After four years of bloody battles, the American Civil War ended in April 1865 when Confederate commanders surrendered to their Union counterparts. The United States was once again a single country, but despite the best efforts of some, feelings of bitterness remained long after the guns fell silent. It was not until the end of the century and the outbreak of another war that Northerners and Southerners finally laid their old hatreds aside. Among those who sought to lead the country in one common cause was a former Confederate general. From 1861 to 1865 he garnered fame as an audacious cavalryman. As his country now lurched toward war thirty years later, he wanted nothing more than to lead men into battle one last time. His name was Joseph Wheeler. This is the story of how his leadership of the American cavalry during the Spanish-American War further signaled the end of the American Civil War.
Joseph Wheeler was as much a product of the North as he was of the South, though he never saw himself as anything but a Southern boy. He was born in Augusta, Georgia in September 1836 and spent his early years on the family farm. As a boy, he watched slaves work the land and accepted slavery as part of the South’s way of life. His life in Georgia ended with the death of his mother in 1842. His father moved the family north to Connecticut to be closer to his family. Young Joe attended the Episcopal Academy of Connecticut, now Cheshire Academy, where he threw himself into his studies. Upon graduation in 1851 he settled in New York City with his aunt and went to work as a mercantile clerk. After only a year, however, he applied for and received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As tensions rose within the country and within the Corps, the young cadet spent most of his time with his fellow Southerners. He believed that those Northerners calling for slavery’s abolition threatened the South’s way of life. His views intensified after he joined the Mounted Riflemen in New Mexico Territory following his graduation in July 1859. Many of his fellow officers were Southerners, and they often talked about what they would do if their states seceded. Despite his years in the North, Wheeler made it clear his ultimate loyalty lay with Georgia. It came as no surprise, therefore, when he resigned his commission in February 1861 and left New Mexico for the Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama. Within weeks of his arrival, Joe Wheeler was at the head of his troops looking for a fight.
In the four years that followed, Wheeler could always be found at the forefront of the charge. At the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 he led his infantrymen in attacking the Union forces along the sunken road known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” From that time on, his men called him “Fighting Joe.” His bravery so impressed his superiors that he was transferred to the cavalry in July 1862. Within days of assuming command, Wheeler led a brigade of horsemen north into Kentucky as part of Braxton Bragg’s invasion force. In October Joseph drew his saber and led his men in a charge to save the army’s left flank at the Battle of Perryville. When General Bragg heard what Wheeler had done, he promoted the twenty-six-year-old to brigadier general and gave him command of all the army’s cavalry. His daring raids on Union supply lines throughout the first months of 1863 earned him a second promotion to major general, making him the youngest in the Confederacy. In September Wheeler participated in the rout of the Union Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga, but two months later he was unable to prevent a similar Confederate defeat at Chattanooga, Tennessee. He still had the support of the army’s brass, however, and was entrusted with delaying Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous march on Atlanta, Georgia during the summer of 1864. He led his troops against Union infantry and cavalry alike, but despite several minor victories, nothing could stop Sherman, not even a raid to destroy the railroads behind enemy lines. After the capture of Atlanta in September, Joe Wheeler spent the last months of 1864 and the early months of 1865 striking at Sherman’s forces as he marched through Georgia and the Carolinas. In late April 1865 his command was finally forced to surrender, and he found himself a citizen of the United States once again.
With the war over, Joseph Wheeler fought as hard to bring reconciliation to the country as he had to divide it. Eleven years after swearing renewed allegiance to the U.S. he was elected to the House of Representatives from Alabama. Most Northerners originally saw him only as an unreconstructed Rebel, but their attitude began to shift as they watched him voice support for legislation that would prove beneficial to all Americans. He not only promoted the interests of the small farmers but also championed such national causes as industrialization, commercial development, and education. To the surprise of many, the former Confederate fiercely advocated for pensions for all veterans, Union or Confederate, white or black. Union veterans attended reunions and dedications of war memorials alongside him. In return, he paid tribute to those he had fought against, paying his condolences to the families of Union Generals Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman and attending the dedication of Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb in 1897. By the late 1890s he was seen as a nationalist who, once and for all, sought to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Abraham Lincoln had urged.
The opportunity for final healing came in 1896 when he heard of the mistreatment of Cubans by their Spanish masters. He heard how Spanish soldiers raped Cuban women and murdered all who resisted them, including women and children. Some reports even indicated that thousands of Cubans were being placed in concentration camps. Wheeler was outraged at these stories and resolved that something had to be done. On April 4, 1896 Joseph stood up in front of the House of Representatives and declared to those before him that “the sooner Cuba becomes free and independent or a member of this great Commonwealth, the sooner will the cause of civilization and of Christianity receive the vindication to which it is entitled.” Spain’s actions were a crime against humanity, and he called upon the U.S. to support the rebels in their fight for freedom. His sabre rattling rhetoric troubled many fellow congressmen as well as President William McKinley. After the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, however, public opinion turned in his favor. A few weeks later, speaking to the House on an appropriation of fifty million dollars to put the nation’s military on a war footing, Representative Wheeler rousingly declared that thousands of “brave and true hearts” across the South “join me in most earnest support of this resolution.” Then to the delight of everyone, he issued the famous Rebel Yell. War was on the horizon, and Joseph Wheeler was as hungry as anyone to see action.
He did not have long to wait. Two weeks after war was declared on April 11th, Wheeler was summoned to the White House to meet with President McKinley. The president told him how he wished to appoint both Union and former Confederate officers to key positions within the army. These thoughts mirrored Wheeler’s, and to his great joy, McKinley expressed a desire for him to assume command of the American cavalry. If he accepted, he would be restored to his old rank of major general. The sixty-one year old Wheeler told the president he “felt as strong and capable as when I was forty, or even much younger, and that I desired very much to have another opportunity to serve my country.” His return to the military was heralded in newspapers across the country, and as he made his way south, citizens from north and south alike waved him on to victory. Once again, finally, the country seemed united. Within days he and his staff, including his son who had recently graduated from West Point, stepped off the train at Camp George H. Thomas on the old Chickamauga battlefield.
Major General Joe Wheeler arrived in camp on a humid morning in May determined to show his soldiers that he was no longer the Rebel who once chased Yankees across the fields in front of him. As he marched forward, he spied the Stars and Stripes flying from a flagpole in the middle of the parade ground. He immediately stopped and, as one observer noted, “his bare head was bowed more reverently forward, and a mist of tears veiled his eyes as he gazed steadfastly at the flag under which our army was to fight.” Taking a deep breath, he collected himself and went in search of his division. Waiting for him were the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders. The ex-Confederate was impressed by his men, particularly the African-American troops, called Buffalo Soldiers by the Indians, and believed they would acquit themselves with honor. On June 14th he and his division boarded a transport ship and headed for Cuba. They disembarked at the town of Daiquiri on the 23rd and immediately received orders to march inland to secure the village of Siboney. They arrived at the crossroads of Sevilla, or Las Guasimas as the Americans called it, just as other American units were preparing to attack the Spanish fortifications. Despite being told to wait in reserve, “Fighting Joe” disregarded his orders and led his men forward, just as he had done so many times before.
On the morning of June 24th, Wheeler and 960 cavalrymen positioned themselves along the bottom of the ridge and looked up towards the fortifications. After attempting to drive the enemy off with artillery, the general turned to his commanders and ordered them to send their men up the hill. He watched with pride as officers shouted for their men to fix bayonets and then led them towards the earthworks. Suddenly, Wheeler thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The Spanish seemed to be falling back. He blinked a few times and looked again. It was true. The Spanish were indeed falling back. Letting loose a cry of delight, the general spurred his horse to follow them to the top. For a brief moment he thought himself back on the fields of Georgia, and he shouted to those around him, “We’ve got the damned Yankees on the run!” His men laughed at his slip-of-the-tongue reference to the enemy before they shouted their agreement and charged in the direction of Santiago.
Word of his spectacular victory spread throughout the army and back to the U.S. He was the hero of the hour. The newspapers even made light of his reference to the Spanish as Yankees by pointing out that he had served his country in two different wars. His service was not done yet, although it seemed it might be. As the army advanced towards Santiago, “Fighting Joe” was stricken with malaria. He refused to leave the field of battle, however. He was laying in bed on July 1st when he heard the sounds of battle coming from San Juan Hill. He grabbed his sword, leaped on his horse and galloped to the front. Reaching the head of his cavalry, he ordered them to press forward, and within moments, the Americans had seized the high ground. After helping negotiate the Spanish surrender, he returned home to a hero’s welcome. In honor of his service, President McKinley commissioned him a brigadier general in the regular army. He was first assigned to the Philippines to help suppress the insurrection there and later assigned to command the Department of the Great Lakes at Chicago, Illinois. His life as a soldier came to an end in January 1906 when he heard the bugle call for the last time.
A war such as the American Civil War oftentimes creates such long-lasting division within a country that true healing never comes, or if it does, it takes several generations of non-combatants to bring about unity. It takes a special leader to put aside the hate, bitterness, and prejudice that inevitably result from a civil war and to embrace reconciliation. Joseph Wheeler was such a man. Once the defeat for his cause came, he resolved to lay aside all enmity and move forward. He served his country in peace, and he got the chance to fulfill his dream of leading his countrymen in battle again. He refused to be defined by one four-year period of his life, and the same applied to his nation. Joseph Wheeler found a way, as only an old warrior can, to overcome the deepest wounds.