fighting joe wheeler

Fighting Joe Wheeler

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This entry is part 1 of 2 in the The Lives of Confederate Generals

Joseph Wheeler was born in Georgia of two great pioneering families who traced their ancestry in America to the year 1640 and then to England where the records show a knight or two and a trace of even higher nobility. His Grandfather was General William Hull of Revolutionary War fame. Based on this foundation of ancestry that was so common in America, he took the physical qualities nature endowed him with and put the spirit of fortitude, loyalty, integrity and ingenuity in-bred by 6,000 years of Anglo-Saxon heritage and made an instrument of war called “Fighting Joe Wheeler.”

“Fighting Joe Wheeler” had many admirable traits. He was a true Christian, trusting in God and nightly communing with Him. He was always aware of the gravity of his country’s plight and his every action and thought was answering the call of duty. The simplest need of his country was to be answered by his immediate and unreserved attempt at accomplishment, for if he failed, who would try again.

In the rising spiral of the Confederacy, many hotheadedly jumped in from the first, some waited to follow the crowd, and others recognized the implication and with plan and forethought made their action deliberate and without the wild emotion of the moment of rising pressure from the crowd, quietly placed themselves without reservation on the side of the South. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, the hot-headed jumpers were the first to leave, with them went the crowd followers, leaving the men of deliberation to accept the responsibility of the deed of the Confederacy. General Wheeler set his course of action and when Georgia seceded from the Union he immediately gave up his commission in the Union Army for service in the Confederate Army. Of those noted few who followed the course to the end Wheeler was counted and was on the same ship transporting President Davis from Georgia to a prison camp at Fort Delaware.

“Fighting Joe Wheeler” gained his first notice when he led the 19th Alabama in a wild charge that dislodged a very stubborn salient and gave victory for the day to the Confederacy. Wheeler later immortalized this outfit who lost over one-third of their members in the charge by describing them as “butternut-clad farmers equally oblivious to fear and discipline — horrible examples of soldiers and excellent fighters.” However, in spite of the qualities that make great fighting machines, bravery, gallantry and superhuman endeavor, the Army of Tennessee, of which Wheeler was made General of the Calvary, was destined to surrender to Sherman April 26, 1865, without having a single campaign victory as a credit. This army carried an ambitious plan for invasion of the North as far as Ohio before it was stopped and driven back to Chattanooga, Atlanta, Charleston, and ultimate surrender at Durham, N.C.

Wheeler performed his greatest services in rear guard actions which never embittered him nor made him callous to the miseries of others. This type of action has been compared to that of an undertaker – misery and degradation as the order of business — stragglers devoid of their manhood and at times even their civilization and humanity which caused justice to be performed on the spot. At all times a small group of calvary standing between a victorious army and the remains of a defeated army trying to get away so it may live to fight again. Wheeler performed all of these jobs well, without falter or complaint.

As the Confederacy began to crack, the hysterical fixed their wrath on Wheeler who had performed dirty jobs which gained many enemies and very few friends and relieved him of command of his Calvary. General Wheeler exhibited the spirit of this loyalty when he told the relieving General, “certainly, General, I will receive your orders with pleasure.”

Wheeler did surrender with the Army of Tennessee. He joined President Davis who had left Richmond and was trying to get to Texas where he planned on continuing the war. Davis prevailed upon Wheeler to get some volunteers and rendezvous with him at Yorkville, South Carolina. Wheeler got 600 volunteers to follow President Davis who had moved the rendezvous point to Washington, Georgia. As Wheeler approached Washington, he was notified that Davis had left with a detachment of Federal troops chasing him and had ordered Wheeler to meet him in Florida. In the race that followed, with Wheeler trying to get to Davis’s rescue before the Yankees, the latter won out and President Davis and his party were captured at Irvinsville, Georgia, on May 10, 1865. Wheeler headed West but was captured while asleep in a cornfield two days later.

After his release from prison, Wheeler took his fate in stride and tried to rebuild the South. He became a Congressman from Alabama and later a General in the Spanish-American war.

General “Fighting Joe Wheeler’s” contribution to history was far greater than statistics and grammar can describe. The army with which he fought and the cause for which he gambled all was defeated in 1865. He was on hand to see a broken and disorganized people face defeat and humility at the hands of a vengeful nation during reconstruction. He was there to see great men crumble and a great nation destroyed. He was also there to see these same people grit their teeth and raise themselves from the dust to again take their position as a proud and free people. General Wheeler exemplified the spirit of the South. His was the selfless example of complete loyalty to principle under all conditions, of submissive devotion to duty regardless of personal hazards, and of fighting courage that was limited only by death. The physical effects of General Wheeler died in 1906 but “Fighting Joe Wheeler” as a natural quality will be found in Southerners for a hundred generations for it is that quality which distinguishes us as “SOUTHERNERS.”

Originally published in The Southerner Magazine, March 1956

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Great story

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