- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

A SOLDIER TO THE LAST: MAJ. GEN. JOSEPH WHEELER IN BLUE AND GRAY

By Edward G. Longare, Potomac Books, $29.94, 288 pages, illustrated

The South produced fine cavalrymen in abundance. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was widely regarded as the finest cavalry officer in the war. Close behind came Nathan B. Forrest and Wade Hampton.

Relegated to some lesser niche in the Confederate pantheon is Gen. “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, the subject of a new biography by veteran Civil War historian Edward G. Longacre. Born in Georgia but educated in a Connecticut academy, Wheeler obtained an appointment to West Point and graduated in 1854 near the bottom of his class. When war came, Wheeler accepted a commission in the Confederate army and was posted to Florida. There he came to the attention of Gen. Braxton Bragg, who would become Wheeler’s patron for most of the war.

The diminutive Wheeler — he was only about 5 feet 2 inches in height — quickly rose to the rank of colonel and saw action at the bloody Battle of Shiloh in April 1861. He gained praise for covering the Confederate withdrawal, a function in which he would gain considerable practice during the war. Considering that he would participate in about 200 engagements and have 16 horses shot out from under him, his bravery would never be in question.

In July 1862, Bragg appointed Wheeler cavalry commander for the Army of Tennessee. He participated in Bragg’s drive into Kentucky in August 1862 and fought well at Perryville in October. Wheeler’s cavalry skillfully contested Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ advance into Tennessee. He participated in the Battle of Stones River, and in January 1863 was promoted to major general.

Wheeler campaigned in Tennessee for much of 1863. He was present at the Battle of Chickamauga in September and in the aftermath of that battle initiated his most famous raid. On Oct. 1, Wheeler’s 4,000 troopers crossed the Tennessee River, brushed aside Federal cavalry commanded by Gen. George Crook, and made for the Sequatchie Valley, where they seized about 1,000 supply wagons and thoroughly disrupted the Federal supply line between Nashville and Chattanooga.

The raid was a tremendous success, but its success made Wheeler careless. He was slow in getting back to the south side of the Tennessee River and barely evaded his Yankee pursuers. Mr. Longacre’s verdict is harsh: “Poor tactical decisions, a lack of vigilance, and a tendency to underestimate a powerful opponent had called into question Wheeler’s fitness to command in independent operations.”

Mr. Longacre does not explore the mind of his subject in any depth and gives Wheeler mixed marks as a cavalry commander. He was at his best on daring raids and in harassing enemy pursuit after a battle. He was not particularly interested in intelligence gathering and often ignored this vital cavalry responsibility. He did little to maintain discipline among his troopers, and as the war went on and supplies became scarce, Wheeler’s men came to be as feared by Southern farmers as the Yankee invader.

An inspector sent to examine discipline in Wheeler’s command reached some harsh conclusions. The general, he wrote, was “wanting in firmness. … He is too gentle, too lenient, and we know how easily leniency can degenerate into weakness. General Wheeler’s men like him, but do not appear proud of him.”

In the Georgia campaign of 1864, Wheeler had the unenviable task of dealing with Gen. William T. Sherman’s advance guard. Outnumbered but rarely outfought, Wheeler had his greatest success in July 1864 when a clash with Federal cavalry resulted in the capture of 3,200 Federal troopers, including three generals. Nevertheless, there was no halting Sherman’s inexorable advance, and Wheeler himself was captured in May 1865.

Unlike many prominent Confederates, Wheeler prospered after the war. He opened a law practice, and his wife’s Alabama lands proved profitable. Wheeler’s prestige was such that he was elected to Congress for seven consecutive terms. In Washington, Wheeler sympathized with the Cubans in their objection to strict rule by Spain.

When war with Spain broke out in 1898, President William McKinley sought to integrate former Confederates into the U.S. Army. Wheeler, at age 61, found himself a brigadier general of volunteers, one of a handful of officers to achieve the rank of general in both the Confederate and U.S. armies. Many considered the Alabamian too old to command in the field, but Wheeler would have none of this. He led a brisk advance against the Spaniards at Las Guasimas, and at the height of the action rose in his stirrups and shouted, “We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”

No matter who the enemy, Joe Wheeler was aggressive to the last.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War topics.

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