Thomas Harrison Wheeler
Thomas Harrison Wheeler was born on March 7, 1881, to General Joseph and Daniella Wheeler, the last of 6 children.
In Memory of Thomas Harrison Wheeler, 1881 - 1898
Thomas Harrison Wheeler in Midshipman's uniform; United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
General Wheeler entered the political stage during the controversial congressional race of 1880 and by 1885 was a permanent fixture in the House of Representatives. Young Thomas was raised in two worlds: at the family home near Courtland, Alabama and in Washington, D.C.
Older brother Joe Jr. graduated from West Point in 1895 and served as a strong role model for 14 year old Tom. The next year brought great tragedy to the Wheeler family with the death of their mother, Daniella Wheeler. No doubt this event brought the Wheeler family close, with the older sisters assuming the maternal role for the entire family.
One can imagine that the entire family was filled with pride when at age 16, in 1897, Tom elected to join the military service and entered his first year at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. It is likely that the family was able to see Tom regularly during the following months, especially when Congress convened in December 1897 and the Wheeler family took up residence for the congressional season in Washington DC. However, the family could not anticipate the long separation that would begin that spring with the declaration of war between the United States and Spain.
Congressman Wheeler accepted his position as commander of the 5th Corps Cavalry Division on April 26th at a private meeting with President McKinley at the White House. Eldest son Joe, Jr. joined his staff as Lieutenant. Within two weeks they left Washington DC to organize cavalry units at Chickamauga, GA and almost immediately were ordered to report to Tampa, Florida in preparation for the planned assault on Cuba. Within another week, Annie Wheeler was frantically searching for permission to visit her father in Tampa and thereby began a journey that would take her to Cuba, following her father, as a volunteer nurse for the American Red Cross.
John D. Long, 33rd Secretary of the Navy, serving 1897-1902
Tom, a young cadet with family influence, began seeking opportunities to join in the war effort. He was much too young, but very persuasive. Tom wrote to his father at Tampa, pleading:
Please father, get me into the war some way. Just think, there may not be another war in my life time.
While we don't know for certain, it is highly likely that General Wheeler refused to intercede on Tom's behalf; after all, the boy had just turned 17 and was a first year student at the Naval Academy. But young Tom was determined, and subsequently went directly to Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, a close family friend, and pleaded for a chance to serve.
With a little help from Secretary Long, Tom Wheeler was able to secure a position aboard the USS Columbia. The Columbia was a fast cruiser with four smokestacks, built during the early 1890s as a high seas commerce raider. The Columbia was assigned to Admiral Schley's "Flying Squadron" at the start of the war, but at the time Tom came aboard, it was assigned to patrol between the capes of Delaware and Bar Harbor, Maine as part of the North Patrol Squadron, under the command of Commodore J.A. Howell.
The USS Columbia (photo taken August 1898)
The patrol duties of the squadron probably frustrated Tom and his shipmates. There was very little reason to believe that the Spanish fleet would attack the northeastern region and the creation of the North Patrol Squadron was largely a political gesture to the uneasy citizens of that region. But imagine the excitement among the crew when, on July 1st, the ships under the command of Commodore Howell were reassigned to Admiral Sampson's Atlantic Fleet. They received orders to sail for Cuba with the expectation of joining in the battle against the Spanish fleet now under blockade in Santiago Harbor.
Unfortunately for the young seamen, even the fast cruiser couldn't reach Cuba in time. On July 3rd, the Spanish Fleet attempted to run the blockade but was destroyed at the entrance to Santiago Harbor. The Columbia was then ordered to Guantanimo Bay, Cuba to become part of General Nelson Miles invasion force bound for Puerto Rico.
As part of General Miles fleet, the Columbia assembled with many other ships in Guantanimo Bay, Cuba by mid-July. On 19 July, a transport ship entered the harbor having been refused permission to dock in Santiago Harbor thirty miles to the west due to an outbreak of Yellow Fever in the military units at Santiago. A Red Cross volunteer nurse on board that transport recognized the four smokestack design of the Columbia and requested permission to visit with the young cadet, Tom Wheeler. You can imagine his surprise and delight to find that his sister Annie was there and able to spend the day visiting. In only two days, the fleet would be sailing to Puerto Rico carrying 3300 troops for the invasion. Rumors of additional Spanish ships coming from across the Atlantic kept the seamen alert and ready for action throughout the 4-day journey.
But the when Spanish ships never arrived, the invasion of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898 went easier than planned, and poor Tom probably saw no action at all. The war against Spain ended more suddenly than it began with the official end of hostilities declared on August 12, 1898. Secretary of War Alger ordered the men to Camp Wikoff at Montauk Point, Long Island. The Camp was selected as a place of quarantine against the threat of an epidemic of yellow fever and malaria. Within a couple of weeks the Columbia would arrive at Montauk Point, where Tom would find his father in command, his brother Joe serving as part of the general's staff and sister Annie serving as a nurse in the Red Cross Hospital.
The 200 year old Lighthouse, located at Montauk Point, Long Island.
During the war in Cuba, General Wheeler suffered symptoms of malaria. Three weeks later, on 24 July, Joe Jr. nearly died of fever while the cavalry unit was quarantined in Cuba with a suspected outbreak of yellow fever. But the Wheeler family had survived and distinguished themselves through service during the war. President McKinley expressed his personal gratitude to General Wheeler during an inspection tour at Camp Wikoff on 3 September and announced that the troops would soon be mustered out of service. The Wheeler's could look forward to rejoining civilian life.
Then, on September 7th, tragedy struck the Wheeler family once again. A shipmate of Tom's was in trouble. Tom and his friend were "surf bathing" in the chilly Atlantic waters along the shores of Montauk Point. Perhaps pulled under by the tide, the young cadet was struggling and needed help. Tom Wheeler dove in after his friend in an attempted rescue. Both boys drowned. At age 17, young Thomas Harrison Wheeler died attempting to save the life of a friend. The grief stricken family mourned the loss of their youngest son.
The Atlantic Ocean as seen from Montauk Point, Long Island.
The body of Thomas Harrison Wheeler was returned to Alabama for burial. While reports indicate that the family accompanied Tom's body on the journey to Alabama for burial, it is not certain when this event occurred. Miss Annie's writing's indicated only that after Tom's death, she went to St. Luke's Hospital in New York City for training as a nurse. Mustering out began on September 13th and continued until the 5th Corps was officially disbanded on October 3rd.
General Wheeler and Annie then accompanied President McKinley and key members of his cabinet on a tour of the South during the month of November. It was during this trip that Secretary of the Navy, Long, told Annie of Tom's personal request to serve during the war. The family returned to Washington DC in time for General Wheeler to attend the opening roll call of the House of Representatives when Congress convened on December 5th.
Ships lanterns from the USS Columbia
As a memorial to Thomas Harrison Wheeler, lanterns from the USS Columbia were sent as tokens of condolence by her Captain.The stone marker at his burial site in the family cemetery at Wheeler commemorates his act of heroism.
Inscription: Thomas Harrison Wheeler, March 7, 1881 - Sept. 7, 1898.
Drowned at Montauk Point, Long Island in an attempt to save the life of a comrade.
Side opposite: Cadet, United States Naval Academy.
Served on U.S. Cruiser Columbia, Spanish American War.
'Wondrous Sovereign of the Sea, Jesus Savior Pilot Me'
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' St. John XV-13.
[Contributed by Donald J. Tingle, Huntsville, Alabama]