A prominent Confederate cavalry commander during the American Civil War, General Joseph Wheeler also represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives for nine terms, and led U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American Insurrection.
Joseph Wheeler, Jr. was born on September 10, 1836, near Augusta, Georgia. He was the youngest of New England natives Joseph Wheeler, Sr. and Julia Hull Wheeler’s four children. Wheeler’s father was a successful banker, cotton broker, and real estate speculator in Georgia before being financially ruined following the Panic of 1837.
When Wheeler’s mother died in 1842, his family returned to Connecticut. A few years later, Wheeler’s father returned to Georgia, leaving Wheeler in the care of his maternal grandmother and aunts. While living in Connecticut, Wheeler attended local schools before entering the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut. He later moved to New York to live with his older sister.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1854, at the age of seventeen, Wheeler entered the United States Military Academy. He attended West Point from July 1, 1854 to July 1, 1859, when he graduated nineteenth in his class of twenty-two cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Upon completing his studies at the Academy, army officials breveted Wheeler to second lieutenant of dragoons and assigned him to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania for training. On June 26, 1860, Wheeler transferred to border duty at Fort Craig, New Mexico, where he earned the nickname “Fighting Joe” while campaigning against American Indians. Wheeler rose to the full rank of second lieutenant on September 1, 1860.
When the American Civil War began, Wheeler made it known that his sympathies were with the South. On March 16, 1861, he received an appointment as a first lieutenant in the Georgia state militia. One month later, on April 22, 1861, he resigned his commission with the U.S. Army. Following a short stint building coastal fortifications at Pensacola, Florida, Wheeler caught the eye of General Braxton Bragg and he received a promotion to colonel in command of the 19th Alabama Infantry on September 4, 1861.
Battle of Shiloh
Wheeler saw his first major combat at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), where his regiment fought well and served as the rearguard that covered General P. G. T. Beauregard’s retreat on the second day of combat. In May, Wheeler’s men again covered Beauregard’s army as it withdrew to Tupelo, Mississippi, following the Siege of Corinth.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
During the Confederate Heartland Campaign (June-October 1862), Wheeler reunited with Bragg. His achievements in the face of defeat at Shiloh and Corinth earned him a promotion to brigade commander in July 1862. In August, Wheeler returned to cavalry duty, and on September 14, Bragg appointed Wheeler to command the 2nd Cavalry Brigade of Left Wing of the Army of Mississippi (later the Army of Tennessee).
When Bragg’s Confederate Heartland Offensive stalled at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky (October 8, 1862), Wheeler’s troops conducted a successful rearguard action covering the Rebel withdrawal to Tennessee. There, Bragg reorganized his command, merging with General Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky to form the Army of Tennessee. On October 30, 1862, officials promoted Wheeler to the rank of brigadier general and gave him command of the army’s cavalry, which comprised one division divided into four brigades.
In November, Bragg established a defensive position along the west fork of Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, intent on preventing a Union advance on Chattanooga, Tennessee. During that month, Wheeler was injured while on patrol, prompting Bragg to admonish him that “you expose yourself too recklessly.”
Battle of Stones River
Wheeler quickly returned to action and successfully delayed Major General William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland during December. Despite Wheeler’s efforts, the new Rebel lines crumbled at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863). Wheeler’s cavalry once again provided rearguard protection for the Army of Tennessee as Bragg withdrew to Tullahoma, Tennessee, about midway between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Harpeth Shoals Raid
On January 12–13, 1863, Wheeler led a controversial attack against a Union supply base at Harpeth Shoals, Tennessee. According to Bragg’s after-action report dated January 17:
Gen. [Joseph] Wheeler, with a portion of his cavalry brigade, after burning the railroad bridges in the enemy’s rear, pushed for the Cumberland River, where he intercepted and captured four large transports; destroyed three, with all the supplies, and bonded one to carry off the 400 paroled prisoners. He was hotly pursued by a gunboat, which he attacked and captured, and destroyed her with her whole armament.
However, Maxwell P. Gaddis, Chaplain Second Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who was on board the gunboat, Hastings, recalled the event differently. According to Gaddis:
The Hastings had on board 212 wounded soldiers under charge of Surgeon Waterman . . . On reaching the head of Harpeth Shoals we . . . discovered a company of cavalry drawn up in a line on the bank . . . . Two of the company took off their hats, waved them at us and ordered us to come to. I inquired “Why, and what do you want? We are loaded with wounded and have no time to stop.” “Come to, or we will fire into you.” And at that instant the whole line came to a ready. Being the only commissioned officer of board (not wounded) with the exception of Surgeon [Luther D.] Waterman I immediately assumed command ordered the captain of the Hastings to land. The boat in the meantime had moved past the designated landing point, and the guerrilla commander gave the order to fire and three volleys of musketry were fired all taking effect upon the upper and forward portion of the steamer. The volleys were followed by one discharge of cannon . . . I told them to cease firing as we were landing as rapidly as possible. On landing they boarded the steamer and ordered the men to leave the boat as they must burn her. In connection with Doctor Waterman I urged the claims of humanity upon them, and finally through a personal acquaintance with Captain [Spruel E.] Burford, General Wheeler’s assistant adjutant general, we extracted from them a promise to spare the boat on condition of the captain entering into bonds that she should carry no more supplies for the Army of the United States. I pass by a description of the horrible scenes enacted by Wades’ men. They plundered the boat, even to the knives, forks, spoons, &c. Rifled passengers’ baggage; robbed wounded soldiers of their rations, and money from their pockets; took the officers’ side arms, overcoats, hats, &c.
While the actions of Wheeler’s men earned the enmity of Union officials, they secured Wheeler the thanks of the Confederate Congress, along with a promotion to the rank of major general on January 20, 1863, based on Bragg’s recommendation for “a just reward to distinguished merit.” Bragg also gave Wheeler command of one of the Army of Tennessee’s two cavalry corps.
Clash with Nathan Bedford Forrest
In January 1863 Wheeler joined forces with Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest and led an expedition to recapture Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. On February 3, Wheeler ordered an attack on the Union garrison at Dover, Tennessee, just east of the fort. As Confederate casualties mounted after several hours of fighting, Wheeler decided that the Yankees were too well-entrenched, and he called off the assault. Disgusted by Wheeler’s decision, Forrest vowed that he would never again serve under Wheeler. Bragg sidestepped the controversy by positioning Wheeler’s corps on the army’s left flank and Forrest’s corps on the right flank during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863) and at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (September 19, 1863-September 20, 1863).
Wheeler’s corps served well during the Battle of Chickamauga. Following the Confederate victory, Forrest was openly critical of Bragg’s decision not to pursue the defeated Federal army as it retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bragg countered by placing Forrest and his corps under Wheeler’s command. When Forrest protested, Confederate President Jefferson Davis intervened, assigning Forrest to an independent command in Alabama, leaving Wheeler in charge of all the Army of Tennessee’s cavalry.
Absence at Chattanooga
In the wake of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Bragg laid siege to the city of Chattanooga, where the Union Army of the Cumberland had taken refuge. To support Bragg’s investment, Wheeler launched a highly successful raid into Middle Tennessee in October 1863 that destroyed railroads and bridges, which further isolated the Federal army. In addition, Wheeler captured hundreds of wagons attempting to resupply the trapped Yankees. Although Wheeler’s raid was successful, Bragg undoubtedly missed him when the Federals broke the siege with their victory at the Battle of Chattanooga (November 23-25, 1863).
Wheeler closed out the 1863 campaigning season supporting General James Longstreet’s Knoxville Campaign (November 4-December 14, 1863). Wheeler’s corps helped Longstreet drive Major General Ambrose Burnside’s forces away from Chattanooga and to seek refuge behind Union fortifications in Knoxville, Tennessee. Wheeler’s men then joined Longstreet’s infantry as they invested the city. When the siege proved unsuccessful, Bragg ordered Wheeler to rejoin the Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia, as Major General William T. Sherman was beginning his drive toward Atlanta.
During the early phases of the Atlanta Campaign, Wheeler’s cavalry supported the flanks of the Army of Tennessee as it withdrew south under incessant pressure from Sherman. On July 18, 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis promoted John Bell Hood to the temporary rank of full general and gave him command of the Army of Tennessee. In August, Hood ordered Wheeler’s cavalry to ride north as far as Tennessee to destroy Sherman’s supply lines. Wheeler’s men inflicted minimal damage and deprived Hood of his cavalry when Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864.
Wheeler returned to Georgia and joined Hood in October. When Hood moved west into Alabama and then north into Tennessee during his Franklin-Nashville Campaign (September 18-December 27, 1864), he left Wheeler’s cavalry behind to oppose Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Georgia civilians criticized Wheeler for his inability to halt the Yankee parade of destruction, but in reality, his small force, which never amounted to over 13,000 troopers, was no match for Sherman’s 62,000 soldiers (55,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 2,000 artillerymen). During the campaign, Wheeler received orders to destroy “supplies of all kinds useful to the enemy.” Despite Wheeler’s attempts to control his men, their plundering reached the point that the citizens of Georgia came to see little difference between “Sherman’s bummers” and “Wheeler’s robbers.”
Sherman occupied Savannah on December 21, 1864, and after resting his army for five weeks, he headed north, cutting a path of ruination through the Carolinas. Once again, Wheeler’s cavalry was no contest for the Union juggernaut. In February 1865, army officials may have promoted Wheeler to the rank of lieutenant general, however, there is scant evidence that the Confederate Congress ever confirmed the promotion.
During the Carolinas Campaign, Wheeler served with the Army of Tennessee, once again commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. Amid the campaign, alleged plundering by Wheeler’s men reached the point that department commander P. G. T. Beauregard ordered Inspector Alf Roman to launch an investigation. Roman concluded that the allegations were exaggerated, but that Wheeler was guilty of “excessive leniency” as a commander.
During the early spring of 1865, Johnston reorganized his forces, and Lieutenant General Wade Hampton replaced Wheeler as Chief of Cavalry. Wheeler continued to fight under Hampton, taking part in the Battle of Bentonville (March 19, 1865–March 21, 1865).
Captured and Imprisoned
After Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman on April 26, 1865, Wheeler fled west. Union soldiers captured him near Conyers Station, Georgia, just east of Atlanta, on May 9, while he attempted to join Confederate President Jefferson Davis to continue resistance in Texas. Initially confined on the same ship as Davis, Union officials later imprisoned Wheeler at Fort Monroe, near Hampton, Virginia, and then at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, until paroling him on June 8, 1865.
After being released from prison, Wheeler returned to Augusta and then moved to Courtland, Alabama where, during the war, he had met the widow Daniella Jones Sherrod. The couple married on February 8, 1866, and moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where Wheeler joined his brother-in-law’s hardware and carriage business. In 1870, Wheeler and his wife returned to Alabama to raise their family, which eventually included six children.
Planter and Lawyer
Wheeler gradually assumed management of his father-in-law’s properties and became a successful planter. During the 1870s, Wheeler also studied law, and upon passing the Alabama bar exam, he established a law practice with his brother-in-law, Tom Jones. Among his clients was the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad (later the Southern Railway).
By 1880, Wheeler’s plantation holdings, law practice, and railroad investments had made him a wealthy man. As a well-respected and influential pillar of the community, Wheeler unified Democrats in his seven-county Congressional district and voters elected him to the United States House of Representatives in a hotly contested election in 1880.
Wheeler assumed his seat in the 47th Congress on March 4, 1881, and served until June 3, 1882, when officials overturned the 1880 election results and the congressional seat to Wheeler’s opponent, William M. Lowe. After Lowe died on October 12, 1882, Wheeler won a special election and returned to Congress to complete the term. Wheeler lost his bid for reelection in 1882, but in 1884, voters of Alabama’s 8th Congressional District reelected him. Wheeler served in the 49th through 56th Congresses from March 4, 1885-April 20, 1900.
As tensions between the United States and Spain escalated in 1897 over the status of Cuba, Wheeler used his position in Congress to push for war. When Congress declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, Wheeler volunteered for military service. President William McKinley commissioned Wheeler as a major general of volunteers on May 8, 1898.
Placed in command of a cavalry division that included future President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” Wheeler sailed for Cuba on June 14. Ten days later, despite orders not to engage the enemy, Wheeler started the Battle of Las Guasimas, paving the way for an assault on the main Spanish defenses at Santiago.
Although stricken with fever, Wheeler left his sickbed two weeks later to lead his men to victory at the Battle of San Juan Hill (July 1, 1898). Afterward, Wheeler led the division through the Siege of Santiago (July 3-July 17, 1898).
Wheeler subsequently served as a member of the commission that negotiated the surrender of the Spanish army and of the city of Santiago.
Upon returning to the United States, Wheeler survived an attempt to remove him from the House of Representatives, based on a constitutional provision that prohibited sitting congressmen from simultaneously holding a federal office.
On April 12, 1899, President McKinley promoted Wheeler to the rank of brigadier general in the regular army. Later that year, while still a member of Congress, the army deployed Wheeler to the Philippines to serve in the Philippine–American Insurrection (June 2, 1899–July 4, 1902). Arriving in the Philippines in August 1899, Wheeler served under General Arthur MacArthur (father of General Douglas MacArthur of World War II fame) until January 1900.
Upon returning to the United States, army officials placed Wheeler in command of the Department of the Great Lakes. On April 20, 1900, Wheeler resigned his seat in the House of Representatives. A few months later, he resigned his army commission, at the age of sixty-four, on September 10. At the time of his retirement, Wheeler was one of only two men to serve as generals in both the armies of the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. The other was Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of General Robert E. Lee.
Wheeler lived six years beyond his retirement, spending much of his time at the home of his sister, Mrs. Sterling Smith, in Brooklyn, New York. He died there on June 16, 1906, of complications from pneumonia. Wheeler was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, one of only a few Confederate officers interred there. The engraving on his headstone reads, “He Fought a Good Fight.”
In 1925, the citizens of Alabama selected Wheeler to represent their state in Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C. Twelve years later, federal officials named a new dam across the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals in Wheeler’s honor. Wheeler’s post-war plantation home, Pond Spring, near Hillsboro, Alabama, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 1993, Wheeler’s descendants donated Pond Spring to the state of Alabama and the Alabama Historical Commission. It now serves as a public historical site.