Joseph "Fighting Joe" Wheeler (September 10, 1836 – January 25, 1906) was an American military commander and politician. He has the rare distinction of serving as a general during wartime for two opposing forces: first as a noted cavalry general in the Confederate States Army in the 1860s during the American Civil War, and later as a general in the United States Army during both the Spanish–American War and Philippine–American War near the turn of the twentieth century. For much of the Civil War he served as the senior cavalry general in the Army of Tennessee and fought in most of its battles in the Western Theater.
Between the Civil War and the Spanish–American War, Wheeler served multiple terms as a United States Representative from the state of Alabama as a Democrat.
Although of New England ancestry, Joseph Wheeler was born near Augusta, Georgia and spent most of his early life growing up with relatives in Connecticut. His parents were Joseph Wheeler and Julia Knox Hull Wheeler. He was the grandson of Brigadier General William Hull, a veteran of the American Revolution who was court-martialed for surrendering at Detroit early in the War of 1812.
Despite his northern upbringing, he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point from the state of Georgia and always considered himself a Georgian and Southerner.
Wheeler entered West Point in July 1854, barely meeting the height requirement at the time for entry. He graduated on July 1, 1859, placing 19th out of 22 cadets, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons. He attended the U.S. Army Cavalry School located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and upon completion was transferred on June 26, 1860, to the Regiment of Mounted Rifles stationed in the New Mexico Territory.
It was while stationed in New Mexico and fighting in a skirmish with Indians that Joseph Wheeler picked up the nickname "Fighting Joe." On September 1, 1860, he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
At the start of the Civil War, Wheeler entered the Confederate Army on March 16 as a first lieutenant serving in the Georgia state militia artillery, and then was assigned to Fort Barrancas off of Pensacola, Florida, reporting to Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg. His resignation from the U.S. Army was accepted on April 22, 1861. He was ordered to Huntsville, Alabama, to take command of the newly formed 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment and was promoted to colonel on September 4.
Wheeler and the 19th Alabama fought well under Bragg at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. During the Siege of Corinth in April and May, Wheeler's men on picket duty clashed repeatedly with Union patrols. Serving as acting brigade commander, Wheeler burned the bridges over the Tuscumbia River to cover the Confederate withdrawal to Tupelo, Mississippi.
Wheeler transferred to the cavalry branch and commanded the 2nd Cavalry Brigade of the Left Wing in the Army of Mississippi from September to October. During the Kentucky Campaign, Wheeler aggressively maintained contact with the enemy. He began to suffer from poor relations with the Confederacy's arguably greatest cavalryman, Nathan Bedford Forrest, when Bragg reassigned most of Forrest's men to Wheeler, sending Forrest to Murfreesboro to recruit a new brigade. Wheeler fought at the Battle of Perryville in October and after the fight performed an excellent rearguard action protecting the army's withdrawal. He was promoted to brigadier general on October 30 and led the cavalry belonging to the Second Corps of the Army of Tennessee from November to December. During action at La Vergne, Tennessee, on November 27, Wheeler was wounded by an artillery shell that exploded near him.
In December 1862, the Union Army of the Cumberland began to advance from Nashville against Bragg's army and Wheeler, now commanding all of the Army of Tennessee's cavalry, skirmished aggressively to delay their advance. He drove into the rear of the Union army, destroying hundreds of wagons and capturing more than 700 prisoners. After the Battle of Stones River, as Bragg's army withdrew to the Duck River line, Wheeler struck the Union supply lines at Harpeth Shoals on January 12–13, burning three steamboats and capturing more than 400 prisoners. Bragg recommended that Wheeler be promoted as a "just reward" and he became a major general on January 20, 1863.
Wheeler led the army's Cavalry Corps from January to November 24, then again from December to November 15, 1864. For his actions on January 12–13, 1863, Wheeler and his troopers received the Thanks of the Confederate Congress on May 1, 1863.
In February, Wheeler and Forrest attacked Fort Donelson at Dover, Tennessee, but they were repulsed by the small Union garrison. Forrest angrily told Wheeler "Tell [General Bragg] that I will be in my coffin before I will fight again under your command." Bragg dealt with this rivalry in the Tullahoma Campaign by assigning Wheeler to guard the army's right flank while Forrest guarded the left. A Union cavalry advance on Shelbyville on June 27 trapped Wheeler and 50 of his men on the north side of the Duck River, forcing Wheeler to plunge his horse over a 15-foot embankment and escape through the rain-swollen river.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga
Wheeler and his troopers guarded the army's left flank at Chickamauga in September 1863, and after the routed Union Army collected in Chattanooga, Gen. Bragg sent Wheeler's men into central Tennessee to destroy railroads and Federal supply lines in a major raid. On October 2 his raid at Anderson's Cross Roads (also known as Powell's Crossroads) destroyed more than 700 Union supply wagons, tightening the Confederates siege on Chattanooga. Pursued by his Union counterparts, Wheeler advanced to McMinnville and captured its 600-man garrison. There were more actions at Murfreesboro and Farmington, but by October 9 Wheeler had safely crossed the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The extensive raid caused the mounted arm of the army to miss the battles for Chattanooga (November 23–25). Wheeler covered Bragg's retreat from Chattanooga following the Union breakthrough at Missionary Ridge on November 25 and received a wound in his foot as his cavalry and Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne's infantry fought at the Battle of Ringgold Gap on November 27. Wheeler and his men also supported Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's ultimately unsuccessful efforts during the Knoxville Campaign from November 4 to December 23, 1863.
Georgia and the Carolinas
During Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign Wheeler's cavalry corps screened the flanks of the Army of Tennessee as Gen. Joseph E. Johnston drew back from several positions toward Atlanta. In July, Sherman sent two large cavalry columns to destroy the railroads supplying the defenders of Atlanta. With fewer than 5,000 cavalrymen, Wheeler defeated the enemy raids, resulting in the capture of one of the two commanding generals, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman (the highest ranking Union prisoner of war). In August, Wheeler's corps crossed the Chattahoochee River in an attempt to destroy the railroad Sherman was using to supply his force from Chattanooga. Wheeler's men captured the town of Dalton, but he was unable to defeat the Union garrison, which was protected in a nearby fort. Wheeler then took his men into East Tennessee, crossing the Tennessee River above Knoxville. His raid continued to the west, causing minor interruptions in the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad and then continued south through Franklin until he recrossed the Tennessee at Tuscumbia. Wheeler's raid was described by historian Ed Bearss as a "Confederate disaster" because it caused minimal damage to the Union while denying Gen. John Bell Hood, now in command of the Army of Tennessee, the direct support of his cavalry arm. Without accurate intelligence of Sherman's dispositions, Hood was beaten at Jonesborough and forced to evacuate Atlanta. Wheeler rendezvoused with Hood's army in early October after destroying the railroad bridge at Resaca.
In late 1864, Wheeler's cavalry did not accompany Hood on his Franklin–Nashville Campaign back into Tennessee and was virtually the only effective Confederate force to oppose Sherman's March to the Sea to Savannah. However, his resistance to Sherman did little to comfort Georgia civilians, and lax discipline within his command caused great dissatisfaction. Robert Toombs was quoted as saying, "I hope to God he will never get back to Georgia." Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill wrote that "the whole of Georgia is full of bitter complaints of Wheeler's cavalry."
Wheeler and his men continued to attempt to stop Sherman in the 1865 Carolinas Campaign. He defeated a Union cavalry force under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick in South Carolina at the Battle of Aiken on February 11. He was replaced as cavalry chief by Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton and fought under him at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19–20. While attempting to cover Confederate President Jefferson Davis's flight south and west in May, Wheeler was captured at Conyer's Station just east of Atlanta. He had intended to reach the Trans-Mississippi and Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, still resisting out west, and had with him three officers from his staff and 11 privates when he was taken. Wheeler was imprisoned for two months, first at Fort Monroe and then in solitary confinement at Fort Delaware, where he was paroled on June 8.
During his career in the Confederate States Army, Wheeler was wounded three times, lost 36 staff officers to combat, and a total of 16 horses were shot from under him. Military historian Ezra J. Warner believed that Wheeler's actions leading cavalry in the conflict "were second only to those of Bedford Forrest".
After the war, Wheeler became a planter and a lawyer near Courtland, Alabama, where he married and raised a family. His home, Pond Spring, in an area now known as Wheeler, Alabama, is a historic site owned by the Alabama Historical Commission.
In 1880, Wheeler was elected from Alabama as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives. Wheeler's opponent, Greenback incumbent William M. Lowe, contested the election, and after a contentious legal battle which lasted over a year, Lowe was declared the winner and assumed the seat on June 3, 1882. Lowe, however, served only four months before dying of tuberculosis. Wheeler won a special election to return and serve out the remaining weeks of the term.
Wheeler supported the election of Luke Pryor in 1882 and did not run for reelection, but was elected again in 1884, and re-elected to seven subsequent terms before resigning in 1900. While in Congress, Wheeler strove to heal the breach between the North and the South, and championed economic policies that would help rebuild the Southern states.
In 1898, Wheeler, now aged 61, volunteered for the Spanish–American War, receiving an appointment to major general of volunteers from President William McKinley. He assumed command of the cavalry division, which included Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and was nominally second-in-command of the V Corps. He sailed for Cuba and was charged with scouting for the U.S. advance by General William Rufus Shafter, overall commander of V Corps. He was ordered not to engage the enemy on his own until the American troop disembarkation had been completed.
Approaching Las Guasimas de Sevilla on June 24, American reports suggested the Spaniards were digging in with a field gun; however, Cuban scouts contradicted these, revealing the Spaniards were preparing to abandon their position. In fact, the Spanish troops at the position had received orders to fall back on Santiago. Wheeler requested the assistance of the attached Cuban forces in an immediate attack, but their commander, Col. Gonzales Clavel, refused. Wheeler decided to attack anyway, rushing his men forward with two guns to the front, with Colonel Young's brigade leading the advance against the Spanish columns in what came to be called the Battle of Las Guasimas, the first major engagement of the war.
During the excitement of the battle, Wheeler supposedly called out "Let's go, boys! We've got the damn Yankees on the run again!" Wheeler's forces moved to encircle the Spaniards' first battle line, assaulting its front and right flank, but were repulsed. During a pause in the fighting, both sides reinforced their positions. The Spaniards sent forward 2 companies of the San Fernando Battalion, along with the artillery. After midday the U.S. attack was renewed, but Spanish Comandante Andrés Alcañiz, leading the Provisional de Puerto Rico Battalion, once again checked the American assault.
After halting the American advance, the Spanish resumed their ongoing withdrawal towards Santiago's outer defenses according to their original plans. The battle had cost U.S. forces 17 dead and 52 wounded, while Spanish forces suffered seven dead and seven wounded.
Wheeler fell seriously ill during the campaign and turned over command of the division to Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Sumner. Wheeler was still incapacitated in July when the Battle of San Juan Hill began but once he heard the sound of guns, the "War Child" returned to the front despite his illness. Being the senior officer present at the front he first issued orders to the 1st Division, under Jacob F. Kent, before returning to his own command. Upon taking the heights, Wheeler assured General William R. Shafter that the position could be held against a possible counterattack. He led the division through the Siege of Santiago and was a senior member of the peace commission.
Wheeler's youngest son died shortly after his return from serving in Cuba; he drowned while swimming in the ocean. When back in the United States, Wheeler commanded the convalescent camp of the army at Montauk Point, now a state park in New York.
Wheeler sailed for the Philippines to fight in the Philippine–American War, arriving in August 1899. He commanded the First Brigade in Arthur MacArthur's Second Division during the Philippine–American War until January 1900. During this period, Wheeler was mustered out of the volunteer service and commissioned a brigadier general in the regular army, both on June 16, 1900. After hostilities he commanded the Department of the Lakes until his retirement on September 10, 1900, and moved to New York.
Supposedly while serving in the Philippines, Wheeler encountered an infantryman who was complaining about the heat and being tired. Wheeler promptly dismounted, took the man's rifle and pack, told him to mount his horse, and marched the rest of the way with the infantry.
Wheeler was the author of several books on military history and strategy, as well as about civil subjects. His first was A Revised System of Cavalry Tactics, for the Use of the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, C.S.A. in 1863, a manual that saw use by the Confederacy. His other works include: Fitz-John Porter in 1883, The Santiago Campaign in 1898, Confederate Military History: Alabama in 1899, and Report on the Island of Guam in 1900. Wheeler also co-wrote several more books throughout the rest of his life, the last of which, The New America and the Far East: A Pictureque and Historic Description of These Land and Peoples, was published in 1907, after his death.
Wheeler also appeared in an early film called Surrender of General Toral (1898) with William Rufus Shafter.
While attending the hundredth anniversary celebration of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point, New York) in 1902, Wheeler approached the old West Point hotel, where his Confederate comrades James Longstreet and Edward Porter Alexander were seated on the porch. At the festivities Wheeler wore his dress uniform of his most recent rank, that of a general in the U.S. Army. Longstreet recognized him coming near, and reportedly said, "Joe, I hope that Almighty God takes me before he does you, for I want to be within the gates of hell to hear Jubal Early cuss you in the blue uniform." (Longstreet did in fact predecease Wheeler, dying in January 1904.)
General Wheeler was a member of the District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (joined in 1898) and the Society of Colonial Wars.
After long illness, Wheeler died in Brooklyn on January 25, 1906, at the age of 69. He is one of the few former Confederate officers to be buried within Arlington National Cemetery.
Wheeler Family and Pond Spring
Pond Spring, the General Joe Wheeler Home, is located in Northwest Alabama. Currently owned by the Alabama Historical Commission, the house is undergoing major restoration and preservation to take it back to the 1920s condition. Joseph Wheeler married into the property which was owned by his wife Daniella (b. 20 August 1841 m.8 February 1866 d.1895). Daniella had inherited the property when her previous husband, Benjamin Sherrod died. The Sherrods had bought the property from the Hickman family and expanded and added several buildings, including the two story dogtrot log cabin that came to be known as the Sherrod House. The Wheelers built their own house right next to the Sherrod house and occupied both houses while Daniella and Joe were alive.
The men lived in the older Sherrod House, while the women lived in the newer three story Wheeler House. The second floor of the Wheeler House has four bedrooms, one for each daughter, while their governess lived in the 3rd story attic. Daniella occupied a room downstairs, which was equipped with its own door knocker. The two houses were, and still are, connected outside through a covered walkway.
Later on, the upstairs of the Wheeler home was shared by son Joe Jr. and his daughter Annie until their deaths.
Children of Joseph and Daniella Wheeler
- Lucy Louise
(November 24, 1866 - December 25, 1924) The eldest of the Wheeler siblings, Lucy never married.
- Annie Early
(July 31, 1868 - April 10, 1955) Annie Wheeler was the second child of the General. She would grow up to volunteer for the American Red Cross and would follow her father into many different skirmishes and battles. She was known as the "Angel of Santiago" for her work in the Spanish–American War. She also served during World War I in England and France. Annie was a well known in many places and held correspondences with many people. She was even presented to the Queen of England. Annie died in 1955 after suffering an injury after a fall.
(August 9, 1869 - March 1871) Died young, little is known about her.
- Julia Knox Hull
(November 27, 1870 - January 6, 1959) Married William J. Harris, US Senator from Georgia.
- Joseph M. Wheeler, IV
(March 23, 1872 - August 6, 1938) The first son, he was known as "Joe Jr." He attended West Point and graduated in 1895. He joined the Army and was stationed at the Washington Barracks D.C.. After training at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe in Virginia, Joe Jr. then was a Mathematics instructor at West Point before the Spanish–American War broke out. At the start of the War, Joe Jr. was made an aide on his father's staff and sailed for Cuba in June 1898. The following year he was made a Major of the 34th Infantry, US Volunteers and left in September 1899 for the Philippines. He served in many different areas after this, finally retiring as a Colonel in February 1927.
- Caroline Peyton
(August 8, 1877 - March 16, 1953) Known as "Carrie," the youngest Wheeler daughter married Gordon Buck.
- Thomas Harrison
(March 7, 1881 - September 7, 1898)
Thomas was the youngest of the children. Influenced by both his father and brother, at the age of 16 Thomas chose to enroll at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. One year into his training the Spanish–American War began. Thomas was adamant about participating in the war. Though his father, older brother, and oldest sister were all going themselves, the General refused to help Thomas find a position aboard a warship. Thomas did not give up, and instead posted a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long. Long helped him find a position aboard the USS Columbia, which would turn out to be Thomas's first and last assignment. Although the Columbia did participate in the invasion of Puerto Rico, it was a very short and easy victory due to the Spanish not showing up. On the 7th of September 1898, Thomas and some friends were surf bathing at Montauk Point. One of his midshipman friends was pulled under the water and was struggling. In an effort to save his friend, Thomas dove in after him, but despite his efforts both boys drowned. Thomas's body was retrieved and brought to his Alabama home to be buried.
In 1925, the state of Alabama donated a bronze statue of Joseph Wheeler to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol. Additionally, several locations in Alabama are named after Wheeler including Joe Wheeler State Park, Wheeler Lake and Dam, and the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Also, Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, and Wheeler County, Georgia are named after him. During World War II, the United States Navy named a Liberty Ship in honor of Wheeler. Wheeler Road, a main thoroughfare through west Augusta is named after him as well. Furthermore, Joe Wheeler Electric Cooperative in northwest Alabama also honors him. Also Camp Wheeler, near Macon, Georgia (which served as an army base during both World Wars) was named for Wheeler. Wheeler Mountain, just south of Tuscumbia, in northwest Alabama, is named for him and is a foothill of the Appalacchians. Fort Jackson has a street named after him.
While preaching a revival meeting in Alabama, Dr. Dolphus Price met Gen. Wheeler's daughter, Annie, and was given a tour of their famous Flower Garden. Later Dr. Price preached a sermon called "God's Flower Garden", inspired by that tour. It became one of his most famous sermons. General Wheeler was a childhood hero of Dr. Price.
The City of Derby, Connecticut, where Wheeler grew up as a young lad, named him as one of the first members of its Hall of Fame in 2007.
In popular media
Wheeler was portrayed in the television film Rough Riders by actor Gary Busey, although Busey is much taller than Wheeler was, and had only a mustache instead of a full beard. The film portrays him as an "unreconstructed" Confederate, and oddly has him cite Bedford Forrest (who hated Wheeler) as his "old friend". Joseph Wheeler, Jr., his son who served on his staff, was renamed William in the film.
The young character of Dill in the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird attempts to impress his new friends by claiming that Wheeler is his grandfather and left him his cavalry saber.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, National Park Service".