Cavalry was still the glamorous branch of the army during the American Civil War. In the first half of this tragic conflict, the most dashing, most charismatic — and most successful — cavalry commanders were on the Confederate side. You probably have already heard of General James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, the eyes and ears for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; General Nathan Bedford Forrest, “that devil Forrest”; and the daring raider General John Hunt Morgan. But you may not have heard of General Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler.
Wheeler was born on September 10, 1836 in Augusta, GA. He received an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point, NY, graduating 19th in the Class of 1859. Assigned to the Mounted Dragoons (heavy cavalry), he fought Indians for two years before resigning his commission to join the Confederate Army. He began his career as a colonel of the 19th Alabama Infantry, fighting with that unit through the bloody Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. It was then that he was given command of the cavalry of the Confederate Army of the Mississippi. He led the cavalry in the Western Theater for the rest of the war, ultimately rising to the rank of major general.
Wheeler’s notable accomplishments included covering General Braxton Bragg’s advance into, and retreat from, Kentucky in the late summer of 1862, and fighting in the battles of Stone’s River and Chickamauga. He also commanded two memorable raids – the first caused havoc to the Union army trapped in Chattanooga, TN in October 1863, and the second, while not as successful, was against Union General William T. Sherman’s supply lines during the Battles for Atlanta, in August-September 1864. He also provided the main opposition to General Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” after the fall of Atlanta.
Interestingly, Wheeler’s public-service career did not end with the Confederate collapse. He returned to private life as an Alabama cotton planter, then entered politics and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1885-1900. At the request of President William McKinley, Wheeler assumed the rank of major general of volunteers and commanded a cavalry division during the Santiago Expedition in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War. He also served in the Philippines as a brigade commander, ultimately returning to the United States to be commissioned a brigadier general in the Regular Army. He finally retired on his 64th birthday, and died at his home in Brooklyn, NY on January 25, 1906.
I know of no other Civil War commander, Union or Confederate, who had such an amazing and varied life.
Source: Faust, Patricia L. (editor), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, New York: Harper Perennial, original copyright 1986.