American Civil War: Major General Joseph Wheeler

Joseph Wheeler
Major General Joseph Wheeler, CSA. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Major General Joseph Wheeler was noted cavalry commander who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War (1861-1865) and the US Army during the Spanish-American War (1898). A native of Georgia, he was largely raised in the North and attended West Point. Electing to side with the South during the Civil War, Wheeler gained notoriety as a cavalry commander with the Army of Tennessee. Serving in almost of its major campaigns, he became its senior cavalry officer. Winning a seat in Congress after the war, Wheeler volunteered his services when war with Spain was declared in 1898. Given command of a cavalry division in V Corps, he took part in the Battle of San Juan Hill and Siege of Santiago. He remained in the army until 1900.   

Fast Facts: Joseph Wheeler

Early Life

Born on September 10, 1836 in Augusta, GA, Joseph Wheeler was the son a Connecticut native who had moved south. One of his maternal grandfathers was Brigadier General William Hull who served in the American Revolution and lost Detroit during the War of 1812. Following his mother's death in 1842, Wheeler's father encountered financial difficulties and moved the family back to Connecticut. Despite returning north at a young age, Wheeler always considered himself a Georgian. Raised by his maternal grandparents and aunts, he attended local schools before entering the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire, CT. Seeking a military career, Wheeler was appointed to West Point from Georgia on July 1, 1854, though due to his small stature he barely met the academy's height requirement.

Early Career

While at West Point, Wheeler proved to be a relatively poor student and graduated in 1859 ranked 19th in a class of 22. Commissioned as brevet second lieutenant, he was posted to the 1st US Dragoons. This assignment proved brief and later that year he was ordered to attend the US Cavalry School at Carlisle, PA. Completing the course in 1860, Wheeler received orders to join the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen (3rd US Cavalry) in the New Mexico Territory. While in the Southwest, he took part in campaigns against the Native Americans and earned the nickname "Fighting Joe." On September 1, 1860, Wheeler received a promotion to second lieutenant.

Joining the Confederacy

As the Secession Crisis began, Wheeler turned his back on his northern roots and accepted a commission as a first lieutenant in the Georgia state militia artillery in March 1861. With the beginning of the Civil War the following month, he officially resigned from the US Army. After brief service at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola, FL, Wheeler was promoted to colonel and given command of the newly-formed 19th Alabama Infantry. Taking command at Huntsville, AL, he led the regiment at the Battle of Shiloh the following April as well as during the Siege of Corinth.

Back to the Cavalry

In September 1862, Wheeler was shifted back to the cavalry and given command of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade in the Army of Mississippi (later Army of Tennessee). Moving north as part of General Braxton Bragg's campaign into Kentucky, Wheeler scouted and raided in front of the army. During this period, he incurred the enmity of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest after Bragg reassigned the bulk of the latter's men to Wheeler's command. Taking part in the Battle of Perryville on October 8, he aided in screening Bragg's withdrawal after the engagement.

A Quick Rise

For his efforts, Wheeler was promoted to brigadier general on October 30. Given command of the Second Corps, Army of Tennessee's cavalry, he was wounded in a skirmish in November. Quickly recovering, he raided into the rear of Major General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland in December and continued to harass the Union rear during the Battle of Stones River. After Bragg's retreat from Stones River, Wheeler earned fame for a devastating attack on the Union supply base at Harpeth Shoals, TN on January 12-13, 1863. For this he was promoted to major general and received the thanks of the Confederate Congress.

With this promotion, Wheeler was given command of a cavalry corps in the Army of Tennessee. Embarking on a raid against Fort Donelson, TN in February, he again clashed with Forrest. To prevent future conflicts, Bragg ordered Wheeler's corps to guard the army's left flank with Forrest's defended the right. Wheeler continued to operate in this capacity during the summer's Tullahoma Campaign and during the Battle of Chickamauga. In the wake of the Confederate victory, Wheeler conducted a massive raid through central Tennessee. This caused him to miss the Battle of Chattanooga in November.

Corps Commander

After supporting Lieutenant General James Longstreet's unsuccessful Knoxville Campaign in late 1863, Wheeler returned to the Army of Tennessee, now led by General Joseph E. Johnston. Overseeing the army's cavalry, Wheeler ably led his troopers against Major General William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign. Though outnumbered by the Union cavalry, he won several victories and captured Major General George Stoneman. With Sherman nearing Atlanta, Johnston was replaced in July by Lieutenant General John Bell Hood. The following month, Hood directed Wheeler to take the cavalry to destroy Sherman's supply lines.

Departing Atlanta, Wheeler's corps attacked up the railroad and into Tennessee. Though far-ranging, the raid did little meaningful damage and deprived Hood of his scouting force during the decisive stages of the struggle for Atlanta. Defeated at Jonesboro, Hood evacuated the city at the beginning of September. Rejoining Hood in October, Wheeler was ordered to remain in Georgia to oppose Sherman's March to the Sea. Though clashing with Sherman's men on numerous occasions, Wheeler was unable to prevent their advance to Savannah.

In early 1865, Sherman embarked on his Carolinas Campaign. Joining a reinstated Johnston, Wheeler aided in attempting to block the Union advance. The next month, Wheeler may have been promoted to lieutenant general, however debate exists as to whether he was confirmed in this rank. Placed under the command of Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, Wheeler's remaining cavalry took part in the Battle of Bentonville in March. Staying in the field after Johnston's surrender in late April, Wheeler was captured near Conyer's Station, GA on May 9 while attempting to cover President Jefferson Davis' escape.

Spanish-American War

Briefly held at Fortress Monroe and Fort Delaware, Wheeler was permitted to return home in June. In the years after the war, he became a planter and lawyer in Alabama. Elected to the US Congress in 1882 and again in 1884, he remained in office until 1900. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Wheeler volunteered his services to President William McKinley. Accepting, McKinley appointed him a major general of volunteers. Taking command of the cavalry division in Major General William Shafter's V Corps, Wheeler's force included Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt's famed "Rough Riders."

Arriving in Cuba, Wheeler scouted ahead of Shafter's main force and engaged the Spanish at Las Guasimas on June 24. Though his troops took the brunt of the fighting, they forced the enemy to continue their retreat towards Santiago. Falling ill, Wheeler missed the opening parts of the Battle of San Juan Hill, but rushed to the scene when the fighting began to take command. Wheeler led his division through the Siege of Santiago and served on the peace commission after the city's fall.

Later Life

Returning from Cuba, Wheeler was dispatched to the Philippines for service in the Philippine-American War. Arriving in August 1899, he led a brigade in Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur's division until early 1900. During this time, Wheeler was mustered out of the volunteer service and commissioned as a brigadier general in the regular army.

Returning home, he was given an appointment as a brigadier general in the US Army and placed in command of the Department of the Lakes. He remained in this post until his retirement on September 10, 1900. Retiring to New York, Wheeler died on January 25, 1906 after a protracted illness. In recognition of his service in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joseph Wheeler." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General Joseph Wheeler. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joseph Wheeler." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).