In striking contrast to robust Nathan Bedford Forrest and athletic John Hunt Morgan, Joseph Wheeler Jr. stood 5 feet 2 inches in his stocking feet and weighed no more than 120 pounds. He was 15 years younger than Forrest and 11 years younger than Morgan. But the difference between them encompassed more than age and stature. Wheeler was a professionally trained soldier with Northern roots. Born in Augusta, Ga., in September 1836, he spent his formative years in Connecticut, where his father, a native New Englander, had returned after his mother’s death.
As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, Wheeler ranked 24th of 35 cadets as a plebe, 18th of 29 the following year, and sank toward the bottom of his class in his third year. Wheeler ended his career at West Point ranked near the bottom in several categories and dead last in mounted tactics—incomprehensible considering the celebrity he was to achieve as a cavalry leader.
Throughout his five years at the academy, Wheeler was known for his reserved and serious demeanor, which one biographer wrote “caused him to be somewhat pompous and pedantic” as the years passed. A classmate recalled that he was “earnest and quiet…a true gentleman always,” but one who “rarely spoke when he had nothing to say” and who never showed a sense of humor.
Another contemporary theorized that “had the corps of cadets been called upon to predict who of the class would be the last to emerge from obscurity, the chances are that the choice would have fallen upon Wheeler.”
Wheeler made a number of friends at the Point, however—mostly Southerners, with whom he shared many core beliefs.
Upon graduating, Wheeler was offered a position to his liking: a brevet 2nd lieutenancy in the mounted service. He was assigned to the 1st U.S. Dragoons, a force trained to fight both on horseback and afoot. Posted at the Cavalry School for Practice in Carlisle, Pa., Wheeler tutored raw recruits while striving to strengthen his own shaky grasp of cavalry tactics. He also spent time studying the various units stationed at Carlisle, including a detachment of the Mounted Rifles.
In the summer of 1860, Wheeler received the full rank of 2nd lieutenant and was sent with the Mounted Rifles to New Mexico Territory. He was assigned to a supply train in which a pregnant woman was riding to join her officer husband in Santa Fe.
Three days into the journey, she went into labor, forcing the train’s commander to detach a mule-drawn ambulance to shelter her until she gave birth. Wheeler and a military surgeon, along with a mule skinner, were detailed to stay with her until she could travel. The ambulance was left behind to avoid endangering the entire supply train. Hours after the birth, Wheeler directed the wagon to resume its trek toward regimental headquarters at Fort Craig, only to be attacked by a band of natives.
“[W]e had gained the crest of a slight hill, the Indians closing in on us, when the driver swung directly toward an Indian, sprang from his horse, dropped to one knee, and fired,” Wheeler later reported. “A redskin tumbled, and instantly the Indians were after the driver in a bunch. The air seemed filled with arrows. That was my chance. I charged the crowd, knocking down a horse with a shot from my musket. Then I threw away my gun and went at them with my Colt pistol. The driver came in with his Colt and the Indians were on the run.”
By nightfall, Wheeler and his charges united with the supply train and made it safely to Fort Craig. Word of his straight shooting and quick thinking under pressure quickly made the rounds, apparently earning him the sobriquet by which he would be known for the rest of his life: “Fightin’ Joe.”
As the presidential election of 1860 drew near, discussion of politics became a popular distraction at Fort Craig. Most of the officers, including the commander and executive officer of the Mounted Rifles, were native Southerners who never disguised their secessionist leanings.
Wheeler, though inclined to avoid heated debate on any divisive issue, shared their views.
“Much as I love the Union, and much as I am attached to my profession, all will be given up when my state, by its action, shows that [secession] is necessary and proper,” Wheeler wrote to his older brother, William, shortly before Georgia seceded.
Wheeler submitted his resignation from the Army on February 27, 1861. He didn’t know his brother had already petitioned for his release and had begun to organize a company of light artillerymen, heartily endorsing Wheeler to Georgia Governor Joseph Emerson Brown. Brown appointed Wheeler a lieutenant in Georgia’s state forces, with William accepting the offer on his brother’s behalf on March 6.
When Wheeler’s Army resignation was accepted on April 22—eight days after Fort Sumter—his appointment to Georgia’s state forces had been superseded by a commission tendered from Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker as a 2nd lieutenant of artillery in the Confederate Regular Army.
Why Walker did not offer Wheeler a position in the branch of the service in which he had been trained remains unknown. The Confederate government was under pressure to create as quickly as possible an army out of whole cloth. Its first job was to secure the manpower needed to defend its territory. When time permitted, it would devote attention to personnel matters, including the assignment process.
Within five months Wheeler was transferred to the infantry and served at Pensacola, Fla. There he came to the attention not only of the local commander, Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, but to visiting officials from Alabama seeking an experienced soldier to take command of a regiment serving there.
On September 4, 1861, the ex-mounted rifleman found himself a colonel leading the 19th Alabama Infantry, and soon earned distinction. Another nine months would pass before he was given command of a cavalry force.