Fighting Joe Wheeler – Part 1

Extraordinary Confederate Cavalry Leader
Part 1 of 3
Mike Scruggs

There lingers to this day a romantic vision of Confederate Cavalry that brings forth the images of Sir Walter Scott’s gallant knights of old. To a considerable degree, this reputation is well deserved. Confederate Cavalry quickly gained a reputation for valor, gallantry, horsemanship, bold tactics, and esprit de corps that persisted throughout the “Civil War” and can be validated in the many histories of that conflict.

Many Southern cavalrymen, and to a certain extent the whole Confederate Army, were strongly influenced by the romantic novels of Scott, which were very popular reading in the South. Furthermore, many successful cavalry exploits had an electrifying effect on Southern morale early in the war and were causes for hope late in the war.

“Every morning brought a noble chance, and every chance brought out a noble knight.”—Tennyson

Yet the reality of cavalry success, and especially Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s success, required much more than knightly valor and gallantry. It required dogged, often sweaty perseverance and long, physically exhausting days and nights, enduring many hardships and deprivations.

Joe Wheeler was characterized by Robert E. Lee as being one of the two best cavalrymen in the war. This will be sure to provoke considerable debate, but a strong case can be made that Wheeler was, in fact, the most effective cavalry leader of the war on either side. This was despite his youth and modest appearance and manner. Wheeler was without doubt brave and gallant, but he was very unlike the colorful Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant John Hunt Morgan, and the fierce Nathan Bedford Forrest. In point of fact, Morgan and Forrest were at one time both under the command of Wheeler. Wheeler’s effectiveness lay in his utterly selfless and single-minded devotion to duty. Given an order, Wheeler’s extraordinary sense of duty and honor drove him to persist and persevere and innovate until he had overcome any obstacles to meeting his assigned responsibilities.

Wheeler was most effective at the cavalry basics. These were such routine duties as protecting the rear and flanks of the main infantry forces from surprise, collecting intelligence, slowing and frustrating enemy advances, acting as a rear guard for retreating forces, and disrupting enemy communications and supply lines. Due to the numerical and material advantages of the Union forces, Wheeler was often called on to protect the Army of Mississippi and the Army of Tennessee during retreat, a duty which he performed with consistent and remarkable proficiency. He was less successful at daring raids, but extremely effective at disrupting and destroying Union supply and communication lines. In addition, Wheeler proved astonishingly successful in combating Union Cavalry.

Wheeler entered West Point in 1854 at the age of seventeen. The young Georgian was only about five foot five and weighed only about 120 pounds. His appearance was rather mild and youthful, but he had a dignified presence that seemed to command respect. Everyone who ever knew him remarked on his extraordinary personal energy. His West Point classmates gave him the nickname, “Point,” because he had neither height, nor width, nor thickness. Like the Superintendent of West Point at that time, Robert E. Lee, he had a strong sense of duty. The quick-thinking military brilliance and the scholarly brilliance of his future Congressional career were not especially evident at West Point. He graduated 26th out of 29 cadets, completing the then five-year course in 1859, ironically making his lowest grades in Cavalry Tactics.

After completing Cavalry School, Second Lieutenant Wheeler was assigned to a regiment of mounted rifles at Fort Craig, New Mexico. The rule of warfare and scouting there was to travel light and range far. This experience was formative in his career as a Confederate Cavalry Commander.

In June of 1860, Wheeler was assigned escort duty for a wagon train traveling from Hannibal, Missouri, to points in New Mexico. Several days into the trip, he was detailed to escort an ambulance that had to be left behind until a young mother delivered her baby. As the ambulance—carrying the mother and new baby, along with an accompanying surgeon and wagon driver—proceeded to catch up with the wagon train, it was attacked by a small group of marauding Indians. Wheeler and the wagon driver were its only defense. With the surgeon taking the reins of the wagon, the driver downed one attacker with his musket. Wheeler then charged the attackers on horseback, knocking down one horse with a shot from his musket. Then throwing his musket down, with arrows flying everywhere, he continued the charge blazing away with his Colt pistol. With the driver now also firing into the attackers with his pistol in support of Wheeler, the marauders were put on the run. When the ambulance overtook the main wagon train and the story was told, the soldiers began to call Wheeler, “Fightin’ Joe.” Thus the polite, little fellow with a soft Southern accent and dignified manner received the nickname that would follow him all of his life. He was serious and usually mild mannered, but he would prove many times over on the battlefield and later as a member of Congress that he possessed an indomitable fighting spirit. As one of his men said after the war,” Joe Wheeler warn’t afraid of nuthin’ or nobody.”

Like most of the officers in his mounted rifle regiment, young Wheeler sympathized with the South. When his home state of Georgia seceded from the union on January 9, 1861, he immediately resigned his commission in the U. S. Army and headed home to Augusta, hoping to receive a commission in one of the newly forming Georgia regiments. There he received a commission as a First Lieutenant and was assigned as an artillery officer in Pensacola, Florida. One of the ironies of Wheeler’s career as a Confederate officer is that he first distinguished himself as an artillery officer and then as an infantry officer before receiving a Confederate cavalry command. This demonstrates the great breadth of abilities that Wheeler possessed and would manifest in combat and later in Congress.

Wheeler’s courage, demonstrated consistently throughout his life, was much deeper than a purely physical courage. Physical courage is often a temporary self-confidence in physical or weapons prowess or even a misapprehension of danger. Wheeler’s courage was born of his highly developed sense of duty and honor. Once Wheeler saw his duty, no arrows, gunfire, grapeshot, flashing sabers, danger or hardship mattered. He exerted all energy and resources to his strongly felt obligations to duty and honor. Wheeler was wounded three times during the course of the war. He had sixteen horses shot from under him! Six of his staff officers were killed by his side and another 30 were wounded.

Wheeler’s initial duty as an artillery officer demonstrated his innovative ability to get things done under difficult circumstances. This gained him the favorable attention of General Braxton Bragg and Confederate politician and General Leroy Pope Walker. In September 1861, Walker succeeded through his connections in the Confederate Congress in getting Wheeler promoted to the rank of full Colonel, a rather controversial jump of four ranks. He was then made the commander of the 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment, where he proved himself an able trainer and organizer in preparing the regiment for combat.

On April 6-7, 1862, Col. Wheeler and the 19th Alabama distinguished themselves at the Battle of Shiloh. Wheeler and the 19th wound up in the center of the battle and found himself in effective command of his whole Brigade. During this time Wheeler’s men captured 2,000 Union soldiers including a Union General. He was highly praised in dispatches for his personal valor, quick thinking, and cool presence and leadership under heavy fire. As the numerical superiority of Union forces increased, the Confederate Army of Mississippi retreated first to Corinth and then to Tupelo. Wheeler further distinguished himself commanding the 19th Alabama and three other infantry regiments (the 25th and 26th Alabama and the 4th Mississippi) in conducting rear guard actions against advancing Union forces.

On August 28, 1862, Col. Wheeler was put in command of three cavalry regiments and assigned to the command of fellow Georgian, General William J. “Old Reliable” Hardee. During September and October on an advance into Tennessee and Kentucky, Wheeler performed well in protecting Hardee’s flanks and gathering intelligence. His cavalry also succeeded in destroying much of Union General Don Carlos Buell’s railroad and telegraph lines north of Nashville and in frustrating his movements and attempted advances. On October 13, Wheeler was appointed Chief of Cavalry for the Army of Mississippi, followed on October 30, by his promotion to Brigadier General at the age of only twenty-six. On November 14, the new Brigadier General was ordered to take charge of all cavalry under General Joseph E. Johnston, including the forces under the famous Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. During this time Wheeler developed tree-felling tactics in delaying Union Army advances, gaining his men the nickname, “the Lumberjack Cavalry.”

In December 1862 and January 1863, Wheeler’s Cavalry wreaked havoc with Union General Rosecrans’ supply lines in Tennessee, burning over 450 Union supply wagons and capturing over 2,400 prisoners. This left Rosecrans at least temporarily ineffective and utterly frustrated.

February 1863 brought still another nickname to Wheeler’s Cavalry. Operating along the Cumberland River in Tennessee, Wheeler’s forces burned bridges and managed to capture and destroy a Union gunboat and four transports. This resulted in the capture of 400 prisoners. Hence they gained the name, “Horse Marines.” That spring Wheeler also published a manual entitled, Cavalry Tactics, which proved particularly valuable in systematizing Bragg’s cavalry. It was also adopted by General Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. The manual advocated mounted infantry over heavy cavalry.

The fame of Wheeler’s Cavalry continued to grow and was a household name in the Middle South. On May 1, 1863, Wheeler was promoted to the rank of Major General by the Confederate Congress.