Joseph "Fighting Joe" Wheeler
General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler may be the most unique of our Hall of Fame members. As you can probably tell from the picture on the left, he fought in the Civil War. If you are a little more observant, you might notice that he is wearing a Confederate uniform. In fact, this former Commerce Street resident was a General in the Confederate army distinguishing himself in battle at such places as Shiloh, the Kentucky campaign, Murfreesboro, Chickamagua, Knoxville, and also opposed Sherman's notorious March to the Sea. He is one of only two Confederate Generals buried in Arlington National Cemetery!
Though he was born in Augusta, Georgia; Joe Wheeler had extensive Derby roots and his family moved back to Derby when he was two or three years old. Joseph's father (also named Joseph) had been born in Derby, and was married to Julia Hull of the famous Derby Hull family. By age 12, both of the parents were dead and Joseph was an orphan living with his Derby relatives. He attended the second district school on Gilbert Street before being sent to Cheshire Academy. He won an appointment to West Point and graduated with honors before serving as a second lieutenant in the United States army in the Mexican War.
After the Civil War broke out, Wheeler resigned from the Union army and became an officer with the 19th Alabama infantry. He steadily moved up the ranks until the death of General J.E.B. Stuart resulted in his becoming the junior cavalry general of the the Confederate forces, a position he held until the end of the war. From early in 1862 until the war closed he was almost constantly engaged in battle. He was wounded three times. Thirty-six of his staff officers fell by his side, six killed and thirty wounded, and sixteen horses were shot out from under him.
After the war, he moved to Alabama to a town now named Wheeler. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives nine times. (Ironically, he was not the first Wheeler from Derby to be elected to Congress. John Wheeler who was also born in Derby had represented part of New York in the House from 1863 to 1867.)
When war broke out with Spain, he volunteered for service even though he was already over the age of 60. President McKinley appointed him a major general and put him in charge of the volunteer cavalry division of the U. S. army. Units serving under his command included the famous Rough Riders and future president Theodore Roosevelt. General Wheeler served on the commission which negotiated Spain's surrender.
After the war ended he returned to the US, but he was soon sent to the Philippines to help suppress the rebellion taking place there. In 1900, McKinley appointed Wheeler a Brigadier General in the regular U.S. Army, and he retired shortly there after. Some even suggested him as a possible running mate for McKinley.
Fightin' Joe Wheeler stands tall at the U.S. Capitol
Though his story has not been well known in Derby until now, "Fightin Joe" Wheeler's name is still sacred throughout the South. Besides the town in Alabama named for him, there is also a dam that is part of the Tennessee Valley Authority named for him. According to a testimonial on the TVA web site, "No Confederate commander was more fully reconstructed, and some claim that Wheeler single-handedly inspired the South to start celebrating the Fourth of July again, after a hiatus lasting decades in many parts of the former Confederacy". When every state in the Union was invited to display statues of two of its most prominent citizens in the U. S. Congress, Alabama did not hesitate in making Joseph Wheeler one of their choices.
Joseph Wheeler's parents are buried in the Elm Street Cemetery in Ansonia.