Fighting Joe Wheeler

Short in Stature, Giant in Battle

On the corner of Aumond Road at its intersection with Walton Way is a huge, immovable boulder. Thousands of vehicles pass by it daily, but few drivers or passengers give it more than a glance.                                           

A curious passerby pulled his car onto Aumond Road’s shoulder several yards away and made his way to the boulder. There is an inscription carved on its face and a shorter message could be found on the huge stone’s right side. The inscription carved into the boulder’s face reads:

“JOSEPH WHEELER. Born on this site Sept. 10, 1836. Lt. Gen. Com(manding), Confederate Cavalry 1865. Maj. Gen. Com. U.S. Cavalry 1898.

“His name and fame will live and be loved as long as noble deeds are honored among men. Placed by Annie Wheeler Auxiliary No. 3, U.S.W(ar).V(eterans). 1926.” The chapter was formerly known as U.S. Spanish War Veterans, but by the time the historical marker was erected, there were few if any survivors of that war.

And on the boulder’s right side: (the name) Dill (followed by) “The Lord shall count when he writeth up His people, that this man was born there.” Psalm 87-6. Who was Dill? He may have been the man who carved the inscription.

Joe Wheeler seemed destined for a military career, but even he would not have been able to predict the extent of it. He was appointed to the West Point, N.Y. military institution from Georgia in 1854. He was small of stature and, it was reported, just barely made the required height to enter the academy. “Standing five foot five inches and 120 pounds soaking wet,” wrote R. Wayne Jones of Wheeler in his book, “The Battle of Aiken South Carolina, Kilpatrick vs. Wheeler, February 11, 1865.”

So he decided to become a cavalryman, knowing his short legs would make it hard for him to keep up on marches of the longer-legged infantry. And, anyway, he’d rather ride than walk.

Following his graduation (19th in a class of 22) from the U.S. Military Academy in 1859.

Wheeler found himself a brevet second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons and then attended the U.S. Army Cavalry School in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. He completed the course and on June 26, 1860 was transferred to the Regiment of Mounted Rifles stationed in the New Mexico Territory.

It was during a scrap with hostile Indians that Wheeler acquired his nickname of “Fighting Joe.” On Sept. 1, 1860, he was promoted to a full-fledged second lieutenant, but then the Civil War erupted.

Wheeler always considered himself a son of the South so he resigned  from the U.S. Army and on March 16, 1861 found himself in the Confederate Army. His rise through the ranks was rapid. On Oct. 30, 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. By Jan. 20, 1863, he had become a major general and later lieutenant general.

On Jan. 22, he was assigned to command all the cavalry in Middle Tennessee. It was written that “he was conspicuous as a raider and was constantly employed in guarding the flanks of the army, cutting the Federal communications, covering retreats and obtaining information for the army commanders.”

Wheeler was definitely tall in the saddle.

His command consisted of one of several numerous bands of independent cavalry or mounted riflemen which mostly had their own way over the first two years of the war. The swiftly moving Confederate troopers under dashing leaders like J.E.B. Stuart and Wheeler allowed the heads of Union cavalry not a moment of peace.   

Wheeler’s cavalry proved to be such a menace to Union lines of communication that railroads were guarded by blockhouses at vulnerable points. The battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee demonstrated Wheeler’s strategy of hitting the enemy at unexpected moments and places. Wheeler’s men overpowered the escort at the rear of Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ army and found themselves in possession of an enormous wagon train, some 500 wagons, which were destroyed. Historians later said the feat “was one of the greatest achievements of General Wheeler’s cavalry.” It also was noted that Rosecrans lost a prized revolver on which was engraved mention of some of his battles and their dates, but that wasn’t the only “souvenir” captured by Wheeler during the war.

During Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Carolina Campaign following his “March Through Georgia,” Gen. Wheeler’s cavalry corps was responsible for the Yankees’ lone defeat at the Battle of Aiken on Feb. 11, 1865. Brigadier Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry force was routed and could have been captured had not an over-eager Rebel accidentally pulled the trigger of his gun, warning the Federal troops of Wheeler’s presence. Legend has it that during his haste to flee the scene, Kilpatrick’s hat blew off and was “captured” by Wheeler.

Following the end of the Civil War, Wheeler moved to Wheeler, Ala. (named in his honor) and began the first of three terms as a Democrat representing that state’s 8th Congressional District. He also became a planter.

But there was more action ahead for Fighting Joe.

The Augusta Chronicle published the following on Feb. 27, 1898 following the breakout of the Spanish-American War under the headline Fighting Joe: “Gen. Joe Wheeler’s standing offer of his military services to the War Department is not buncombe. He is a born soldier, a distinguished veteran and despite advanced years (he was 62) is as active as a cat. He is the best horseman in Washington,” added the story written by James Ryder Randall, an American poet and journalist and the Washington correspondent of The Chronicle..

In May 1898, President William F. McKinley appointed Wheeler a major general in the U.S. Army and “Fighting Joe” was soon on his way to Cuba to join Teddy Roosevelt and other volunteers to battle the Spanish. He was joined by his daughter, Annie Early Wheeler (1868-1955), for whom the auxiliary is named and who was placed in charge of a new hospital in Santiago by head nurse Clara Barton. Annie soon earned the title of “the Angel of Santiago” for her outstanding care of sick and wounded soldiers.

After landing at Daiquiri, Cuba, Wheeler’s men defeated a Spanish force under Lt. Gen. Linares at Las Guasimas on June 24, 1898. A week later, Wheeler was the senior officer in immediate command of the field at San Juan. He was also the senior of the commission that negotiated the surrender at Santiago.

During the war, commanding General William D. Shafter was the subject of criticism and Wheeler was among the first to respond in defense. On Aug. 13, 1898, his letter to Nashville (Tenn.) Postmaster R.W. Wills was published in The Chronicle:

“I think the criticisms upon General Shafter were very unjust. He has had a hard task and has performed it successfully and well. He is a man of more than ordinary brain power and administrative ability. The criticism that he did not place himself on the firing line is ridiculous as he was carrying on two fights at the same time – one at Cavey and one at San Juan – and had to place himself where he could see both fights and manage the whole affair, which he did efficiently.”

On Aug. 15, 1898, a U.S. officer in Cuba penned the following which was proudly published in The Chronicle:

“General Wheeler, who commanded our corps, has been as chipper and as lively as a cricket from the beginning and although he had a touch of fever, he has been out every day, Being short of stature, he did climb a tree during the battles. . .funniest thing that ever occurred in military history – a commanding officer directing his troops in battle from a tree top – but there is nothing the matter with Old Joe. – From an officer who was there.”

One of the first persons met by war correspondent Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), after finally getting ashore in Cuba with other newsmen, was none other than Fighting Joe. The latter, a little gray-bearded ex-Confederate who was the ranking general ashore, had been ordered by Gen. Shafter to follow another officer’s brigade of regular infantry.

But Wheeler, Davis noted, was of another mind because infantrymen had not scouted ahead of cavalry in the Civil War. So Wheeler, as Davis diplomatically put it, “disarranged” Shafter’s original order. Past the unsuspecting flank of the other officer slipped Wheeler and the rest of the Rough Riders.

Later, with Spanish troops hastily retreating, Wheeler forgot which war he was fighting and yelled, “Come on, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”

Those anecdotes were outlined in “Richard Harding Davis – His Day,” by Fairfax Downey. The book was published in 1933 long after Wheeler’s death in 1906. It’s too bad because he would have enjoyed reading those lines. In the book is a black and white photo of Wheeler seated on the ground next to Teddy Roosevelt during a “war council” at Wheeler’s headquarters.

In addition to serving in the Cuban campaign, “Fighting Joe” also fought in the Philippine-American War and his daughter accompanied him there, too. He left the U.S. Army in 1900. Wheeler died at age 70 on Jan. 25, 1906 of pneumonia while visiting his sister in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is one of the few ex-Confederate officers to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

His adopted home state of Alabama honored him by naming Joe Wheeler State Park, Wheeler Lake and Dam and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in his honor. Then there is Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., Wheeler County in Georgia and, finally, the main thoroughfare of Wheeler Road in Augusta.

And, his birthplace boulder.

Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

Article appears in the February/March 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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