Fighting Joe Wheeler – Part 3

Part 3 of 3
Mike Scruggs

On November 15, 1864, Sherman’s Army of 62,000 men departed the ruined city of Atlanta singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and began to pillage and burn their way to the sea. Hood’s 40,000 Confederates of the Army of Tennessee were already headed to Nashville in a desperate attempt to cut Sherman’s supply lines and divert his attention from devastating Georgia. Only Hardee’s Corp with scarcely 10,000 men and 3,000 cavalry under Wade Hampton and Joe Wheeler were left to oppose Sherman’s relentless destruction of farms, crops, livestock, and homes as he advanced toward Savannah. By the time Sherman captured Savannah on December 21, Hood had suffered devastating casualties at Franklin and Nashville in Tennessee and was retreating to Mississippi.

Sherman’s depredations on South Carolina would exceed his handiwork in Georgia. By February 17, 1865, Sherman’s troops had cut through half of South Carolina and burned Columbia and ten other towns. Wheeler’s cavalry continued to dog and harass Sherman’s marauding forces as they continued to loot and burn their way towards North Carolina.

Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrcik had become the leader of Sherman’s cavalry forces after Atlanta. Sherman had this to say about his new cavalry commander:

“I know Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry.”

On February 28, the Confederate Congress promoted Wheeler to the rank of Lieutenant General. On March 9, General Wheeler again forced his archrival, Kilpatrick, to flee in the night—much to his embarrassment, this time in his nightclothes.

On April 26, following the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, Johnston—now in command of the Army of Tennessee again—was forced to surrender at Bentonville, near Durham, North Carolina.

Wheeler issued a farewell to his cavalry command before departing to assist Confederate President Jefferson Davis. His address included these words:

“During four years of struggle for liberty you have exhibited courage, fortitude, and devotion. You are the sole survivors of more than two hundred severely contested fields; you have participated in more than a thousand successful conflicts of arms. You are heroes, veterans, patriots…In bidding you adieu, I desire to tender my thanks for your gallantry in battle, your fortitude under suffering, and your devotion at all times to the holy cause you have done so much to maintain. I desire also to express my gratitude for the kind feeling you have seen fit to extend toward myself and to invoke on you the blessing of our heavenly Father, to whom we must always look in the hour of distress. Pilgrims in the cause of freedom, comrades in arms, I bid you farewell.”

With the Confederate Armies collapsing all around him and with the North in a frenzy because of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “Little Joe,” as his men often affectionately called him, embarked on one last knightly quest. He headed south to Georgia with a small volunteer escort to try and rescue President Davis. Such is the final tribute of knights to whom duty and honor and loyalty mean everything. President Davis and his family were, however, captured on May 10, at Irwinsville, Georgia, before Wheeler and his small escort could reach him. About three days later Wheeler was himself captured.

Now prisoners, President Davis and his family, Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Postmaster General Reagan, other cabinet and military staff, and now Wheeler were taken to Augusta. There they were loaded on a prison boat for Savannah, guarded by about 50 German speaking Union soldiers and accompanied by Union gunboats. During this time Wheeler saw that Mrs. Varina Davis was under much stress and volunteered to assist with caring for the Davis baby daughter, Winnie. Thus Lieutenant General Wheeler was not too proud to walk the deck of the prison boat holding an infant on his shoulder. True to his chivalrous, always resourceful, and energetic nature, Wheeler also devised a plan for President Davis to escape, but it was foiled before it could be put into action. From Savannah, Wheeler was taken as a prisoner of war to Fort Delaware and was not released until June 8, 1865. So ended the Confederate Cavalry career of “Fighting Joe” Wheeler. President Davis described him as “one of the ablest, bravest and most skillful of cavalry commanders.”

Wheeler’s dedication to the cause of liberty did not end, however, with the War in 1865. While encamped near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in October 1863, he met and began to court his future wife, the recently widowed, Mrs. Daniella Jones Sherrod, the daughter of Col. Richard Jones. They married after the war on February 8, 1866. In 1870, after a brief time as a partner in the carriage business in New Orleans, Wheeler and his wife returned to North Alabama. Starting out as a planter and later becoming a self-taught lawyer, Wheeler was elected to Congress in 1880, serving nearly 20 years representing his North Alabama district in Washington.

In the U. S. Congress, Wheeler continued to fight for States Rights, Constitutional liberties, and against unjust tariffs. Wheeler also had a respect for all soldiers and for justice and honor no matter what the color of the uniform. In 1882 Wheeler defended one of his former instructors at West Point, former Union General Fitz John Porter, before the U. S. House against accusations made by Union General John Pope, trying to make Porter the scapegoat for losing the Second Battle of Manassas. Porter was acquitted and commended by Congress.

On July 13, 1894, Wheeler gave a speech on the floor of Congress educating his colleagues on the causes of the War of 1861 to1865. This scholarly speech pointed out much of the hypocrisy of attributing the cause of the War solely to slavery. Wheeler first touched upon the role that other issues—States Rights, the South’s devotion to limited Constitutional government, the Northern Republican Party’s inclination to favor majoritarian democracy over Constitutional principles, the heinous Morrill Tariff, and the fanaticism of abolitionist radicals—had played as causes of the War. Then he also gave an extensively researched account of the origins of slavery in America. He cited the enormous profits that New England had accumulated from the despicable slave trade. He then pointed out that the Southern States had initially resisted the introduction of slavery but were eventually seduced by New England slave traders appealing to a growing planter lust to profit from cheap labor. He noted that anti-slavery agitation began in the North only after slavery had proved unprofitable there and the slave trade had been officially closed in 1808 as specified by Article I Section 9 of the 1787 Constitution. In addition, he reminded them that the issues that divided the North and South were essentially the same issues that divided the Republican and Democratic parties in 1860. His speech was printed in the Richmond Dispatch on July 31, 1894, and may be read today on the internet.

Wheeler was a scholarly and gentlemanly Congressman, but he was as always full of energy and sometimes gave fiery, sharply worded speeches. One of Wheeler’s passions was Cuba. He was an outspoken opponent of Spanish misrule in Cuba and an advocate for Cuban independence. Following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he petitioned President McKinley to serve in the U. S. Army to liberate Cuba. McKinley made him a Major General of Volunteers in the U. S. Army. His dismounted cavalry, which included Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” took San Juan Hill near Santiago and forced the Spanish to negotiate a peace treaty. Wheeler returned a hero and symbol of a reunited nation.

Joseph Wheeler, famed Confederate Cavalry leader, respected Alabama Congressman, and hero of the Spanish-American War, died on January 25, 1906, while on a visit to Brooklyn, New York. The whole nation, North and South mourned. He is one of the few Confederate officers buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. His life and character could very well be summed up by the West Point Motto: Duty, Honor, Country.