By J. P. Dyer
Joseph, the youngest son of Joseph and Julia Hull Wheeler, was born in Augusta, Georgia, on the 10th of September, 1836. His father and mother were New Englanders by birth, having migrated to Georgia soon after the War of 1812. In Georgia Joseph Wheeler, Sr., became a merchant, banker, and landowner, building for himself a small fortune only to have it swept away in a bank failure and in the ensuing Panic of 1837.1 Soon after these financial misfortunes Mrs. Wheeler died and the youngest son was sent to Connecticut, to live in the home of two maiden aunts and attend Cheshire Academy.2 Little is known of young Wheeler's activities at Cheshire. He seems to have been a quiet and retiring youth who liked to read about wars in his school history, but there was little to foreshadow the fighter that he was to become in later life.3 Graduating in the spring of 1854 he went to New York City to live in the home of an older sister who had removed there upon her marriage. He did not remain here long, however, for he received an appointment to West Point and on July 1, 1854, at the age of seventeen he entered the Military Academy.4
Wheeler's career at West Point was not outstanding either for scholarship or for activity. With the exception of his high marks in deportment he stood near the p18 bottom of his class through five years of study.5 However, he did earn a reputation for being studious and persistent.6 Upon graduation in 1859 he was assigned to duty at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and from there was transferred to Colonel W. W. Loring's regiment of mounted infantry on border duty at Fort Craig, New Mexico. He had hardly adjusted himself to his new surroundings, however, when the Civil War began. Being far away from the scenes of secession and war and being somewhat out of touch with the situation, he instructed his brother William to say to Governor Joseph E. Brown that in case Georgia seceded he would resign his lieutenant's commission in the United States army and join Georgia's forces.7 Acting upon these instructions, William offered his younger brother's services to Georgia and they were accepted, even before the young officer arrived home from Fort Craig.8 Lieutenant Joseph Wheeler, U. S. Army, became Lieutenant Joseph Wheeler, Provisional Army, Confederate States of America.
Lieutenant Wheeler reported for duty to General Braxton Bragg, who, with the assistance of General William J. Hardee, was attempting to form an army out of a milling and heterogeneous collection of civilians at Mobile and Pensacola.9 Wheeler's services were greatly needed for there was a dearth of trained officers. Soon he was promoted to Colonel of the 19th Alabama regiment of volunteers. After a winter spent in drilling and conditioning his men he moved with the rest of the army to Corinth where Albert Sidney Johnston p19 was assembling his forces to meet the Federals who had encamped near Pittsburg Landing.
A comparatively unknown Colonel could not be expected to attract a great deal of attention in a battle of the magnitude of that at Shiloh. Although Wheeler drew favourable comment from his superiors during the two days fighting, his activities seem to have been no more pronounced than that of scores of other young officers who led their regiments into battle. After the battle was over and the Confederates were in retreat toward Corinth, however, Wheeler was given a most important assignment. He was ordered to take a brigade of cavalry and cover the rear of the retreating army,10 a task which would have been extremely hazardous if the Federals had pursued. As it happened, there was no pursuit and Wheeler's task was largely that of rounding up stragglers and rescuing as much abandoned equipment as possible. However, the assignment marked the beginning of Wheeler's career as a cavalry officer and fixed his place in the army. He became a preparer of ways and a coverer of retreats for the Army of Tennessee in every campaign from Shiloh in 1862 until the surrender to Sherman in 1865. It is in this capacity that Wheeler's career must be interpreted. He never displayed the audacity and flash of Forrest and Stuart, but in performing the true functions of cavalry attached to the flanks of an army he was unsurpassed.
The retreat of the Confederate army continued as far South as Tupelo, Mississippi, where General Bragg replaced General Beauregard. Immediately Bragg set about the task of re‑conditioning his army and of refilling the depleted regiments. This accomplished he began active preparations for the Kentucky campaign; p20 a campaign which he hoped would draw the Federals from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama into the blue grass state where they might be won over for the Confederate cause.11
In preparation for his advance, Bragg sent Wheeler with a brigade of cavalry into West Tennessee to create the impression that the entire Army of Tennessee was on the move in that direction. Late in July, 1862, Wheeler with about a thousand men moved from Tupelo by way of Holly Springs to Grand Junction, Tennessee. Finding that the Federals had evacuated this town he moved against Bolivar and Jackson destroying cotton, tearing up railroad tracks, and burning supplies.12 After five days of this he returned to Tupelo to find that Bragg was moving his army. The new headquarters of the Army of Tennessee was established at Chattanooga and from there Bragg proposed to move into Kentucky.
On the 28th of August, 1862, Bragg crossed the Tennessee River from Chattanooga with approximately 40,000 men and set out on his invasion of Kentucky. The left wing was commanded by Hardee, the right wing by Polk; Wheeler with three regiments of cavalry moved with Hardee.13
Wheeler and his cavalry moved out in front of the advancing army routing army outposts, dropping back to protect the flanks, and performing the other numerous duties of the advance guard of an army. The march of the main army was unobstructed by anything like organized resistance from the Federals at Nashville under General Buell; but it was not so with the cavalry. It was almost hourly in contact with the p21 enemy. Buell had posted his scouts along the road, in tree tops and on mountain spurs. It was Wheeler's task to remove them.14
In the meantime, while Bragg slowly crawled along in the general direction of Nashville, Kirby Smith moved out of Knoxville toward Cumberland Gap. Instead of attacking the Federal force there, he sent a detachment to threaten it while he passed with his remaining troops into southeastern Kentucky. Moving rapidly Smith first met the Federals near Richmond, defeated them, and captured a large amount of supplies, guns, and ammunition.15 Bragg, hearing of Smith's victory, turned northward at Sparta and requested the victorious general to join forces with him near Louisville.
General Forrest joined Bragg's army at Sparta and it was expected that he would be placed in command of the cavalry. Instead, however, Bragg divided his mounted men placing a division under Wheeler and another under Forrest. Thereafter these two men were connected with the Army of Tennessee, but their fields of operation were often widely separated. As a matter of fact, each was eminently fitted for the tasks assigned him. Wheeler was a faithful, efficient, unassuming officer who obeyed orders to the letter and worked well with his superiors. Forrest, on the other hand, was at his best when operating independently. With his powerful personality and superb qualities as a leader of men he became anathema to Federal officers charged with protecting communications and lines of supply. Soon after he joined Bragg at Sparta he was detached and sent back to Middle Tennessee to operate on Federal bases. This paved the way for Wheeler's promotion.
The invasion of Kentucky followed three general lines, all of which converged at Louisville. On the p22 West, Buell moved from Nashville northward by way of Bowling Green. In the center Bragg leisurely moved northwestward from Middle Tennessee; on the East Kirby Smith fought his way northwestward from Cumberland Gap. There was little fighting between Bragg's and Buell's armies except for the cavalry and this was confined to mere skirmishes. With two armies advancing slowly toward a common goal and with neither apparently desiring to fight it was almost impossible for the cavalry to screen the movements. Consequently Wheeler's duties were largely of a routine nature.
Bragg reached Glasgow, Kentucky, on the 13th of September. At the same time Buell reached Bowling Green, •thirty miles westward. At Glasgow, Bragg decided to rest and feed his army. While he was thus occupied Buell moved past him and reached Louisville where he found recruits and supplies awaiting him. On the 30th he left Louisville in search of Bragg who had divided his army and was unprepared for battle.16
Colonel Wheeler was at Perryville with Hardee at this time, his cavalry deployed in front of the army. As Buell's movements became apparent there developed the necessity of delaying him until Bragg could collect his scattered forces. Wheeler's cavalry was given the task. As he moved forward to meet Buell and as he actually engaged him in battle a new type of cavalry fighting was demonstrated. Wheeler would dismount his men and fight them as infantry until it became necessary to retreat; then he would remount, ride to the rear, dismount, and form new lines.17 This process he repeated over and over again and succeeded in delaying the Federals long enough for the Confederates to form a junction of their separated columns. This use which Wheeler made of his "mounted p23 infantry" was, according to military critics, an entirely new contribution to the science of cavalry fighting.18
On the morning of October 8th, 1862, the two armies met on the banks of Chaplin Creek in what has come to be known as the battle of Perryville. It was fiercely fought but inconclusive, the Confederates drawing off on the morning of the 9th and preparing to retreat. Wheeler's part in the battle had not been important, but now that Bragg had decided to withdraw, the young Colonel was charged with a tremendous responsibility. At three o'clock on the morning of October 13th, Wheeler was made Chief of Cavalry and authorized to give orders in the name of the commanding general. He was charged, under General Smith, with covering the rear of the army and holding the enemy in check.19
The Confederate line of retreat ran southeastward through Kentucky to Cumberland Gap and thence south by way of Knoxville to Chattanooga. The first phase of the withdrawal, that is from Perryville to Cumberland Gap, was accomplished only with the greatest difficulty. Baggage wagons, droves of cattle, marching men, slaves, civilians in wagons and carriages, artillery, made an exceedingly cumbersome procession of the retreating columns.20 The season was dry and men suffered from lack of water. General Smith grew discouraged and wrote General Polk that he thought most, if not all, of the wagons would have to be abandoned.21 But while Smith was in this frame of mind there came a cheering message from Wheeler. "Tell General Smith," he wrote, "to abandon nothing; we will save all."22 He and his cavalry were bringing up the rear, fighting by day and obstructing the roads p24 by night. It was a steady and dogged falling back in the face of the advancing enemy. At times the cavalry was dismounted and fought from behind stone fences and hastily erected breastworks. At other times when opportunity presented itself, there were swift and devastating mounted charges. Again the "mounted infantry" was proving its value. By varying his tactics Wheeler was able to hold off the Federals until Bragg's army was out of reach of the pursuers. Not a single piece of artillery or baggage had been lost to the enemy.23 As a reward for his services Wheeler was promoted to the rank of Brigade-General.
Upon the completion of the retreat from Kentucky, Bragg moved into Middle Tennessee during the last days of October. At Nashville, Buell had been replaced by Rosecrans who soon busied himself with fortifying Nashville and making plans to move on Atlanta by way of Chattanooga. Bragg was to block him and the battlefield would be somewhere between Nashville and Confederate headquarters at Murfreesboro. The campaign, however, did not begin at once. There was a lull of nearly two months while the soldiers of both armies enjoyed the forced or voluntary hospitality of the citizens.
Wheeler, however, had little time to participate in festivities for he was stationed •fifteen miles closer the enemy than was the infantry. There he spent his time drilling and organizing his nondescript troopers and in keeping a watchful eye turned toward the Federals in Nashville. On the 26th of December, he notified Bragg that the enemy had begun the advance, and the Confederates made ready to receive them on the banks of Stone's River.24 At noon on December 30th the p25 artillery duel began. By three in the afternoon the battle was well under way but night interposed before great damage was done to either side. Early the next morning the fighting was resumed and lasted through the day with the result that Bragg could wire Richmond: "God has granted us a happy New Year."25
In the meantime, Wheeler had been actively engaged. Early on the morning of the 30th before the battle had actually begun he was ordered behind the enemy lines to destroy supplies. By daylight he had reached Jefferson, well in the enemy's rear, where he destroyed a brigade wagon train. Leaving Jefferson behind him he next struck the village of Lavergne where large stores had been collected. He charged the guards, captured some 700 prisoners, and destroyed another small supply train before joining the left flank of Bragg's army. He had made a complete circuit of the enemy's rear, destroyed large quantities of stores and captured approximately 800 prisoners.26 On the morning of January 1, when Bragg thought victory within his grasp, Wheeler left the left flank, rode again around the enemy's rear destroying what supplies had been collected since his previous visit, and rejoined his own army's right flank in time to cover Bragg's retreat as he left another inconclusive battlefield.27
It would be difficult at this stage of the war to determine whose service, Wheeler's or Forrest's, had been most valuable to the Confederacy. Biographers have pictured the dramatic and picturesque Forrest, but Wheeler has been somewhat neglected. There are few events in Confederate military history more spectacular than this raid around Rosecrans' rear. Forrest and his men never rode harder nor achieved more in the same p26 length of time than did Wheeler upon this occasion; yet the world knows little of his exploits. Perhaps this overshadowing of Wheeler by Forrest is due to a number of reasons which may be suggested here: (1) Wheeler's personality was not such as to inspire men. He was small, retiring, and inoffensive. When compared with the magnificent and swash-buckling Forrest he did not appear in his best light; (2) Except upon rare occasions Wheeler did not have the opportunity for independent campaigns such as those which characterized Forrest. It is doubtful whether Wheeler would have been as successful as Forrest had he been given the opportunity, but the nature of the former's assignments to duty on the wings of the army did not allow as much freedom as that exercised by the latter. (3) Wheeler was a friend and supporter of General Bragg when that officer was at the height of his unpopularity. Naturally contemporary opinion placed them somewhat in the same category of inefficient officers.
On January 7, 1863, while Bragg was slowly retreating from Murfreesboro to his new headquarters at Tullahoma, Wheeler was ordered to ride to the rear of the enemy and destroy stores reported to have been collected at Ashland on the Cumberland River •some twenty-five miles below Nashville. In preparation for attack Wheeler divided his forces sending Colonel W. B. Wade with two regiments up the south bank of the river while he took the balance of his brigade and crossed to the vicinity of Clarksville, Tennessee.
Late in the afternoon of the 12th Wheeler and his men opened fire on the steamer "Charter" as she came into view around a bend in the river. Being a transport and unarmed there was nothing for her to do except swing into shore and surrender. In the meantime, p27 Wade and his detachment were playing havoc further up the river. This fighting Irishman placed his men behind the stacks of steamboat wood around the landing near Ashland and waited. Presently a transport without escort appeared and was captured. Next morning the transport "Trio" suffered a like fate. Hardly had she been received when the "Parthenia" and the "Hastings" came along to suffer the fate of the others. To complete the job the gunboat "Sidell" was captured and burned.28
The affair caused some consternation among the Federals. General Rosecrans reported the matter to Washington and asked for more cavalry in order that he might cope with the raiders.29 General Bragg that it reflected "distinguished merit" on his Chief of Cavalry and asked his promotion as a "just reward."30 Acting on Bragg's recommendation Wheeler was promoted to the tank of Major-General and the Confederate Congress passed this resolution: "That the thanks of Congress are due, and are hereby tendered to Brigadier-General Wheeler and the officers and men of his command for his daring and successful attacks upon the enemy's gunboats and transports in the Cumberland River."31
When Bragg had completed the retreat from Murfreesboro to Tullahoma his army, as well as that of the Federals, remained inactive for five months. Wheeler, with his restless and poorly disciplined troopers, faced the period of inactivity with misgivings. Desertions would be frequent and depredations severe if the cavalry was not given work to do. As a means p28 of keeping his men busy and at the same time of striking a blow at Federal lines of communication he proposed and received permission to make an attack upon Fort Donelson commanding the mouth of the Cumberland River. He proposed joining forces with Forrest late in January and assaulting the fortification which was not very strongly garrisoned.
The plan was practical in conception, but abortive in execution, and for the first time in his career Wheeler suffered a major reverse. General Forrest protested that his men were in no condition for the attack, and that he had not sufficient ammunition for them. Moreover, he believed, if Donelson should be taken it could not be held for a very long period of time. But in spite of Forrest's protests Wheeler proceeded with his plans.32
On the 3rd of February, Wheeler in command of the combined cavalry force approached Donelson and sent in a formal surrender note. The commander refusing to surrender, the Confederates were put into position for battle. Forrest was ordered to dismount his men and assail the east side of the fortification while Wharton was likewise to dismount his men and attack the west side. Forrest, however, disregarded orders to dismount, and charged with his men mounted, only to be repulsed with a withering fire from the enemy rifle pits. Wharton assaulted the west side in accordance with orders and carried it. As the Federals gave way before this assault and began pouring over the eastern side of the fortification Forrest ordered his men to retreat thinking that the Federals were attacking his horses. At this moment Forrest's prediction that ammunition for the attack was insufficient proved true and the attack was called off.33
p29 The whole affair was a fiasco. Wheeler had not correctly estimated his supply of ammunition and in the midst of battle Forrest had bungled things. It was Wheeler, however, who as commanding officer must accept responsibility for the defeat and this he did in his official report. There were other serious consequences, however, for General Forrest refused to serve longer under Wheeler and his refusal was countenanced, thus dividing the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee at a time when unity was essential to the fullest measure of success. Wheeler was retained as chief of cavalry, but Forrest did not report to him for orders.34
After the division of the cavalry Wheeler set about reorganizing his command while Forrest was sent to Alabama to follow and capture the Federal cavalry commander, Streight. Bragg, always ready to praise his favorite cavalry officer, wrote that he was very much gratified at the efforts being made to regulate and discipline the command.35 Wheeler was a very busy man in spite of the fact that neither army was engaged in active operations. He was picketing a •70‑mile front and writing a book on cavalry tactics.
The book was called A Revised System of Cavalry Tactics for the Use of the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, C. S. A., and is important not only because it provided a system of drill and discipline for the Army of Tennessee, but also because of the cognizance taken in it of the new and important part the mounted infantry was taking. Wheeler unhesitatingly advocated the use of mounted infantry to displace heavy cavalry and dragoons. This was a wide departure from the system of tactics then in use, which was modeled closely upon p30 the traditional European system of heavy cavalry for shock purposes alone. No single Confederate cavalry officer originated the new style of fighting; rather it was an evolutionary process growing out of necessity. Heavy cavalry was of little use in the rough and thickly wooded areas over which the Army of Tennessee fought. A cavalryman who could ride in a charge or fight as an infantryman was much more desirable in covering retreats and performing scouting duties. Thus it came about that Confederate cavalry really was not cavalry at all, but mounted infantry.36
After five months of inactivity, General Rosecrans began his advance from Nashville toward Chattanooga on the 21st of June, 1863. Bragg decided not to risk battle, but to retire within Chattanooga and there await his opponent. Accordingly he gathered his army and moved from Tullahoma. Wheeler was sent to delay Rosecrans while the movement was accomplished. Using the same tactics he advocated in his book he delayed the advancing Federals long enough for Bragg to reach his destination;37 an event which meant that Tennessee had been abandoned to the enemy and that the West was being slowly paralyzed by the Federal invasion.
On the 28th of August, Rosecrans began crossing the Tennessee River with his army near Bridgeport, Alabama. Bragg was in Chattanooga apparently undecided as to what course he should pursue. Wheeler, on picket duty, found superior forces of Federals in every mountain cove. "A mountain is like the wall of a house full of rat‑holes," Bragg observed. "The rat lies hidden at his hole ready to pop out when no one is watching."38 p31 Wheeler was sent into Alabama to recruit men and horses and upon his return he found the commanding general strangely without information as to the enemy movements. In the face of so much confusion and lack of information, Bragg decided to evacuate Chattanooga and move southward into Georgia at Chickamauga.
Wheeler and his men participated in the battle at Chickamauga, but his greatest services were rendered after the hostilities had ceased. On the 22nd of September he received orders to "cross the Tennessee and press the enemy, intercept and break up all his lines of communication and retreat."39 The Federals had withdrawn into Chattanooga and had only two lines of supply — the Tennessee River and a wagon train from the north running through Sequatchie Valley. If these two could be closed then the Federals within the city could be starved into submission. Polk and Longstreet occupied Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge closing the river route. Wheeler, if he could, would intercept the wagon trains coming through the northern route.
In preparation for the raid, Forrest, then engaged in fighting Burnside near Knoxville, was ordered to turn over most of his men to Wheeler. General Roddey, just arrived from Alabama, was ordered to join Wheeler near Jasper, Tennessee.40 Thus Wheeler commanded, for the first time, most of the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee and soon he gave a demonstration of what could be accomplished with a combined cavalry force.
Swinging east of Chattanooga Wheeler worked his way across Walden's Ridge northwest of Chattanooga. At the foot of the ridge was a wagon road entering Chattanooga through the valley. At the same time that Wheeler began his expedition, General Garfield, p32 Chief of Staff, sent a warning to the Federal cavalry acting as an escort for the wagon train which was soon to make its appearance along this road in the valley. In addition he sent two divisions of cavalry, three regiments of infantry, and a battery of artillery to help drive off the raiders.41 Thus it became between Wheeler and the reinforcing units sent by Garfield.
At 3 o'clock on the morning of October 2nd, Wheeler began the descent into the valley his pursuers some 5 hours behind him. When daylight came there was revealed ahead of him a cavalcade of white-topped wagons bumping along behind straining mules. At irregular intervals along the road were detachments of Federal cavalry with flaps of their pistol holsters open and sabres loose in the scabbards, all ready for quick action. Then Wheeler struck them. Soon there was a din punctuated by the shouts of men, the screams of dying animals, and the popping of explosives. Rosecrans' great wagon train was destroyed, the mules were killed, and the men taken prisoners.42
It is difficult to determine the exact damage done. A conservative estimate placed the destruction at 500 wagons, 1,800 mules, 500 tons of food, an equal amount of ammunition, and the reputation of half a dozen Federal officers.43 Certainly the effects were felt in Chattanooga. Rations were reduced there to a half, then to a fourth. A river scow was fitted out with boiler and propeller at Bridgeport and a "cracker line" was opened to Chattanooga, but this proved ineffectual as a means of feeding so large a force.44 It was not p33 until the Confederates were driven from Lookout Mountain that the Federals went on full rations again.
Wheeler continued his raid through middle Tennessee. He captured McMinnville garrisoned by a regiment under Major M. L. Patterson, son-in‑law of Andrew Johnson. From McMinnville the raiders turned toward Murfreesboro, but finding it too strongly garrisoned to take, they rode on to Shelbyville to find that the small detachment of Federals there had fled. Here, with the pursuing Federals closing in on him, Wheeler decided to put his men in a safe position behind the Tennessee River again. Accordingly he headed for Muscle Shoals where he and his men crossed the river to safety.45
"His Excellency President Davis has been here and read your reports. He requested the general commanding to make known to you and your command his satisfaction and appreciation of your services."46 This constituted Wheeler's thanks for his services and was a part of the message ordering him to abandon North Alabama and rejoin Bragg near Chattanooga.
While Wheeler was on his raid the two armies near Chattanooga were inactively facing each other. On the 19th of October Rosecrans was relieved from command and Thomas substituted. Four days later Grant, lately come from Vicksburg, relieved Thomas. Grant opened a line of supply to Bridgeport and Bragg fell back to Missionary Ridge. With the arrival of Federal re‑enforcements Bragg was placed on the defensive when only a few days earlier he had been master of the situation.
p34 It had been determined by Federal authorities to make strenuous efforts during the summer of 1863 to occupy and hold East Tennessee at Chattanooga and Knoxville. This occupation would serve the double purpose of interrupting railway communications and of affording relief to a section strongly Union in sentiment. To accomplish this Rosecrans, as just described, moved against Bragg at Chattanooga. At the same time a force of some 30,000 Federals under General Burnside moved out of Kentucky investing Cumberland Gap and Knoxville.47 In this situation Bragg decided to send Longstreet and Wheeler to attack Knoxville while he and his army faced Grant at Missionary Ridge. As in all previous campaigns, Wheeler blazed the way with his cavalry. There was a skirmish at Maryville and another at Little River in which Wheeler was defeated only to rally his men and drive the Federals into Knoxville.48 Once the enemy was driven within the city Wheeler dismounted his men and they joined Longstreet's men in the trenches. The siege, however, was to prove a failure; Knoxville was too strong to be taken. In the midst of it a courier arrived bringing a message from General Bragg ordering Wheeler to rejoin him. Grant had driven the Army of Tennessee from Missionary Ridge and Wheeler was needed to cover the retreat.
By hard riding, Wheeler and his escort covered the distance between Knoxville and Dalton, Georgia, where the flying Confederates had stopped, in a little over twenty-four hours. He found Bragg's army in confusion and without the customary cavalry protection in the rear.49 Recalling his troops from Knoxville he placed himself between the Federals and the rear of his own p35 army. For the third time in a major campaign Bragg's army was depending for their protection upon Wheeler's vigilance.
It was not until the Confederates reached Ringgold, Georgia, that they made any attempt to halt the Federals. Here, however, Cleburne's division was turned about and with Wheeler's cavalry hugging the flanks was ordered to halt the pursuit. In an attempt to dislodge Cleburne, General Hooker was as was he in his attempts to drive Wheeler from the flanks. For the time being Grant abandoned the active pursuit of Bragg.
Wheeler, taking advantage of the lull in hostilities as he had before Murfreesboro, began another period of drill and reorganization. His six brigades of near a thousand men each were commanded by brigadiers — Armstrong, Davidson, Kelly, Morgan, Humes, and Hodge. In addition there were two major-generals attached to duty with Wheeler, Wharton and Martin. Together these nine officers put their men through their paces to such an extent that there was more than unusual grumbling among the men.50 In fact, Wheeler seems to have been unable to exercise the qualities of leadership among his men that characterized Forrest and Stuart. Although, with the exception of the failure at Donelson, Wheeler had been uniformly successful in his undertakings he lacked the fire of genius. Perhaps Inspector Alf Roman put his finger on the situation when he wrote of Wheeler: "General Wheeler's men like him, but do not appear to be proud of him. They know he will always fight well, but seem to feel that he cannot make them fight as well."51 Yet in spite of his handicap Wheeler probably excelled his contemporaries in steadfastness, in absolute obedience to orders, and in a full comprehension of the duties devolving upon a Chief of Cavalry.
On the 1st of December, 1863, General Bragg tendered his resignation to President Davis52 and on the 16th of the same month Joseph E. Johnston assumed command.53 Immediately he called a general review of his army. The effective strength, he found, was not quite thirty‑six thousand exclusive of cavalry, although the muster rolls showed a strength of seventy‑two thousand. The cavalry which showed a paper strength of six thousand actually had only twenty-four hundred. The artillery, he found was deficient in discipline and "the position of Dalton had little to recommend it as a defensive one."54 These facts meant to Johnston that he must fill out his depleted regiments, select a more favourable ground for defense, and completely reorganize the entire army. This task he undertook while Grant evolved his plan for a double movement on Atlanta. Sherman was to move from Vicksburg eastward, join Sooy Smith'sº cavalry at Meridian, move across Alabama and meet Grant's army in front of Atlanta. As it developed, Grant's plans miscarried for the time being, and all on account of the activities of the Confederate cavalry. General Forrest met and defeated Smith at Okolona, Mississippi, on the 22nd of February, 1864, and Sherman was deprived of the services of the cavalry. On the very day that this occurred Thomas began his advance upon the Confederates at Dalton and ran into Wheeler's cavalry at Ringgold. Here Thomas was delayed sufficiently long to convince Grant that he should abandon the plan for a double campaign against Atlanta and concentrate all his forces in North Georgia for a direct march along the line of the Western and Atlantic Railroad.55 On p37 the 28th of April Sherman reached Chattanooga, Grant went to Virginia, and on the 5th of May the campaign began. On the 3rd of May, Grant crossed the Rappahannock and as Sherman deployed his men in front of Tunnel Hill, Georgia, the former put his army between Fredericksburg and that of his opponent General Lee.
Wheeler received the initial impact of Sherman's onslaught while intrenched behind rude breastworks in front of Tunnel Hill. Wheeler's duty was to delay the enemy as long as possible, a task at which he had been singularly successful. His tactics were the same he had used in previous campaigns. He would hold out as long as possible, retreat to another position, make a stand, then retreat again. By using such methods he delayed Thomas' advance two days and earned the congratulations of General Johnston.56 As Sherman slowly advanced he found that his own cavalry was unable to cope with that of Wheeler. Writing to Grant he said: "Our cavalry is dwindling away. We cannot get full forage and have to graze, so that the cavalry is always unable to attempt anything. Garrard is overcautious and I think Stoneman is lazy. The former has 4,500 and the latter 2,500. Each has a fine chance of cutting in but were easily checked by the appearance of the enemy."57
Sherman confronted Johnston at Resaca, Georgia, on the 14th of May and for three days the battle raged. Hood was on the Confederate right, Hardee in the center, and Polk on the left. Wheeler's cavalry was dismounted and placed in the trenches with the infantry.58 As Johnston gave way and retreated deeper into Georgia, however, the men were remounted and everywhere Sherman turned he found the roads barricaded and strategic positions defended by cavalry. On brushing them aside he would find them behind other p38 barricades a short distance down the road. Wheeler was giving another excellent demonstration of his ability to cover retreats with mounted infantry.
Johnston's retreat continued southward toward Atlanta. There was a fight at Adairsville on the 17th of May after which Johnston fell back and fortified the slopes of Kennesaw Mountain. On the 26th fighting broke out on the Confederate right, the Union forces being repulsed on the first day and the Confederates repulsed on the second. Both armies were sparring for position and maneuvering for an advantage; but Johnston could ill afford such expensive sparring. Instead, he planned to curtail Sherman's activities by threatening his line of communication along the railroad to Chattanooga. Johnston believed that if he could put a cavalry force to work tearing up this railroad Sherman might be compelled to abandon the campaign. He had suggested this to President Davis in June. "Cavalry on the rear of Sherman . . . would do him much harm," he advised. A few days later he made his recommendations more specific. "I earnestly suggest that Major-General Forrest be ordered to take such parts as he may select of the commands of Pillow, Chalmers and Roddey . . . and operate on the enemy's rear."59
General Johnston planned to keep Wheeler close to him covering the flanks, obtaining information, and protecting retreats. Forrest would be given a task much to his liking and well suited to his style of fighting. There were obstacles in the way of the plan, of course, but in the main it seemed certain of success. Wheeler, knowing that Forrest would not serve under him, paved the way for the execution of the plan by suggesting that he be placed under the orders of Forrest, if necessary for the success of the plan.60 But nothing was attempted. Bragg and Davis were afraid p39 that the recall of Forrest from Mississippi might mean that the state would to have been given up entirely and on this basis refused Johnston's request.61
Following the battles around New Hope Church and Gilgal, Johnston fell back and on the night of July 4th, 1864, began the occupation of the outer Atlanta fortifications. Popular disapproval of Johnston's Fabian tactics led to his removal and the season of John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee. He, disapproving of Johnston's tactics, decided to fight, on July 20th sallied forth from his fortifications intent upon flanking Sherman and destroying his communications between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The fighting on the 22nd is termed the Battle of Atlanta which consisted largely of an engagement between Hardee's and McPherson's corps while Cheatham and Stewart demonstrated against Schofield and Thomas. Two Federal corps held two Confederate corps at bay while a third Federal and a third Confederate fought it out. Sherman now determined to send his cavalry against Confederate communications and on July 27th Stoneman, Garrard, and McCook, set out on this mission with a combined force of approximately 9,400 cavalry.62 To combat this force Wheeler sent his favorite brigadier, the dashing Kelly, to intercept Garrard; General Iverson with 800 men pursued Stoneman; and Wheeler with 500 men personally took McCook as his objective. The result was a complete rout of the three divisions of Federal cavalry. Kelly overtook Garrard near Jonesboro and completely scattered his command. At Newnan, Wheeler struck McCook's front while Ashby attacked the rear. The Federals were able to retreat across the Chattahoochee, but their effectiveness was at an end. General Iverson, with assistance of Howell Cobb and p40 a non‑descript army of old men and boys, attacked Stoneman near Macon and almost annihilated his command before it could escape.63 General Sherman now became convinced, he said, "that cavalry could not, or would not, make a sufficient lodgement on the railroad below Atlanta."64
Wheeler's disposal of Garrard, McCook, and Stoneman, marks the climax of his career as a cavalry leader. Now his fame, through a chain of circumstances, began to decline. With the exception of his and Forrest's abortive attack on Fort Donelson, Wheeler had been singularly successful in his operations and had acquired an excellent reputation. He had successfully covered every retreat of the Army of Tennessee; he had supplied information of such a reliable nature that not once while he was in charge of cavalry operations in the van of the army had it been surprised; and he had conducted successful raids and destroyed millions of dollars worth of Federal supplies. Now, however, in the fall of 1864 his success turned to ashes.
Several conditions contributed to this decline of Wheeler's fame and usefulness. Among these may be listed four major ones; (1) A useless and fruitless raid on Sherman's line of communication, (2) The loss of his two most important generals, (3) A lowering of morale among his men which led to serious depredations, and (4) The disintegration of the Army of Tennessee.
The useless and fruitless raid on Sherman's line of communication began early in September, 1864. When Wheeler reassembled his troopers after the fights with p41 Garrard, McCook, and Stoneman he took them to the neighborhood of Covington for rest and readjustment, but there was little recuperation for the food supply was short. But even had there been sufficient food for men and horses the rest period could not have been prolonged sufficiently, for Hood decided to whip Sherman by attacking his base at Nashville. In preparation for the movement he sent Wheeler with 4,000 worn and ill‑fed men to intercept Sherman's line of communication which extended from Atlanta to Chattanooga and thence to Nashville. A few months before, Hood had thought the combined forces of Wheeler and Forrest insufficient for the task; and now he assigned Wheeler alone for the duty, thus figuratively closing his eyes and putting his fingers in his ears. "I could have asked for nothing better," Sherman wrote, "for I had provided well against such a contingency, and this detachment left me superior to the enemy in cavalry."65
On the 10th of August Wheeler led his men out from camp at Covington with orders to destroy the railroad between Atlanta and Dalton, then to cross the Tennessee River, destroy the railroad between Chattanooga and Murfreesboro, and burn supplies along the way.66 The raid was unsuccessful. After waiting for General Martin to join him before Dalton and that officer having failed to appear, Wheeler sent him back under arrest. Doing what damage he could Wheeler proceeded to cross the Tennessee above Chattanooga and then swing westward toward Middle Tennessee. General G. M. Williams, commanding a brigade, asked permission to make a detour and attack the garrison at Strawberry Plains. This request was granted and Williams got lost never to rejoin Wheeler. Riding on, Wheeler struck McMinnville, Smyrna, and Lebanon p42 inflicting some damage but in no way seriously interrupting Sherman's communications. While retreating southward from the region of Nashville toward Florence, Alabama, General Kelly was killed in a skirmish. Thus Wheeler arrived at Tuscumbia, Alabama on the 2nd of September with his command scattered, one general under arrest, one dead, and a third wandering around somewhere in East Tennessee. For all his efforts Wheeler had accomplished almost nothing and the only alternative he had was resignation. Hood, however, refused to dispense with his services and ordered him back to the neighborhood of Atlanta to fight Sherman.67
While Wheeler was absent on this fruitless raid Hood evacuated Atlanta and began his Nashville campaign. Almost at the same time Sherman decided to abandon his base and march to the sea. The only organized force left in Georgia to contest Sherman's advance was Wheeler's disorganized cavalry. Wheeler's orders directed him to destroy the railroad from Atlanta northward and at the same time be prepared to follow Sherman and destroy everything from which the Federals might derive sustenance; an order which meant that Wheeler was to bring his career to a close trying to accomplish the impossible.68
On the morning of November 16th, Sherman and his staff rode out of Atlanta toward Milledgeville. Soon his whole army was on the march foraging as it went. On this day Wheeler made his preparations to follow cautioning his men to be careful in dealing with private property which it was not necessary to destroy.69 But his men oftentimes were not careful and depredations became common. Marauding parties who had never belonged to Wheeler's command scoured the p43 land. Wheeler protested to the authorities that his orders to burn and destroy supplies were leading to depredations, but he again was informed: "Supplies of all kinds useful to the enemy and not required for your use must be destroyed."70 So the march continued with Wheeler's cavalry acquiring the name of "Wheeler's robbers." One writer thought that the people of Georgia had about come to the point where they did not care which army won, as Sherman was not making war any harder on them than the cavalry of their own army.71 Robert Toombs denounced them in no uncertain terms to Vice-President Stephens hoping that Georgia would soon be free from Wheeler's "plundering, marauding bands of cowardly robbers."72
As Sherman continued his march to Savannah and thence through the Carolinas, General Beauregard in command of the department sent Inspector Alf Roman to report on the alleged depredations of Wheeler's men. Roman reported: "Much has been said — and is still being said — of the gross misconduct of General Wheeler's men. Their alleged depredations and straggling propensities and their reported brutal interference with private property, have become common by‑words in every county where it has been their misfortune to pass. Public rumor condemns them everywhere; and not a few do we find in Georgia as well as in South Carolina who look upon them more as a band of highway robbers than as an organized military band."73
But the Inspector defended Wheeler's command against all these charges. "While I am ready to admit that much truth is hidden under some of the rumors thus brought into circulation," he continued, "yet p44 justice makes it a duty upon me to add that not a little is said about the command which is utterly false." The cry of "mad‑dog," he thought, was being brought into play. The chief trouble, he reported was fivefold. "After having carefully weighed the different reasons which could have brought forth the undisciplined, loose, and relative inefficiency of Wheeler's command" he came to the conclusion that conditions were due to:
|1.||The negligence and incompetency of many of the company and regiment commanders.|
|2.||The want of system and good administration in the commissary department.|
|3.||The great irregularity in the payment of troops.|
|4.||The error of allowing cavalrymen to procure their own horses, instead of having them furnished by the government.|
|5.||The excessive leniency of the corps commander.|
The last item indicates that Roman held Wheeler personally responsible for part of the confusion. While, he said, he was aware that the reasons given for the loose discipline in Wheeler's corps "exists, more or less, in Forrest's and Hampton's commands" he believed that Wheeler was not stern enough. "No one admires General Wheeler more than I do" he wrote. "He is a modest, conscientious, industrious officer. He takes a fatherly interest in his command. His activity is proverbial, and is equalled only by his gallantry. But he is wanting in firmness. . . . He is too gentle, too lenient. . . ." This gentleness, Roman thought, would prevent any true discipline from being developed while Wheeler was corps commander. Thus he recommended his removal, "Not as a rebuke, not as a punishment, for he surely deserves neither; but on higher grounds, — that is to say, for the good of the cause."74
Acting on this report Wheeler was removed from command and Hampton was made Chief of Cavalry, p45 but if there was any improvement in the conduct of the cavalry it is not on record. The Confederacy was on its last legs. Grant's circle of steel was slowly tightening around Richmond. The Army of Tennessee was disastrously defeated at Nashville. The end was drawing near and Wheeler's cavalry reflected the general feeling of defeatism.
However, Wheeler did not cease to fight. Acting as a major-general under Hampton he his activities as long as the war lasted, and even when it was over and other confederate officers were returning home he kept up as much of a fight as circumstances would permit. He, accompanied by a small group of his men, tried to join President Davis in his flight but failed. On May 11, 1865, Wheeler was captured near Washington, Georgia, and sent to prison on the same boat with Davis, Vice-President Stephens, and other members of the Presidential party who had been made prisoners the day before Wheeler's capture. On board the prison ship Wheeler conceived a plan for rescuing Davis, but the plan was not carried into execution.75 Wheeler was confined at Fort Delaware until the middle of June when he was released on parole to return to his home at Augusta, Georgia, where his father and one sister lived.
The fact that General Wheeler was intimately connected with every movement of the Army of Tennessee from its organization at Pensacola and Mobile during the fall and winter of 1861‑1862 until the surrender to General Sherman in the spring of 1865 indicates that his part in the military operations of the Civil War was by no means insignificant. The character of his duties was varied, ranging from drilling awkward troopers to conducting large scale van and rear operations for a large army often engaged in arduous campaigns. The degree of his success is perhaps indicated p46 in his rapid promotion in rank from lieutenant to major-general in the space of three years.
On the whole, however, General Wheeler cannot be classed as an extremely brilliant military leader but what he lacked in brilliance he made up in fidelity and in absolute devotion to duty. He lacked to a marked degree the personality of Forrest or Stuart, but in the ability to perform the true functions of a cavalry commander assigned to duty on the wings of an army he equalled or excelled them both. His independent operations, notably the attack on Donelson, were not nearly so successful; but not once while he was actively in command of the cavalry was the Army of Tennessee overtaken in retreat or left without information concerning the enemy's movements.
In deportment and demeanor Wheeler was always the polite and formal West Pointer. As a disciplinarian he did not resort to the direct method of administering rebukes as did Forrest; rather Wheeler sought by example and precept to make soldiers of his men. This method among raw, untrained, and individualistic troopers was often responsible for loose discipline despite hours of drill in rules and regulations; but no Confederate cavalry unit could boast of a great amount of discipline in its ranks. Wheeler's fame as a cavalry leader must rest not on his genius as a great strategist, but rather on his ability to subordinate himself and to perform the duties which military science assigns to the cavalry.
1 Wheeler's holdings included •645 acres of land, several pieces of business property in Augusta, and bank stock. The Augusta Insurance and Banking Company failed in 1833 bringing financial ruin to a number of Augusta citizens, including Wheeler. See Acts of Georgia, 1833, pp399‑408. See also Records of Richmond County, Georgia, Books S, T, U, and V.
2 Wheeler was married twice. The first wife, Sara, died soon after her arrival in Georgia. The second wife, Julia, was the daughter of General William Hull. Genealogical Records of Wheeler Family, Wheeler papers. These papers are in possession of Miss Annie Wheeler, Wheeler, Alabama.
3 Miss Annie Wheeler, daughter of General Joseph Wheeler, to the author.
4 Official Register of the Officers and Cadets of the U. S. Military Academy, June, 1855 (West Point, N. Y.)
5 Official Register, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859.
6 Southern Literary Messenger, XXXIII, April, 1864, 223.
7 Quoted in John Witherspoon Dubose, General Joseph Wheeler and the Army of Tennessee (New York, 1890), 52.
8 William H. Wheeler to Governor Joseph E. Brown, February 2, 1861. Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, Georgia.
9 William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (New York, 1863), 79.
10 Ibid., 524.
11 R. V. Johnson and C. C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1901), III, pt. II, 600.
12 War of the Rebellion. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series I, vol. XVII, pt. I, 22. (Hereafter referred to as Official Records, Army.)
14 Dubose, op. cit., 86.
16 See E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Reconstruction in Kentucky (Chapel Hill, 1926).
18 G. F. R. Henderson, The Science of War (New York, 1905), 55.
19 Special Orders No. 14 Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XVI, pt. II, 930.
20 Battles and Leaders, III, pt.II, 603.
22 Quoted in Battles and Leaders, III, pt. II, 603.
24 Correspondence between Bragg and Wheeler is found in Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XX, pt. I, 19 et seq.
25 Quoted in Battles and Leaders, III, pt. II, 607.
26 Wheeler's report, Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XX, pt. I, 958. Confirmed by reports of Federal officers.
28 Federal reports. Mitchell to Rosecrans, January 13, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XX, pt. I, 982. See also Dubose, op. cit., 151.
31 Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America (Senate Document 27, 58th Congress), III, 419.
32 All of Forrest's biographers are in agreement upon the facts as here presented. Wheeler admitted that Forrest protested against the attack.
33 Wheeler's report. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXIII, pt. I, 40 et seq. A singularly fair and impersonal report of the whole affair.
34 A dramatic account of the quarrel between Forrest and Wheeler is given in Andrew Nelson Lytle's Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (New York, 1931), 143.
35 Bragg to Wheeler, March 11, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXIII, pt. I, 684.
36 European countries were slow to recognize the new tactics. It was not until 1873 that any recognition was made, and then grudgingly.
37 An interesting account of Wheeler's fighting on this occasion is found in Harper's Magazine, June, 1898, p601.
38 See Battles and Leaders, III.641.
39 Bragg to Wheeler, September 22, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXIII, pt. I, 695.
41 Garfield to McCook, October 1, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXX, pt. IV, 214.
42 An interesting account by a participant is found in John Allan Wyeth's With Sabre and Scalpel (New York, 1914), chapter XIX. See also his account in F. T. Miller, ed., Photographic History of the Civil War (New York, 1911), IV.162.
43 Wheeler's report, October 30, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXX, pt. II, 723. See also Hooker's report, Ibid., 713.
44 For an account of the "cracker line" see Battles and Leaders, III.676.
45 Wheeler's report, op. cit.
46 Bragg to Wheeler, October 13, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXX, pt. IV, 747.
47 Halleck to Grant, Nov. 14, 1863. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXXI, pt. III, 146.
50 For an account of this see Dubose, op. cit., 270‑280.
51 Roman to Beauregard, January 22, 1865. Roman papers, Library of Congress.
52 Bragg to Davis, Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXXI, pt. II, 682.
54 J. E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations Directed during the Late War between the States (New York, 1875), 342.
55 Battles and Leaders, III, pt. I, 247. Sherman's account.
56 Johnston to Wheeler, May 9, 1864. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXXVIII, pt. IV, 682.
60 Wheeler to Johnston, June 20, 1864. Ibid., 891.
62 W. T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, by himself (New York, 1875), II.85.
63 McCook's report, Sherman, Memoirs, II.761. Stoneman's report, Ibid., 913. Wheelers report, Ibid. Garrard was captured and made no report.
64 Sherman's Memoirs, II.98.
65 Sherman to Halleck, September 15, 1864. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXXVIII, pt. I, 79.
67 Hood to Wheeler, September 20, 1864. Official Records, Army, ser. I, vol. XXXIX, pt. II, 849. See report made by Forrest on condition of Wheeler's command ibid., 859.
72 August 30, 1864. Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1911 (Washington, 1913), II.651.
73 Roman to Beauregard, January 22, 1865. Roman papers, Library of Congress.
74 Roman to Beauregard, January 22, 1865.
75 For an account of the voyage on the prison ship and the attempt to rescue President Davis see Wheeler's article in Century Magazine, May, 1898.
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