Fighting Joe Wheeler – Part 2

Part 2 of 3
Mike Scruggs

The months of June and July 1863 would prove difficult for Wheeler and for the Confederate cause. On June 27, Wheeler experienced a near disaster trying to rescue Forrest and his 3,000 men from being cut-off by Union forces at Duck River, near Shelbyville, Tennessee. Wheeler personally led 600 men in a cavalry charge to drive Union forces back across the bridge at Duck River. He and about 50 men, however, found themselves cut-off and had to plunge 15 feet down into the strong current on horseback while under fire to escape. Meanwhile Forrest managed to extricate himself and his men from cut-off.

On June 13, Wheeler gave permission to the restless John Hunt Morgan to take 2,000 men on an expedition against Union forces and facilities in the vicinity of Louisville, Kentucky. Their objective was to disrupt Union supply, transportation, and communications systems supporting Rosecrans’ forces in Tennessee. Morgan, however, went further than his orders. The daring and flamboyant Morgan took his famous raiders across the Ohio River and raided across the states of Indiana and Ohio. This threw Union forces and the state governments of Indiana and Ohio into panic and diverted more than 60,000 Union troops to defend against the unexpected intruders. This spectacular raid also had the potential of diverting Union troops from opposing Lee’s advance into Pennsylvania.

The result, however, was that Morgan and most of his men were captured. Morgan had hoped to escape across the Ohio River into West Virginia at Buffington Bar (Isle), but heavy rains upstream made the river extremely difficult to ford. In addition, the high level of the river made it easy for two Union gunboats, the Moose and the Allegheny Belle, to get in position to bombard Morgan’s cavalry as it gathered on the Ohio side. Morgan’s men were caught between advancing Union cavalry and infantry on one side and deadly naval bombardment from the Ohio. Major John McCreary, a future Governor of Kentucky, described the desperate position of the Confederates:

“Shells and minie balls were ricocheting and exploding in every direction, cavalry was charging, and infantry with its slow, measured tread moved upon us, while broadside after broadside was poured upon our doomed command from the gunboats.”

Years ago, my grandfather described part of this chaotic scene to me as my great grandfather had described it to him. My great grandfather and one of his brothers were members of an Alabama company (G) of Morgan’s original Second Kentucky Cavalry. As the gunboats poured their deadly exploding shells into the mounted Confederate cavalry trapped on Buffington Isle, their horses became wild with fear and difficult to control. One gunboat shell exploded next to my great grandfather, and his horse reared, threw him off, and then fell on him, breaking his right leg. His brother stayed with him until they were overrun and captured by Union infantry. They spent the rest of the war as POWs at Camp Douglas, near Chicago. See my book: The Un-Civil War: Truths Your Teacher Never Told You, for conditions at Camp Douglas (“Eighty Acres of Hell”).

About half of Morgan’s men were captured at Buffington Bar on July 19. Most of the rest were captured further north in Ohio by the end of July. Only about 300 who managed to ford the river were able to escape. This reduced Bragg’s cavalry by almost 20 percent at a critical time.

In the meantime, Bragg, badly outnumbered by the ever-increasing forces of Rosecrans, was forced to retreat from Middle Tennessee to Chattanooga on July 3, the very same day Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania was halted at Gettysburg. The next day on July 4, Vicksburg and 30,000 troops under Pemberton surrendered in Mississippi, giving Union forces effective control of transportation on most of the Mississippi River.

September of 1863, however, brought more favorable developments. On September 19-21 Confederate forces under Bragg, reinforced by Longstreet from Virginia, defeated Union forces under Rosecrans at Chickamauga, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga. Wheeler’s cavalry protected Bragg’s flanks and gave Rosecrans’ forces considerable harassment in their disorderly retreat to Chattanooga. On October 3, Wheeler’s cavalry dealt a devastating blow to Rosecrans’ forces, destroying, according to official Union estimates, at least 500 supply wagons. Many historians believe the official Union estimates are far understated. The number of supply wagons destroyed was probably nearer 1,800, leaving a smoking corridor of destruction from Chickamauga to Chattanooga—probably a “Civil” War record.

On December 27, General Joseph E. Johnston replaced Bragg as Commander of the Army of Tennessee and retained Wheeler as his Cavalry Commander, supporting Hood’s and Hardee’s Corps. On February 22, 1864 Wheeler turned back federal forces at Tunnel Hill, Georgia, frustrating their plans for assaulting Atlanta and delaying them until May.

In May Wheeler again broke the federal movement into North Georgia and slowed Union General Sherman’s movement toward Atlanta. With the death of Lee’s Cavalry Commander, Lt. General J. E. B. Stuart on May 12 in Virginia, Wheeler became the highest ranking cavalry officer in the Confederate Army. On May 24, he received personal congratulations from General Johnston for destroying 80 Union supply wagons and capturing 100 prisoners at Cassville, Georgia, and continued to be a major nemesis to Union forces. Every Union effort to turn the Confederate flank and drive to Atlanta was met and successfully thwarted by Wheeler.

On July 17, the aggressive John B. Hood replaced Johnston as Commander of the Army of Tennessee. On July 29-30, Wheeler’s Cavalry force of 5,000 men dealt Sherman’s cavalry forces of 9,000 men a series of stunning, one might even say astonishing, defeats. Wheeler routed divisions of Sherman’s cavalry at three different points. He mauled and defeated McCook at Newnan. He routed and captured Stoneman and five of his Brigadier generals at Macon, and turned Garrard to flight northeast of Atlanta. In all, the Confederates took 3,200 prisoners and numerous supply wagons and artillery batteries. This was the worst and most disastrous defeat ever inflicted on Union cavalry during the entire war. Unfortunately, the overwhelming manpower and material resources of the Union would be able to replace Sherman’s losses within months and supply them down to the last tent peg.

In August, General Hood ordered Wheeler to take 2,000 cavalry on a raid into Central Tennessee. But Wheeler returned demoralized and with less than one thousand men. According to Forrest, only about 500 of them were effective for combat. Meanwhile the reduction of cavalry in the Atlanta area left Hood unable to gather intelligence effectively or to successfully hinder the build-up of Union forces approaching Atlanta. At Jonesboro, just south of Atlanta, from August 30 to September 1, Hardee’s Corp with portions of Stephen D. Lee’s Corps and units of Wheeler’s cavalry attempted to parry a death blow to the strategic city of Atlanta by defending the remaining railroad connection between that city and Macon. This valiant but unsuccessful endeavor was against odds of nearly three to one. On September 2, General Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta.

On October 4, Wheeler’s men felled trees near Dalton, Georgia, and used them as rafts to destroy the Chattahoochee Bridge at Resaca, Georgia. Hood headed for Tennessee in hopes of a surprise defeat of Union forces around Nashville. He left Wheeler to harass Sherman as he marched through Georgia. Although Wheeler’s cavalry was successful in containing Sherman within a narrower swath of destruction than might have been, Sherman succeeded in leaving a 60-mile-wide path of dead livestock and burning towns, homes, farms, and crops—devastating the Georgia economy. On November 26, Wheeler nearly captured Sherman’s infamous young cavalry commander—now transferred from Virginia—Judson “Killcavalry” Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick was the same age as Wheeler and graduated two classes behind him at West Point in 1861. He was quite a different personality than Wheeler and seemed to have a personal vendetta against him. Kilpatrick’s nickname “Killcavalry” was given to him by Union officers for his recklessly aggressive tactics, not for the amount of casualties inflicted on Confederates. He was one of Sherman’s most devoted subordinates.

In December 1864, Wheeler came under the criticism of Confederate Generals D. H. Hill and P. T. G. Beauregard. This criticism in turn came to the attention of President Davis. Wheeler’s cavalrymen often had to travel very light and forage for food and supplies. Against very specific orders from Wheeler, however, some of his men had stolen chickens, small livestock, and food, and made similar depredations on an already hard-pressed civilian population. General Hardee came to Wheeler’s defense and most of the charges were proven false. Responding to complaints, however, that Wheeler’s forces were out of control, General Beauregard’s Inspector General found Wheeler’s Corp lacking in discipline, organization, leadership training, and proper records. He noted, however, that the same conditions prevailed in the commands of Bedford Forrest and Wade Hampton. No charges were made against Wheeler, but a recommendation was made that the 28-year-old Wheeler be placed under the command of the 48-year-old South Carolinian, Wade Hampton. Beauregard stated that while Wheeler was a modest, gallant, zealous, and indefatigable officer, he was unable to control such a large cavalry force. In the meantime, on February 11, 1865, Wheeler was successful in driving back Kilpatrick’s cavalry at Aiken, South Carolina.

On February 17, Wheeler was officially placed under the command of Lieutenant General Wade Hampton. His responsibility was reduced by about half, but he continued to serve without complaint or bitterness. When Hampton personally informed Wheeler of the change in command, he is said to have responded, “Certainly, General, I will receive your orders with pleasure.” Many officers on both sides would have resigned their commissions in bitterness and fury rather than take an apparent demotion or any sort of slight. Wheeler’s response sheds light on his character and selfless concept of honor. His was not the kind of honor that sought personal glory or spent much time sulking about being unappreciated or slighted. To Wheeler, honor was about doing the right thing regardless of personal recognition or personal cost.