House Vote to Remove Confederate Statues Would Kick Out an American War Hero

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: A statue of Joseph Wheeler, a cavalry general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War and member of the House of Representatives, is on display in Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. Speaker of the House Nancy …
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A Confederate general who later became an American war hero may see his statue removed from Congress following a push from mostly Democrats to remove monuments to Confederate leaders from the Capitol grounds.

In a 285-120 vote on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives moved to eliminate monuments to Confederate officers and statesmen within the Capitol grounds. All House Democrats, along with several Republicans, supported the effort. The legislation would force Congress to return each statue to the state that sent it.

Noteworthy among those facing removal is a statue of Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate general who later became a U.S. congressman representing Alabama and served with distinction as an American general during the Spanish-American War (1898). The state of Alabama sent the statue to Congress in 1925.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: A statue of Joseph Wheeler (C), a cavalry general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War and member of the House of Representatives, stands on a pedestal outside the office door of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) in Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has requested that Congress remove this statue and 10 others of Confederate soldiers and officials from the U.S. Capitol "The statues in the Capitol should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation. Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals. Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed," Pelosi wrote in the letter addressed to committee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Vice Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A statue of Joseph Wheeler stands on a pedestal outside the office door of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) in Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol June 18, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Wheeler, a Georgia native, entered military life as a West Point cadet, graduating in 1859 and serving the Union before resigning from his post to fight for the South. An avid equestrian, Wheeler won accolades for his participation in the battles of Shiloh and Perryville, which earned him the rank of brigadier general and placed him among the youngest of the Confederacy’s senior officers. He spent most of the war’s remainder vigorously contesting William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia and commanded the cavalry of Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s army in the Carolinas.

The Georgia cavalryman fought near to the end of the war. He and his men were captured by Union troops while attempting to cover Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s escape to beyond the Mississippi River, where the last southern forces remained in the field. The move was a failure, and Davis soon joined Wheeler in federal prison. The latter was released in the summer of 1865.

Given his young age, Wheeler, unlike many Confederate senior officers, spent subsequent decades in service to the Union. Settling in Alabama, he became a U.S. representative for that state as a Democrat, serving intermittently in the early 1880s and continuously from 1885-1899.

A leading advocate for war with Spain, Wheeler volunteered for U.S. military service during the Spanish-American War and initially became a major general of volunteers, an appointment he received from U.S President William McKinley, a Republican. He again, assumed command of the cavalry, which included soon-to-be President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Wheeler was present for the major operations of the war and was the commanding officer in its first major engagement, the Battle of Las Guasimas, an American victory. During the battle, he reportedly forgot who we was fighting and told his men, “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn yankees on the run again!” He was also the senior officer present for the Battle of San Juan Hill, where Roosevelt won fame under his command, and later participated in the siege of Santiago.

A sitting U.S. congressman, Wheeler became a senior member of the peace commission but was not himself a signatory to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war. He briefly held command in the Philippines following the U.S. takeover of the archipelago and commanded the Department of the Lakes until 1900. He received a formal commission in the U.S. Army as a brigadier general in that year.

In his retirement, Wheeler wrote history books documenting the campaigns in which he participated, including The Santiago Campaign.

Wheeler was not the only Confederate veteran to later serve the United States, but certainly ranks among the most high-profile. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, one of only two former Confederate generals interred on the property.

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