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‘Fightin’ Joe’ Wheeler

POND SPRINGS FRONT

‘Fightin’ Joe’ Wheeler home to celebrate general’s 180th birthday

Story and photos by David Haynes

Civil War cannon firing and mounted cavalry drills by re-enactors will be among the featured activities when the Alabama plantation home of General Joe Wheeler, known as Pond Spring, hosts a celebration of the general’s 180th birthday on Sept. 10.

Located on Alabama Highway 20, 17 miles west of Decatur, the house and grounds are open to the public five days each week. They are owned and maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission, and the site’s power is delivered by Joe Wheeler EMC.

Site Director Kara Long said visitors to the annual celebration, which begins at 10 a.m., will see Civil War re-enactors firing a cannon, demonstrations of cavalry drills by re-enactors on horseback, a pit-fire cooking demonstration, handmade quilts and a beekeeping seminar. And there will be birthday cake, made using the general’s favorite recipe (while it lasts). Barbecue will be available for lunch, and at 1 p.m. a country music band will perform.

Long said the annual birthday celebration is one of three major events hosted at Pond Spring each year. The home is also decorated in the period style for the Christmas season and in March hosts the Annie Wheeler Plant Sale, named for the general’s daughter.

JOE WHEELER

Joseph Wheeler was born near Augusta, Ga., on Sept. 10, 1836 and was a military man for most of his nearly 70 years. An 1859 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the diminutive Wheeler was given the nickname “Fightin’ Joe” early in his military career, following a skirmish with Indians in New Mexico. The name stuck.

During the Civil War, Wheeler rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, commanding the cavalry for Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi. His Civil War resumé was impressive, fighting in more than 500 skirmishes and 127 battles. He was wounded more than once and had 16 horses shot from under him during the war.

Wheeler, for whom Wheeler Lake, Wheeler Dam and Wheeler National Wildlife Preserve are all named, moved to Alabama following the Civil War, where he married the widow Daniella Jones Sherrod in 1866. He and Daniella raised their six children at Pond Spring, which was Daniella’s property from her first marriage. He practiced law in nearby Courtland during the 1870s before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served almost 20 years.

Wheeler re-entered military service as commander of the 5th Corps Cavalry in 1889 during the Spanish-American War and mustered out of the U.S. Army as a brigadier general in 1900. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” were under Wheeler’s command during the pivotal battle at San Juan Hill, Cuba.

The two-time general died of pneumonia while visiting his sister in New York in 1906 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He is one of only two former generals of the Confederacy to be interred in Arlington, and his obelisk monument there is one of the cemetery’s tallest.

Today’s Pond Spring consists of 50 acres of land, 12 historic buildings surrounded by formal boxwood gardens and three family cemeteries. Though Wheeler is buried nearly 1,000 miles to the north outside Washington, D.C., an identical obelisk to the one at Arlington towers over all others in the Wheeler family plot.

The oldest building on the property is a “dog trot” log cabin built in 1818 by the original owners of the 1760-acre plantation, the John P. Hickman family. The next owners, the Sherrod family, expanded one of two log houses into a clapboard-covered, Federal-style home, which still stands today as well.

After Wheeler and Daniella married they built another house, which adjoins the earlier Sherrod home via a covered walkway, from 1868 and 1874. Wheeler’s daughter Annie, who served as a volunteer nurse in three wars, continued to live in this house until her death in 1955.

Open for tours since 2012

PEOPLE LOOKING AT UNIFORMS

The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and in 1993 General Wheeler’s descendants donated the home and all its contents to the Alabama Historical Commission.

Renovation by the Historical Commission of the house and property took more than a decade to complete (2000-2012) and the home opened for tours in 2012. Tours are scheduled hourly Wednesday through Sunday beginning 9 a.m. for a fee of $8. Souvenirs are available at a small gift shop on the grounds as well.

Site Director Long explained that the Wheeler family’s gift of the home and contents ensured that General Wheeler’s artifacts will be preserved for future generations, adding that the site is as much a museum as it is a historic home.

Long’s tours allow a visitor to step backward in time to late 19th century Alabama as she describes and explains what life was like for the residents of Pond Spring. Her encyclopedic knowledge of every detail of the home, grounds and Wheeler family is evident on the tours as details of each artifact found in the house, its history and how the family might have used it seem always on the tip of her tongue.¢