The Defender of Georgia
They called him "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler. Wheeler, a Georgian by birth and an Alabamian by choice, fought as hard as he could to save his native state of Georgia from General William T. Sherman's invading army in the fall of 1864. More than three decades later, General Wheeler became one of the few American generals to fight in both the Civil War and the Spanish American War. In 1912, when the State of Georgia sought names for her newest county, it chose the name of Wheeler to honor the general, most likely for the exploits of the general in the War for Southern Independence than those in that inauspicious war in the Caribbean which lasted only a few weeks.
General Wheeler was born on September 10, 1836 near Augusta, Georgia. Joseph spent his formative years with his family in New England. When he received his appointment to the United States Military Academy, he claimed that he was a Georgian. While just barely above the minimum height requirement for West Point cadets, Joe Wheeler finished near the bottom of his class in 1859. After a brief training assignment as a cavalry lieutenant, Wheeler was assigned to duty in the Territory of New Mexico.
Within seven months, Wheeler's native state seceded from the Union. Wheeler returned to Georgia to accept an appointment as a first lieutenant in a state artillery unit. After serving near Pensacola, Florida, Wheeler transferred to Alabama, where he was assigned to command the 19th Alabama Infantry. As the fighting ended during the first calendar year of the war, Lt. Wheeler was promoted to a colonel.
Wheeler's men saw action early and viciously in the pivotal Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. After Shiloh, Wheeler transferred to a cavalry unit in the Army of the Mississippi. With many of his men trained under Nathan Bedford Forrest's command, Wheeler performed admirably and in doing so, was promoted to brigadier general after the Battle of Perryville.
Wheeler's troops protected the Confederate left at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga. In the following months, Wheeler kept the Union army at bay until Sherman was able to mount his offensive in the spring of 1864.
Gen. Wheeler's cavalry was assigned by Army of the Tennessee commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to protect the railroads coming into Atlanta. In July, Wheeler's men thwarted a Union attack on Macon led by Gen. George Stoneman. While Wheeler was busy chasing Union forces north of Atlanta, the city began to crumble under the relentless pressure of Sherman as he pounded the city with artillery fire. Finally the Union army cut off all access to the railroad hub in the late summer of 1864.
It would be October before Gen. Wheeler would rejoin Gen. John Bell Hood who had been forced to abandon Atlanta. When General William T. Sherman began his March to the Sea, Gen. Wheeler and Gen. Samuel Wragg Ferguson of Mississippi were assigned the tasks of harassing the Union columns and to prevent any flanking movements along the way.
Gen. Ferguson moved through Laurens County in an attempt to keep the cavalry attached to Gen. Sherman's right wing from peeling off to the southwest to rescue Union prisoners at Andersonvlle. The right wing was first threatened at Griswoldville in upper Twiggs and lower Jones County by an army of boys and old men. A few days later, prison guards, prisoners, cadets, and local militia under the command of Gen. Henry C. Wayne stalled the right wing at Oconee River Bridge, Georgia and Ball's Ferry, if only for a few hours.
On November 22, a Captain R.W.B. Ellliot forwarded Major Hall's report that the enemy had crossed the Oconee at Blackshear's Ferry. At noon on the 24th of November 1864, J.A. Brenner, of Augusta, wrote, "General Wheeler with 10,000 men now crossing the Oconee River, twenty miles below the bridge, at Blackshear's Ferry, and coming to the assistance of General Wayne. Enemy has burned long-trestle work on the other side of the bridge."
The following day, Gen. Henry Wayne reported to Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws in Savannah, "The enemy are trying to force Ball's Ferry. There is heavy firing below - apparently at Blackshear's Ferry. The movements of the enemy are definitely on Savannah."
Wheeler was unable to halt the invading hoard as it sliced through Central Georgia, Savannah, and thence northward into the Carolina. During the war, Wheeler was wounded three times and reportedly had sixteen horses shot out from under him. Wheeler was captured while attempting to aid Confederate President Jefferson Davis' attempt to escape to freedom. He was taken as a prisoner but served only two months. Many experts consider Wheeler as second only to Nathan Bedford Forrest as the South's greatest calvary commanders.
After the war, Wheeler left his native state and moved to Courtland, Alabama to farm and practice law. Wheeler was elected to the United States Congress in 1880, lost a legal challenge, only to take office after the challenger died. After declining to run again in 1882, Wheeler returned to Washington in 1884 and served until 1898.
Joseph Wheeler left the Congress in 1898 to do what he did best, fight while riding his horse. The general volunteered for duty in Cuba and was assigned by President William McKinley to command the calvary. His command included Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders. In one of the early battles while his forces were routing the Spaniards, General Wheeler reportedly exclaimed, "Let's go boys! We've got the damn Yankees on the run again!"
But "Fighting Joe" wouldn't give up the fight. After many successes in Cuba, Wheeler, at the age of sixty-three, transferred to the Philippine Islands, where he fought under the command of General Arthur McArthur, father of General Douglas McArthur, for more than a year. When he retired in 1900, General Wheeler became one of only two generals in American history to serve as a general in both the armies of the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. The other was Gen. Fitzhugh Lee.
Joseph Wheeler died in New York one hundred and five years ago today. His body is one of the few Confederate general officers to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Wheeler was honored by Georgia with the naming of a high school in Marietta, a liberty ship, a major road in Augusta, and an army camp outside of Macon. Wheeler was similarly honored by his adopted state of Alabama. His statue, one of the very few depicting Confederate officers, now stands in Statutory Hall in Washington, D.C.