Our next three posts, including this one, are going to take a slightly different direction as we count down the days (less than one month now!) to the 100th anniversary of the Great Reunion. In fact, the content of these posts may seem a bit strange at first since each of our three subjects died between 1905 and 1910, meaning that none was alive when 1913 and the Great Reunion came around.
So why, then, are we going to briefly visit with Generals Joseph Wheeler, Fitzhugh Lee, and Thomas Rosser? Simple: because their late-in-life actions embodied the spirit of the Great Reunion with regards to post-Civil War reconciliation and putting the welfare of a unified country above conflicts of the past.
Each of these three gentlemen was 1) a General-level officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but also later 2) a General-level officer in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. Each one’s story has similarities to those of the others, yet each is unique. So here goes, starting with General Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler.
Joseph Wheeler was a West Point graduate in the class of 1859 and like so many Confederate officers, initially served as a U.S. Army officer until succession. Wheeler rapidly rose in rank as a cavalry officer. Much of his time was spent in the Army of the Tennessee, which meant that General Wheeler did not fight at Gettysburg. Still, on June 30, 1913 – one day before the official opening ceremonies of the Great Reunion – survivors of Wheeler’s Cavalry who were at the Great Reunion joined with survivors of Buford’s Cavalry in a “pre-reunion” that received a fair amount of press. In fact, in our post about Second Lieutenant George S. Patton’s real-life small role at the Great Reunion, I mentioned the Pittsburgh Press article I found that mentioned Patton leading an Army band to that reunion of Wheeler’s and Buford’s cavalries.
After the war and after Reconstruction, Wheeler was elected to Congress from Alabama where he served until 1900. Even during that time, he volunteered for the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and was appointed by President McKinley as a Major General, in charge of cavalry forces…including Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.
Two great anecdotes about General Joseph Wheeler and his time in the U.S. Army have made the rounds for more than a century. Supposedly in the heat of battle during the Spanish-American War, Wheeler called out to his men “Come on, we’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!” – apparently forgetting that in this war, his men were the Yankees!
Then a couple of years later in 1902, at the celebration for the 100th anniversary of West Point, Wheeler – in his U.S. Army dress uniform – came across General James Longstreet who took one look at Wheeler and said something along the lines of “Joe, I hope that Almighty God takes me before he does you, for I want to be within the gates of hell to hear Jubal Early cuss you in the blue uniform!” (Jubal Early was another famous Confederate General but unlike Wheeler and Longstreet, Early was a “hard-liner” when it came to postwar Union-Confederacy reconciliation and the lament of the “Lost Cause” movement.)
(Side note: Longstreet did in fact die two years before Wheeler did, and Early had already been gone since 1894 when that Longstreet-Wheeler encounter occurred. So I wonder just exactly how things did go on “the other side” if the spirits of those three Generals did encounter one another?)
In our next post we’ll look at Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee. But for now, take a moment to think what it must have been like more than 30 years after the Civil War for one of these three Confederate Generals to don the uniform of his former enemy.