FIGHTING JOE WHEELER
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 Lt. . 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
Georgia and the Carolinas
During Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh 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.
A Story Is Told About The time Wheeler Reverted Back To the Civil War During Battle
During the Spanish and American War, General Joe as he was called, was leading the attack. The Spanish started to retreat at a run and Joe seeing this, stood up in the stirrups of his saddle and shouted, “ Come On Boys….We Have The Yankees On The Run”.
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.)
Wheeler Family and Pond Spring
Pond Spring, the General Joe Wheeler Home, is located in Northwest Alabama on highway 20, just a few miles east of the Muscle Shoals Area.
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.