You probably have bass-fished or taken a swim in Wheeler Lake, or gone on a nature hike and seen the ducks flapping in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe you’ve spent the night at Joe Wheeler State Park with your family or crossed over the narrows of Wheeler Dam, which provides electricity to the area. If you are from Morgan, Lawrence, Limestone or almost any other county in north Alabama, chances are you have done one, if not all, of these things.
It was not until recently, when I was driving Alabama 20 toward Florence, that I became interested in Gen. Joe Wheeler after seeing his plantation through the trees and a historical marker bearing his name. The Pond Spring Plantation near Hillsboro, which joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, was home to Wheeler and his family in the decades after the Civil War, and just recently underwent a major renovation as a result of state funding and local fundraising.
So who was this Wheeler guy? Wheeler was born near Augusta, Georgia, but spent much of his childhood years growing up with relatives in Connecticut. Being the grandson of Brig. Gen. William Hull of the American Revolution, Wheeler grew up with military blood in his veins and eventually attended West Point Military Academy, as he was appointed by the state of Georgia, connecting him to his Southern heritage and binding him to the Southern cause in the years preceding the Civil War.
It was in New Mexico during a skirmish with Native Americans that Wheeler picked up his nickname “Fightin' Joe,” supposedly defending a wagon that contained a pregnant woman from attack. At the onset of the Civil War, Wheeler resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and bounced around to several positions within the Confederate Army before being assigned to command the 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment, his first connection to Alabama.
It was at the Battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest battle in U.S. history at the time it was fought, that "Fightin' Joe" started to gain name recognition and prominence. He was valiant in his fight against the enemy, and for the first time was able to display his cavalry skills, which he studied and was passionate about while at West Point. He captured enemy forces, and when it came time to retreat, he was effective in burning down bridges and steamboats across the Tuscumbia River in order to slow the Union advance.
Wheeler continued to gain more fame throughout his service during the Civil War, leading successful cavalry raids against Union armies and playing the role of the agitator during Gen. William Sherman’s final advance through the South, a death knell for the Confederacy. It was even widely said that Wheeler had 16 horses shot out from underneath him during this time. After two months as a prisoner of war at the end of the conflict, Wheeler was released and allowed to return to Southern society.
While he was fighting in north Alabama, Wheeler met a widow named Daniella Jones Sherrod, whose deceased husband was the original owner of the Pond Spring Plantation in Lawrence County. After marrying her and moving into his new plantation home, Wheeler began to cement himself into the area, taking up a law practice and becoming a farmer in the fields of Lawrence County.
In 1880, Wheeler became Rep. Wheeler when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama. For the next 17 years, Wheeler worked to heal the divide between the North and the South by promoting economic policies that would work to rebuild and expand the Southern economy, such as replacing the labor of the 4 million recently freed slaves with northern industries and methods.
After 17 years in Washington, D.C., Wheeler was given the opportunity by President William McKinley, who paid Wheeler and the city of Decatur a visit in 1898, to become a major general for the volunteer U.S. Army. Wheeler was able to reconcile the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy with American nationalism and the notion that Americans did not fight for empire, but rather freedom. Malaria took its toll on Wheeler while in Cuba, but he did have the distinction of leading Teddy Roosevelt and his band of “Rough Riders” into action at the onset of the Spanish-American War.
Wheeler also served in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War under Gen. Arthur MacArthur for a short time at the turn of the 20th century, but death found the former scourge of the Yankees in Brooklyn, New York, in 1906.
Wheeler was an American military commander and politician who left his footprint on many aspects of life in the Tennessee Valley. He fought for a cause that ultimately fell at the feet of the new American Union.. He resembled both the Old South and the New South, the Lost Cause and the reunion and reconciliation of two extremely opposing views of American society. Wheeler continues to fight on in the Tennessee Valley, and his footprint has been embedded on so many of the landmarks that surround us.