One of the Special Exhibits on display at The Heritage Museums & Gardens is a collection of intricately detailed military miniatures representing historical military organizations from the Revolutionary War through the Spanish-American War. On the same shelf in one of the display cases are two Civil War regiments that would become well known for their colorful uniforms and their bravery. The two regiments are the 14th Brooklyn Chasseurs (nickname “Red Legged Devils” – Union) and Wheat’s Louisiana Tiger Battalion (or Wheat’s Tigers – Confederate). The 14th Brooklyn and Wheat’s Tigers would be “introduced” to each other at the first major land battle of the Civil War, First Bull Run, fought 158 years ago on 21 July 1861.
As their name indicates, the 14th Brooklyn was recruited mainly from the borough of Brooklyn in New York City and its ranks consisted of members of high standing in the Brooklyn community, largely businessmen, tradesmen and firemen. For a uniform the regiment adopted the “Zouave” type uniform worn by the French troops in Algeria at the time. The Zouave style was very popular with several Union and Confederate regiments early in the Civil War. The 14th Brooklyn Zouave style consisted of a navy blue jacket with red trim and bright red pantaloons. Tan leather gaiters covered covered their boots and gathered the cuffs of their pants. For head gear either a bright red cap with blue trim or a blue cap with red trim. Unlike other Zouave regiments, who switched to the standard blue jacket and sky blue pants worn by most Union regiments, the 14th Brooklyn maintained their colorful outfits for the entire conflict.
The 14th Brooklyn departed New York City for Washington D.C. on 18 May 1861 under the command of Colonel Alfred M. Wood.
The background of the men who made up Wheat’s Tiger Battalion was the extreme polar opposite of that of the 14th Brooklyn. The Battalion took their name from their commander, Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, who went by “Rob” Wheat. Organized in New Orleans, the men of the Battalion were predominantly Irish immigrants recruited from the docks, wharves and warehouses lining the Mississippi waterfront. Such a band of scamps, scalawags, spalpeens, rascals and rapscallions had never been organized under one flag before. They fought with each other, and with anyone who ventured into their camps. Other Confederate regiments were terrified of them. The only person who was able to control them was Rob Wheat. Wheat was, for the time, a behemoth standing 6’4” and weighing 250 pounds. A New Orleans lawyer, Wheat spent more time practicing military arts than law. Wheat was a “filibuster”, or soldier of fortune. By the time the Civil War started he had been a General in two foreign armies and a Colonel in a 3rd. His “Tigers” were terrified of him because of his immense size and his ferocity. He kept his men in line by maintaining strict discipline, and threatening to dismember them with his sword if they got out of hand. It is probably a good thing that Wheat’s Tigers were so feared, nobody was going to make fun of them because of their uniforms. A Zouave style uniform also, the companies of the Tiger Battalion wore a different color jacket, either blue, brown or red. Head gear varied too, but they were issued red fez with a red tassel. The one uniform article that all the men of the Battalion wore were pantaloons with vertical white and blue stripes. Being the band of cut throats that they were, the Tigers all carried Bowie knives or short swords that were not of military issue. Wheat and his Tigers departed New Orleans for far away Manassas Junction, VA, on 13 June 1861.
On 21 July 1861, 158 years ago, the 14th Brooklyn and Wheat’s Tigers would come face to face on the battlefield at Manassas, Virginia, known as the First Battle of Bull Run. What initially began as a day of promise for the Union Army turned into confusion and indecision. Confusion because rookie troops were expected to perform complicated maneuvers under fire, compounded by the fact that there were Confederate regiments clothed in blue and Union regiments wearing gray.
A case of mistaken identity led to the confrontation between the 14th Brooklyn and Wheat’s Tigers. Two excellent Union artillery batteries (United States regulars led by Captains Griffin and Ricketts) were wreaking havoc on the Confederates. Rebel troops were ordered by General Stonewall Jackson to charge and capture the battery cannons. As the Rebels emerged from the smoke and woods, Griffin & Ricketts stopped firing because the troops were wearing blue. A gust of wind unfurled the flags of the approaching troops to reveal their true identity. It was too late for Griffin & Ricketts to fire on the fast approaching troops. The Rebels unleashed a volley that wounded both Ricketts and Griffin, as well as killing and wounding several artillery men and horses. The Rebels were among the cannons and the surviving Yankees fled. A counterattack by the New York Fire Zouaves, 14th Brooklyn and the 1st Minnesota Union regiments recaptured the guns. Fighting swirled around the guns as both armies attacked and counter attacked the position. The 14th Brooklyn would make four attacks to try and re-take the cannons. As they made their 4th attack Stonewall Jackson tried to steady his troops and said “look out boys, here come those red legged devils again”. From then until the end of the Civil War both Union and Confederate armies would refer to the 14th Brooklyn as “The Red Legged Devils”.
Confederate General Stonewall Jackson would order another counter-attack to try and re-capture Griffin’s & Ricketts’ batteries. In this attack he sent Rob Wheat and the Louisiana Tigers. The Tigers ran right into the 14th Brooklyn and a wild melee occurred. The fighting became hand to hand, clubbed muskets, bayonets and the Tigers putting their Bowie knives to use. In the attack, Colonel Wood and Rob Wheat would fall wounded, Wood severely and Wheat’s wound was thought to be fatal. The 14th Brooklyn was able to cause Wheat’s Tigers to retreat. However, a strong Confederate counter-attack from another location, this time with enough troops that outnumbered the 14th Brooklyn and their supporting 11th New York and 1st Minnesota. The Union regiments slowly withdrew, firing as they went, maintaining their cool as they did so. This was significant because most of the other Union regiments began to flee the battlefield.
After the maelstrom of battle around the batteries of Ricketts and Griffin, and because the 14th Brooklyn got the upper hand of Wheat’s Tigers, the two units would become bitter, deadly rivals and would encounter each other for the next 4 years, on many battlefields. The wounds suffered by Colonel Alfred Wood of the 14th Brooklyn were so severe that he was discharged a few months after the battle because he could no longer perform his duties. The bullet that felled Rob Wheat traveled through his body, through both lungs. In 1861 medical practice, the wound was considered fatal. Doctors told Rob Wheat that there was no history of anyone ever surviving such a wound. Rob Wheat said “Well, put my name down for the first to survive then”. Which he did. He would not be able to survive wounds suffered the following May during the 7 Days battles near Richmond.
After Colonel Wood’s resignation, the second in command of the 14th Brooklyn, Lt. Colonel Edward Fowler would take over the regiment and command it until the regiment completed its 3 year enlistment terms in 1864. After the death of Rob Wheat in 1862, there was no commander who could control the Tigers. The battalion was broken up and distributed among other regiments in Confederate General Harry Hays Louisiana Brigade. The whole Brigade became known as “The Louisiana Tiger Brigade”.
In the display of the military miniatures at the Heritage Museum and Gardens, a Revolutionary War militia unit from South Carolina was put between the Red Legged Devils and Wheat’s Tigers. If I were setting up the display, I would probably have done that. Had they been placed next to each other, I believe that within short order, the toy soldiers of the 14th Brooklyn and Wheat’s Tigers would be at each others throats.
Sources: William C. Davis: “Battle At Bull Run: The First Major Campaign of the Civil War” & Time Life Books Volume II: “First Blood, Fort Sumter to Bull Run”, Shelby Foote: “The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume I, Fort Sumter to Perryville”, Harry W. Pfanz: “Gettysburg: The First Day” (for more info on 14th Brooklyn), Clifford Downey: “The 7 Days: The Emergence of Robert E. Lee and the Dawn of a Legend” (for more info on Rob Wheat & Wheat’s Tiger Battalion), Blue & Gray Magazine issues related to First Battle of Bull Run, Civil War Times Illustrated issues relating to First Battle of Bull Run, Mark Boatner: “The Civil War Encyclopedia”.
I did not include pages, chapters, paragraphs in my references, these are the books that I remember reading and learning about the subject material.