12 Days of Significance (25)

By: Bruce Sterling
December 25, 2017

One in a 2017–2018 series of posts reprinting stories originally written — by 12 HILOBROW contributors and friends — for Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s 2009–2010 anthropological-literary experiment SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS. See below for more info about this ongoing project.




In early 1861, before the Union blockade closed the port of New Orleans, four ships arrived from distant Naples. They bore eight hundred and eighty-four Italians, soldiers under the command of a little-known Louisiana adventurer: Captain (later Major) Chatham Roberdeau Wheat.

Captain Wheat and his troops abandoned their ships in port. They promptly enlisted in the new-formed Confederate Army. Wheat’s exiles formed the core of the 10th Louisiana Infantry Regiment. They came to be known as the “Louisiana Tigers.” These exiled Italians fought bravely through some of the bloodiest combats of the American Civil War. Simple, superstitious men from rural Southern Italy, most of them had never seen modern rifles, railroads, artillery or even printed newspapers. In four years of unrelenting, savage struggle, almost all of them were killed. Major Wheat himself fell at the Battle of Cold Harbor, sword in hand.

Yet the men Wheat led to war were — very curious to say — his own sworn enemies.

Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts — the famous “One Thousand” — were global wanderers and political exiles. Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, already a battle-hardened adventurer, was a volunteer captain within Garibaldi’s force. In May 1860, arriving on three ships, the Red Shirts boldly invaded Sicily. By methods still somewhat mysterious, this tiny group of armed conspirators overthrew one of the largest armies in Europe.

When Wheat returned from his Italian victory to his native New Orleans, he brought with him eight hundred of the soldiers defeated by Garibaldi. How was this feat possible? These soldiers were Bourbon loyalists from the “Kingdom of Two Sicilies.” Pious and deeply conservative, they despised Garibaldi and they resented Italian unification. We know of no reason for them to love Roberdeau Wheat. Yet these defeated soldiers abandoned their newly unified country. They crossed the Atlantic and fought bitterly to divide America. Why?

Furthermore, it is a stubborn fact that Wheat and his Italians left Naples well before the American Civil War broke out. Four ships, with almost a thousand stateless wanderers, still in their royal Bourbon uniforms, with flags and guns, were at sea before Fort Sumter was fired upon. Again, why?

Historians dismiss Roberdeau Wheat as an obscure adventurer: a mercenary, a Mason, and a mystic. Yet we know that a young Wheat was present in Veracruz, Mexico in November 1845, just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War and the US naval invasion. We also know that in August 1851, the restless Wheat invaded Cuba with the Narciso-Lopez Expedition. This little-known island invasion — a filibuster by a thousand exiles — failed quickly and bloodily. However, the Narciso-Lopez invasion of Cuba was, tactically, almost identical to Garibaldi’s successful invasion of Sicily, ten years later.

We do not know how Wheat transformed his Italian enemies into his fiercely loyal followers, apparently overnight. We do know, as a historical fact, that Roberdeau Wheat distributed certain tokens to the men, just before they embarked from Naples. Those tokens were small brass boots. Every man who joined the Wheat expedition received one of these boots directly from Roberdeau Wheat’s own hand. The men wore the boots on their persons. What were these tokens, what was their meaning? Some Masonic recognition symbol — perhaps an aid to prayer, chained to a rosary? Given Wheat’s Louisiana origins, they may have been voodoo charms.

The tokens are clearly modeled on some real and actual military boot, a boot hard-worn by much travel. Yet the talismans do not match the boots issued by any known military force. Today we know of four surviving “Tiger Boots,” treasured by Civil War militaria collectors. The rest, of course, are long since lost to history, buried with the men who fell. There can never have been more than one thousand of them. Finally, from a last daguerreotype, we know that Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat wore boots of precisely this kind. He died in them.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators