Joseph Wheeler was born in Augusta, Georgia, on September 10, 1836, the youngest of four children. His mother died in 1842, and shortly thereafter his father lost his fortune. Wheeler's father decided to take the children and return to his home state of Connecticut.
Young Joe eventually went to live with his maternal grandparents and his aunts, Mary and Augusta Hull. He received his schooling at the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut, and on July 1, 1854 at age 17, he was admitted to West Point, subsequently graduating in 1859.
Some highlights of his career:
- At age 26, he became one of the youngest Confederate Generals, and rapidly rose from Brigadier to Major General during 1863. Although debate exists regarding whether he was officially confirmed as a Lieutenant General, Wheeler served in this capacity, with the responsibilities of such late in the War* (see footnote).
- He participated in more than 500 skirmishes and commanded in 127 battles. As sobering proof of his personal exposure to danger during this period, records show that 36 staff officers were wounded at his side, and 16 horses were shot from under him.
- He was characterized by General Robert E. Lee as one of the two outstanding cavalrymen in the War Between the States (General J.E.B. Stuart was the other).
- In the 1870's, Wheeler studied law, and after passing the Alabama Bar Exam, became an attorney for the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad (later Southern Railway).
- He was first elected to Congress in 1880. Following his initial two-year service, he was defeated. Running again at the next opportunity two years later, he would serve continuously until taking leave from Congress in 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War.
- Subsequently, Wheeler was commissioned by President McKinley to serve as Major General of Volunteers in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.