rascal or a Scotch plaid of your shawl! In our perambulations through the city we notice some very tasteful articles of shawls for gentlemen. They are most fanciful in style and color, and can only be excelled by the fanciful manner in which they are worn. Wear a shawl by all means—or if you can’t wear a shawl— wear a blanket—wear something ridiculous, and be in fashion.

Returning to New York from Italy just four days after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Wheat headed to Louisiana and took up arms for his adopted state. Posted with the Zouaves of his 1st Special Battalion to his native Old Dominion, he won acclaim for his actions under heavy fire at First Manassas. Sustaining a wound through the lungs that was pronounced fatal, he astonished surgeons by announcing, “I don’t feel like dying yet,” and making a full recovery. Major Wheat (promotion to higher rank never came through) also won “Stonewall” Jackson’s favor in the Shenandoah Valley.

During the fighting in front of Richmond, Wheat apparently had a premonition of death. He was mortally wounded in the head at Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862. A witness reported that his body, “pierced by eleven balls,” was found near “a stack of Yankees.” Wheat told his men, “Bury me on the field, my boys,” and they did so (he was later reinterred in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery). He was mourned by the remnant of his unit, which was disbanded after losing the only man who could maintain discipline.

What should we conclude about the genial giant in my ambrotype? Readers will form their own conclusions. But reflecting on the odds that some other officer of the period shared the identical face, neck, hair, moustache, age, size and build, when I ask, “General, is that you?” I think I hear him murmur “Yes.” Or perhaps, given the circumstances, a cheerful “Si!”


Michael P. Musick retired after 35 years with the National Archives and Records Administration, where he served as the Civil War subject area expert.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here