Joseph Wheeler first gained the notice of his superiors as a Confederate lieutenant colonel at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. After fighting all day, he led his men, who were out of ammunition, in a bayonet attack against Union artillerymen defending Pittsburg Landing. The next day, when the army was forced to retreat, Wheeler’s regiment was chosen to serve as rear guard. His grit and determination, which had much to do with the safe escape of the Southern army, earned him a promotion to full colonel. Wheeler was then just 25 years old — so young that he called himself ‘the War Child.
Born in Augusta, Ga., on September 10, 1836, Joseph Wheeler grew up in the North. He went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, finishing a low 19th in his class of 1859. His worst grades were in cavalry tactics; nevertheless he was assigned to the Mounted Dragoons and fought Indians on the frontier for almost two years. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, he joined the Confederacy, and family connections won him an appointment as a lieutenant colonel in the 19th Alabama Infantry.
When General Braxton Bragg took over the Army of Tennessee shortly after Shiloh, he remembered the young colonel’s boldness and skill. In spite of his academy grades, Wheeler got the job as Bragg’s cavalry commander in July 1862.
After Shiloh, the Union army was spread out all over Tennessee, and Bragg saw a chance to strike. With Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in support, he cut through Tennessee and drove deep into Kentucky. Wheeler’s cavalry screened and scouted for Bragg, fighting more than two dozen battles.
When Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell finally reacted to the threat, Wheeler’s worn-out horsemen could not find the main body of the Union Army of the Ohio. In a daze, Bragg sent Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps out to fight the entire Union army at Perryville on October 8, 1862. Wheeler, who was with Polk, bluffed one Union corps out of the fight with just 1,400 horsemen. Polk fought the rest of the army to a draw, but the invasion of Kentucky was over.
Now the question for the Confederates was how to get out of Federal territory. Neither Bragg nor Smith thought they could make the journey with their wagons or cannons. Wheeler again took rear-guard duty. His men fought all day and worked all night, blocking every road the Union army could use. The retirement went on for a long, tense week, but in the end it paid off. The Confederates got out not only their own equipment but also the 30 guns and 400 wagons they had taken from the enemy. Wheeler received the star of a brigadier general.
Major General William Starke Rosecrans took over the Union Army of the Cumberland on October 27, absorbing Buell’s former command. On the day after Christmas, he moved against the new Southern base at Murfreesboro, Tenn. Bragg sent Wheeler to slow the Union force while he gathered his own men. Then on December 29, he turned Wheeler loose in the Union rear. Wheeler led his men completely around the Union army, making it back before the battle started. On the way, he took nearly 1,000 prisoners, captured or killed hundreds of horses and mules and burned four Union wagon trains. Wheeler and his tired men rested during most of the two-day battle, getting in only a little fighting on the last day.
Although the South saw the Battle of Murfreesboro as a victory, Rosecrans still had the strongest army, and he stood fast. For two nights Wheeler prodded the Union rear. Hearing wagons moving, he thought Rosecrans was retreating. He was wrong — the wagons were only hauling away the wounded. Finally, it was Bragg who retreated.
Two weeks later, Wheeler was back behind the Union army. On January 13, 1863, he hit Harpeth Shoals, northwest of Nashville, turning his cannons against the ships on the Cumberland River and stopping traffic for days.
In early February 1863, Wheeler struck Dover, Tenn. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Wizard of the Saddle, was with him on that sortie. The Confederates outnumbered the Union force, but Forrest argued that Union fortifications would give the Federals an edge.
He was right. The Rebels were badly shot up. Forrest himself had two horses killed under him. Never a good loser, he turned on his youthful commander with such fury that aides barely prevented a duel. As it was, Forrest swore he would resign if forced to serve under Wheeler again.
Wheeler and his troopers next struck a double blow against the Union railroads, shooting up one train and capturing another. Their haul included 70 Union prisoners, 40 freed Confederates and $30,000 in cash. The total human cost for both attacks was one man wounded.
When he was not in the field, Wheeler found time to write a new Confederate cavalry manual. Among the first to recognize that the day of the mounted charge was over, he advised troopers to ride to battle but fight on foot. That was a lesson many officers had still not learned 50 years later.
Throughout the long summer of 1863, Bragg pulled back before the weight of the Union army. Wheeler watched one flank, Forrest the other. Unable to keep Union raiders at bay, Wheeler was criticized in the Southern press for the first time. The Confederate retreat stopped at Chickamauga Creek. There, on September 19, Bragg hit Rosecrans with everything he had. Wheeler’s men drove the Union horsemen from the field, then joined Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as he hammered the Union infantry. By nightfall, a beaten Rosecrans was pulling back to Chattanooga.
Ten days after the battle, Wheeler hit the Union army from behind again. Crossing the Tennessee River, he burned two depots and 400 wagons before rain slowed his progress and the Federals caught up with him. He fought a running battle back to the Tennessee River, losing half of his cannons and a quarter of his men. The high cost of the raid made it his last under Bragg.
Wheeler wasted a month in Knoxville with Longstreet, then rejoined Bragg in Dalton after Bragg’s whipping at Chatta-nooga at the hands of the new Union commander in the West, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. During the winter, both armies got new leaders. Bragg was replaced by General Joseph Eggleston Johnston. Grant moved east, and Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman stepped into his old command.
On May 7, 1864, Sherman moved forward, starting the Confederates on a two-month-long retreat. Each time they made a stand, the Union troops slipped around a flank and it all started again. Wheeler did some of his best work during that period. Time after time his scouting and screening warned Johnston of Union moves before they could spring the trap on him. In spite of that, Wheeler felt the wrath of the Southern press once more. They did not want retreats, no matter how well handled. They wanted victories. And they wanted Wheeler raiding in the Union army’s rear, not reconnoitering.
The Confederate government, like the press, wanted more action. As the Union army crossed the Chattahoochee River, word came from Richmond that Johnston was being relieved of his command. John Bell Hood, promoted to the temporary rank of general, took his place.
Hood’s mandate was to attack. Wheeler’s cavalry and one corps of infantry guarded the right, while the rest of the army hit the left at Peachtree Creek on July 20. When that produced no gain, Hood tried the other side of the Union line on the 22nd, again without success. In support of the second attack, he sent Wheeler on a raid behind the Union forces. That, too, failed.
Going on the offensive, Sherman moved on Ezra Church, west of Atlanta, on July 27. At the same time, he sent two cavalry forces against the railroad at Jonesboro. Brigadier General Edward M. McCook, on the right, had 3,500 men, while Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, on the left, had 6,500. Stoneman also hoped to free Union soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps at Macon and Andersonville. He split his force, leading a third against the prison camps and sending the rest, under Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard, to meet McCook. Wheeler, with less than 7,000 troopers, was ordered to stop them.
Wheeler hit Garrard first at Flat Shoals on July 28, turning him back 15 miles from his starting point. Wheeler then split his force, sending half of it after Stoneman. The rest of the troopers he led against McCook, whom he spotted at Lovejoy Station on July 30. Having already done considerable damage, McCook fled at Wheeler’s approach. In a running battle, McCook lost about 500 men, his entire pack train and two guns.
Stoneman’s column reached Macon on July 30, but the troopers were held on the outskirts of town by the Georgia Militia. Three of Wheeler’s brigades, under Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson, arrived the next day and cut Stoneman off at Sunshine Creek. Like McCook, Stoneman ran for it — and like McCook, he did not make it. Stoneman made a stand with one brigade at Hillsboro, hoping to slow the Southern horsemen long enough for his other two brigades to get away. He was overrun, and instead of freeing the Union prisoners, he and 700 of his troopers joined them. One of Stoneman’s other bri-gades was also caught and destroyed.
Hood, full of praise for Wheeler, sent the cavalryman forth again in less than a week. At the same time, he sent Forrest in another direction. Hood was hopeful that this combined movement would compel Sherman to retreat for want of supplies, and thus allow me an opportunity to fall upon his rear with our main body.
In five days, Wheeler’s men ripped up 30 miles of railroad track and burned a bridge on the Etowah River. They ordered Union troops in Dalton to surrender on August 14, but Colonel Bernard Laiboldt’s men held off two assaults in two days. After that, Wheeler headed northeast, almost to Knoxville, burning a second bridge at Strawberry Plains. Then he crossed the Tennessee River and turned southwest.
Wheeler tore up more railroad tracks on the way to Tuscumbia, Ala. On his 28th birthday, he crossed back to the south side of the river, saying later that he averaged 25 miles a day, swam or forded 27 rivers and seized 1,000 horses and mules, 200 wagons, 600 prisoners and 1,700 head of beef cattle. Wheeler’s cavalry force also captured, killed or wounded three times the greatest effective strength it has ever been able to carry into action. He lost 150 men killed and wounded, along with a number of stragglers who were captured.
But all of Wheeler’s efforts were not enough. Hood now learned the same lesson Sherman had: Cavalry raids alone could not compel an enemy to retreat. Worse, while Wheeler and Forrest were away, Hood was driven out of Atlanta on September 1. When Hood marched north, Wheeler was left behind, becoming the only major force opposing Sherman in his March to the Sea. For the most part, he was not strong enough even to make Sherman pay attention to him.
But Fightin’ Joe Wheeler’s men continued to fight — first under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, then under Joe Johnston — holding off the Federals as best they could until they heard of Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865. Wheeler fled for Texas, hoping to keep up the fight from there. It was not to be. His party was caught just east of Atlanta.
Wheeler spent two months in prison. After his parole, he married a woman he had met during the war. They moved to Loui-siana and opened a hardware store. Four years later, he sold the store and bought a farm in Alabama, near his wife’s family. He then passed the bar and set up a law practice. In 1880 Wheeler ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and lost, but he won in 1883, serving for the next 16 years. The Army remained his first love, and he kept up with it through an appointment to the House Military Affairs Committee.
When war with Spain came in 1898, President William McKinley commissioned a number of ex-Confederates, Wheeler among them. Now a major general of U.S. Volunteers, Wheeler commanded the Cavalry Division in the invasion of Cuba. Malaria compelled Wheeler to relinquish command of the division to brevet Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Sumner before the assaults up San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill on July 1, but Wheeler managed to rise from his sick-bed in time to participate in the battle. At the sight of blue-coated Spaniards retreating, he reportedly yelled: Hurrah! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!
After the war, he lost a bid to regain his old House seat and returned to the Army with a regular commission as a brigadier general. After commanding a brigade in the Philippines between August 1899 and January 1900, followed by a brief command of the Department of the Lakes, he retired on September 10, 1900, and spent his last years traveling around the country. The former scourge of the Yankees died in Brooklyn, N.Y., on January 25, 1906.
This article was written by David R. Smith and originally published in the June 1998 issue of Military History.
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