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Joe Wheeler in Conyers

The following article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Civil War Times, and was written by none other than Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler himself. In this article he mentions Conyers. The article in its entirety is below

Mar2000
Civil War Times Illustrated

By Wheeler, Joseph

Magazine: CIVIL WAR TIMES ILLUSTRATED; MARCH 01, 2000

Section: My War

Loyal to the Last, Part 1

BY JOSEPH WHEELER

Joseph Wheeler may have lacked the acclaim of his flashy colleagues Nathan Bedford Forrest and J.E.B. Stuart, but he was one of the best cavalry commanders in the Confederacy. The 1859 West Point graduate began his career as a 25-year-old first lieutenant. By war's end, "Fightin' Joe" was a lieutenant general leading a corps of Tennessee cavalry.

As the Confederacy crumbled in the spring of 1865, Wheeler found himself engaged in a tenuous plot to help President Jefferson Davis elude Federal capture. More than 30 years later, when Wheeler was again wearing the blue uniform of the U.S. Army, the former Rebel looked back at that uncertain time. His poignant recollections hint at how history might have been altered had his plans been carried out. The Century Magazine published Wheeler's account in May 1898, when he was serving as a major general in the Spanish-American War. The first part of the story appears below, lightly edited for clarity. The conclusion will come in our next issue.

 

On April 27, 1865--I think that was the date--I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Mr. Davis [Confederate President Jefferson Davis] had summoned me. This was about a fortnight after Appomattox [Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9], and the president, accompanied by officers of his staff and by several members of his cabinet, with a number of other officers of government and many clerks of department, had recently reached this point, traveling by rail to Greensboro, thence in saddle. When he saw the necessity of further retreat, he did not yet realize the completeness of our undoing. He still hoped that the tide of calamity might be turned. Around him was preserved the semblance of power and routine of government, and on the day of my arrival I remember that a young cadet underwent a regular form of examination for promotion to the office of lieutenant.

One of the first questions put to me by Mr. Davis was how many men I could bring from my command to serve as a guard for him in the execution of new plans. He was surprised and disappointed when, speaking with the authority of one just come from the army, I told him it was very evident that our soldiers regarded the war as over, and their allegiance to the Confederate government as no longer binding. I think I was the first officer to bring him authentic news of the situation. He had supposed that our army was in better shape.

We had with us at this time [Lieutenant] General Wade Hampton, who had also been summoned for counsel, and he was not less disconcerted by my words than President Davis. The general had left with the army two Virginia brigades, but having been absent from his command for some days, was not well informed as to what had happened. I told him that only the day before I had passed through the camps of these brigades and had found the artillery dismantled and many of the men gone.

"I can do this, Mr. President," I suggested; "that is, gather from my command a body of new men who will stand by you in a new enterprise." At this he brightened up and said he wished I would do so. It then became a question whether I should get him a large or a small force, my own preference being for the latter, provided they were picked men. Mr. Davis, however, preferred a more considerable number, and I proceeded to carry out his wishes to the best of my power.

That night General Hampton and I left President Davis and, riding all night in a box-car, reached Greensboro the next morning. There I said good-bye to General Hampton, who set out for his command to see what forces he could muster. [Hampton's last official command was the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee.] My troops, numbering about 3,000 men, were encamped at Company's Shops, a little place some distance east of Greensboro; and immediately on my arrival I gathered them around me, and in a short speech told them plainly that I wanted volunteers for a desperate venture--men who would be willing to stand by Jefferson Davis to the death. They listened with solemn faces, and there was no cheering to speak of, but about 600 men came forward and agreed to cast their lot with me.

There was not an hour to waste, and before noon we had started southward, our objective point at first being Cokesboro, South Carolina, where Mr. Davis had instructed me to join him, and where he had ordered supplies sent.

In my interview with Mr. Davis at Charlotte, I had explained to him that [Union Major General George] Stoneman was then in the western part of North Carolina with a large cavalry force, which would make the establishment of a rendezvous at Cokesboro of very doubtful expediency; and very soon after leaving Mr. Davis I received instructions from him to change my course and march to Washington, Georgia, where it was expected I would meet him.

On Sunday evening, May 1, I reached Yorkville and went at once to pay my respects to Mrs. Hampton, the general's wife, with whom I took tea. She was naturally much worried about her husband and asked me many anxious questions. That night, after I had left her and joined my men, I received a note from her, sent in haste, saying that General Hampton had arrived and asking me to call in the morning. I did so, and was shocked at the broken appearance of my fellow officer. He was harassed in mind and worn in body; and the story of his march from Greensboro made it plain to us all how sadly our fortunes had fallen.

General Hampton, who was as fine a cavalry officer and as brave and gallant a soldier as there was in the country, had started south with his staff and escort, about 30 men in all. One by one they had fallen away, some begging off on account of their families, others alleging that their horses could go no farther. Their spirit was gone; they felt that the expedition was without a purpose or hope. Their heart was not in what they were doing and, seeing this, and realizing that all efforts were in vain, the general had let them go, officers and men, each day of the march seeing his little band dwindle until there remained only his chief of staff, Major [Henry Brainerd] McClellan, a most excellent officer, who had bravely fought many battles by the side of his chieftain.

These two had pushed on until they reached the river Pee Dee, when McClellan expressed the fear that his horse could not swim the river and spoke of his wife and child, who were waiting for him at home. Seeing how it was, General Hampton acquiesced, and bade him good-bye. McClellan turned back and rode away; and then, alone, without a single one of the men who had set out with him, General Hampton drove his horse down into the water and swam the Pee Dee River.

Now he was home, and Mrs. Hampton insisted that in his condition, worn as he was by arduous service, he ought not to attempt to overtake Mr. Davis. I fully concurred in this. He had a family, and his vast business interests, which had been left to others for four years, demanded his attention. I explained that it was very different with me, as I had no such obligations. He finally yielded, and giving me a letter to Mr. Davis, asked me to tell the president that if, in the future, there should appear any way in which he could serve him, he would do so to the last.

Continuing our march toward Washington, Georgia, I soon realized that I could not keep a large body of Confederate soldiers together without encountering and becoming engaged with Federal troops; therefore, soon after crossing the Savannah River, I adopted a plan which Mr. Davis and myself had agreed upon in such an emergency, this being to divide my force into small detached and compact bodies, which I directed to move rapidly upon different routes.

It was my hope that these numerous detached bodies of cavalry would facilitate Mr. Davis' escape by putting the pursuers on a false scent. I placed various detachments, as far as possible, under the command of discreet officers, informing them of the purpose sought to be attained. I detailed several of my staff officers for this important duty, retaining with me only Lieutenant Colonel [M.G.] Hudson, Captain [Edward] Rawle, Lieutenant [William A.] Ryan, and some seven or eight soldiers, brave and determined men, all armed with two or more pistols, and the soldiers also carrying repeating rifles.

There were bodies of Federal troops all around us, and we were informed by citizens that they were eager to capture the fleeing president and win the large reward which had been put on his head. We also learned from citizens and newspapers that the feeling against him throughout the North was very bitter, popular clamor going even to the length of demanding his death.

Finally we reached Washington, Georgia, and found it full of Federal troops. I learned that Mr. Davis had arrived there some twelve hours before, with a force of 700-800, part of the command of [Brigadier Generals George G.] Dibrell and [Basil W.] Duke, who were both with him.

Being informed of the near presence of a large body of Federals, Mr. Davis had decided to disband his following, and had done so before leaving Washington. He realized that to keep so many men around him would be to precipitate a battle; and his high sense of honor made him feel that it would be wrong, now that the war was practically over, to imperil the lives of so many. So his force had broken up, scattering in small groups, each to look after itself as best it could and to choose its own destination. In this way they faced no special danger, since, by the terms of [Major General William T. Sherman] and [General Joseph E.] Johnston's agreement, the privilege of returning home on parole was extended to all Confederate soldiers who reported or surrendered to any Federal officer east of the Chattahoochee River. [Johnston had surrendered his forces on April 26.]

Having bade his men farewell, retaining only a few men to act as scouts for himself and his personal party, Mr. Davis, some twelve hours before my arrival in Washington, had started on a rapid march toward southern Georgia. His wife and children--Winnie, then a baby less than a year old, and the elder daughter, and two boys, had gone ahead. With them was also Mrs. Davis' sister, Miss [Margaret] Howell. The ladies and children rode in light army ambulances; the members of their escort were mounted; their baggage, tents, and supplies were in the wagons. As far as practicable, they kept to the main road, making all possible speed; but after some days they were overtaken by Mr. Davis and his party.

We supposed it was Mr. Davis' purpose or hope to attain safety among the large body of troops still in arms west of the Mississippi. We fancied he also put some faint trust in rumors then circulating; namely, that France or England might do something to revive the chances of the Confederacy. At any rate, he pushed on as bravely as might be; he never despaired.

You may well believe I did not linger long near Washington, where capture would have been inevitable, but started westward through the woods, bent chiefly now on escape.

 

Joseph Wheeler's story was submitted by Peter Cozzens, a frequent contributor to Civil War Times.

Part 2