General Joseph Wheeler's striking personality gives distinction to his utterances whether on military or general affairs. From his opportunities as commissioner to investigate and report upon the conditions of our acquisitions in the East, and his long experience as a legislator and man of business, his views here expressed have a special value.
General Wheeler joined the Confederate army on April 22, 1861. He was attached to General L. P. Walker's staff with the rank of Colonel; but after a short service on the staff, he went back to Alabama and raised a regiment. When it was proposed to make him a Brigadier-General in the Confederate army, objection was offered on account of his youth, but the objection was overcome, and the wisdom of the appointment was justified by his results. He became a daring and skilful commander of cavalry, dividing with General Forrest the honors of that arm of the service on his side.
Since his disabilities were removed after the close of the Civil War, General Wheeler had been continuously in Congress from the Eighth Alabama district. He left his seat to accept a commission as Major-General of Cavalry in the war with Spain. In his absence the Governor of Alabama, acting upon the rule prohibiting any member of Congress from holding employment under the government, declared his seat vacant, and ordered an election to be held to fill the vacancy. General Wheeler's constituents met in convention and promptly nominated him to fill the vacancy by unanimous action.
He was an interesting, active, and respected Congressman. He was but five feet two inches tall and weighs one hundred and ten pounds. His nervous vitality and physical restlessness made him a marked personage. One of the characteristic stories of this peculiarity is told of the Hon. Thomas B. Reed, then Speaker of the House, who cherished high respect for General Wheeler's unswerving integrity of character and firmness of purpose. After the death of an old member of the House, a group was discussing those left alive. General Wheeler was present, an old member, and one of the group observing him, remarked, "Well, we have General Wheeler left." "Yes," remarked the Speaker quickly, "the Almighty has never been able to find the General long enough in one place to lay His finger upon him." Nobody enjoyed the epigrammatic comment more than the subject of it. He was one of the strongest men of the Ways and Means Committee. When asked by Mr. Dingley if he would like to go to Manila as Military Governor, he replied that he wanted to go to Cuba, where he could more readily help to bring things to a close. He had been a student of the operations of the Cuban insurgents. At sixty-two General Wheeler displayed at Santiago the same indomitable spirit that distinguished him in the Civil War. He left his sick bed and went on horseback to the front of the line all day at San Juan, and, though burning with fever after twelve hours of fierce battle and exposure, interposed before discouraged officers who were suggesting retirement from the positions already won and that could only be held by unflinching bravery, and indignantly refused to hear of retreating one foot. He warned General Shafter against the proposal and by his splendid and fearless courage of heart and determination turned the disheartened ones the other way about, by infusing his own tenacity of purpose into them.
At San Juan, during the hottest fighting, it is told that General Wheeler forgot his whereabouts on the calendar of time for a moment, and, as the enemy showed signs of weakening, cried out impulsively to his troops: "Give those Yankees hell now, boys!" His aides and those standing near, burst into laughter and told him what he had said. "Oh, well," he explained with a smile of deprecation, "I just forgot a moment - but you all know I meant the Spanish. I'm a Yankee myself, now, wearing the uniform and following the old flag of the country where Yankee and Dixie are the same words to the whole land."
General Wheeler's military experience did not cease with the campaign in Cuba, for he was among those who sought and obtained further work in the Philippines. He arrived too late to take any prominent part in the war with the insurgents, but his advice regarding the use of cavalry (his favorite arm of the service) contributed materially towards the suppression of the insurrection. When the war degenerated into a guerrilla contest, offering no further opportunities except to those in command of small scouting parties, General Wheeler returned home, maintaining his connection with the army, it is said, in deference to the wishes of President McKinley, who wished to nominate him for a rank in the regular army commensurate with the importance of his services.
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