Annie Early Wheeler was born July 31, 1868, to former Confederate general Joseph Wheeler, well known for his daring cavalry exploits during the Civil War, and his wife, Daniella Jones Sherrod, of Courtland, Alabama. The second of seven children, Annie spent a happy childhood at the family's eighteen-thousand-acre plantation at Wheeler, where she became known locally for her riding skill. Letters to her from her parents and sister reveal a close-knit family, with her father—an Alabama congressman in Washington beginning in 1880—often offering gentle admonitions and advice to his tomboy daughter, prodding her toward more feminine pursuits.
Annie seemed to enjoy all aspects of the outdoors: "I remember the ecstasy of the first warm days," she later wrote, "when Mother would let her little tribe leave off shoes and stockings, to hobble over the ... rough places to the creek where it was bliss to wade with the cool water rippling around our ankles." Ensconced in the loving bosom of her family, Annie led the fairly conventional life of an upper-class young woman in the South. She attended one of the better schools for young ladies and enjoyed an active social life. When her mother died in 1896, the grieving family became even closer. Then, on February 15, 1898, an event occurred that changed Annie's life forever: the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing more than 250 men and precipitating a war with Spain two months later. Annie and her sisters had been staying with their father in the Arlington Hotel in Washington when the tragedy occurred. Congressman Wheeler, now sixty-one, rushed over to the White House and volunteered his services to President William McKinley in case war erupted with Spain. McKinley accepted Wheeler's offer and soon appointed him a major general of volunteers in the U.S. Army. With one brother, Thomas, already stationed on a naval ship off the coast of Cuba, Annie watched her father and brother Joe, Jr., depart for Tampa, Florida, with trepidation mixed with envy. She wrote:
"Came a day when the thought of spending the summer at some Hotel, dressing & going to parties & listening to music every night at dinner & reading the newspapers while Father & my brother were confronting untold dangers & suffering, was simply unbearable to me. A flood of realization swept over me of how Much it would mean to see my adored Father & hear his voice & touch his hand & have one more assurance of his precious love before he sailed for Cuba. I simply had to go to Tampa."
Within days, she revised her plans again: she would accompany her father to Cuba, where she would serve as a nurse. That she had no training in the field of nursing was a concern but not a deterrent. In an 1898 letter to a friend, she admitted being insecure about her nursing skills, claiming she had never had "an aptitude for nursing," although she had "always been so sorry for those who were in need, sickness or any other affliction."
It is unlikely that any of the other women who volunteered to serve in Cuba were better trained than Annie Wheeler, which is to say, they were not trained formally at all. In the late 1890s, professional nursing was still in its infancy, and most "nursing" was done at home by women, who were regarded as "born nurses." Although Florence Nightingale had opened a school for nurses in London, on July 9, 1860—a date generally regarded as the birth of modern nursing—and hospital-based nursing schools had opened in the United States in the 1870s, standardized training programs, examinations, and registration for nurses would not come about until well into the twentieth century.
Trained or untrained, Annie Wheeler's family did not want her to go. But nothing could stop Annie Wheeler, even fear of her father's disapproval, and she left for Tampa immediately. When she finally found him in a Tampa hotel, he later wrote, he was overcome by "feelings of intense relief" to see her father’s “happy welcoming smile. That he was glad to see me and did not think I had done wrong in coming was an inexpressible joy to me."
An acquaintance who saw father and daughter in Tampa commented on their relationship:
"I haven't seen anything in years that was so pretty as the great friendship between Wheeler and his daughter, Annie. They are more like comrades than father and daughter and neither seems quite happy with the other out of sight. Miss Wheeler accompanied him whenever possible and was often seen riding with him about Tampa and the camp. I think he would have been perfectly happy if she could have ridden with him into the fight."
Despite the closeness of the two, Annie declined to tell her father about her decision to go to war and a week or so after he left for Cuba, she followed him on a ship containing several nursing volunteers. Prevented initially from disembarking because of yellow fever "in Santiago and in all the Camps of American soldiers,” Annie managed to wrangle passage ashore for herself and the other volunteers after a delay of several days. Waiting for them at the dock was seventy-seven-year-old Clara Barton, who had founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and served as its president ever since. "A stranger "would never have recognized a world renowned character in the simple but little old woman in queer, old-timey attire," Annie wrote. To her "utter consternation,' Barton advised the volunteers to return to the U.S. There was no work for them in Cuba she said: the place lacked an "organized Hospital," there was nowhere to stay, and the sick and wounded were “scattered in different camps” miles away.
For Annie Wheeler, "the solid earth upon which [she] was standing seemed to give way beneath [her] feet.” She had not come so far to give up, and she persuaded Barton to allow her to stay and even to put her up in Barton's own quarters. The next morning she "was up long before light, undertaking in a perfectly strange foreign country to find horse and guides" to go to General Wheeler's headquarter eight miles in the country.
Her equestrian skills now came in handy, for she found herself using a man’s saddle and riding “through soapy mud and down deep ravines where the horse's four feet would slide down long distances like toboggans and then plunge and mire and plunge again through muddy streams ...." She arrived to find her brother sick with a fever and not expected to Iive. Her distraught father welcomed her with open arms. Immediately she began securing supplies for the sick and nursing her brother. Every evening she returned to Santiago, as there "was no place for her to sleep at the camp, making the return trip the next morning, "bringing such comforts as I saw was necessary on my lap or the pouch of the saddle, going down those steep ravines and floundering around in the water and mud, holding the reins over a high pile of pajamas, towels, sheets, pillow cases, soap, basin, mosquito nets, etc."
One day she passed near the Rough Riders camp and Col. Teddy Roosevelt rushed out to meet her. Thrusting a paper in her hands, he said, "Miss Wheeler, I make you my envoy extraordinary and Minister plenipotentiary to your father--be sure he signs this!" Reportedly, Annie said, "I will take it to him with pleasure, Colonel, but I cannot tell anything about whether he will sign it or not."
Five days later, with her brother Joe, Jr., out of danger, Annie reported to Clara Barton for duty and was put to work sorting clothing for injured troops. The job consisted of unpacking crates, making a list of the contents, and repacking it with a list outside so Barton would know what supplies were available. It was simple work, Annie explained, but hard due to the "intolerably hot sun .. .. I felt many times a day that I would surely die-that I could not stand the heat & fatigue-but I had come to do what I was told & would stick it out to the last ditch."
Soon, she was put in charge of her own makeshift hospital. Barton, in her typical brusque manner, gave Annie the assignment in front of the other volunteers: "I put Miss Wheeler in charge, not that she can do any better than the rest of you, perhaps, but we must have some one at the head, so I place her in command." Annie found the conditions appalling: "We went down & found about sixty very sick soldiers lying on the floor in the uniforms they had worn for a month in sun and mud. There [were] absolutely no Hospital supplies whatever." Commandeering wagons from the "Captain of Headquarters'' and pajamas, mosquito netting, and other supplies from Barton, Annie soon had the patients "bathed and into the nice pajamas and between fresh cool sheets."
The situation was no better at Camp Wikoff, where a shortage of nurses and supplies wreaked havoc. In the first three weeks she was there, twenty thousand soldiers arrived, overwhelming the poorly prepared camp. Annie herself occupied a hot, crowded tent with seven other nurses. She wrote to a friend: "Although I am too tired to eat or sleep, I am happy in my work here, and only wish I had the strength to do ten times as much. I am truly thankful that the dear Lord has spared Father and my brothers thus far when so many poor women had but one and lost that one."
Annie Wheeler’s dedication to the welfare of American soldiers did not go unnoticed. In late 1898, Major and Brigade Surgeon D. F. Lane, under whom she had worked in a Santiago hospital for six weeks, wrote Charles F. Joy, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives:
"It gives me great pleasure to write you in reference to Miss. Wheeler and the admirable and able work she performed at Santiago. She certainly deserves some recognition of her distinguished services as a nurse to the soldiers during the late war…Her unselfish devotion and cheerful spirits brightened the hearts and lightened the sufferings of many. Although not an immune, to my knowledge, she showed no fear or hesitation in taking charge of such cases of yellow fever…Too much cannot be said in praise of the work she unselfishly performed at Santiago."
Others, including former soldiers she had tended, also wrote Congress praising Annie Wheeler's services to all soldiers, "black and white.' Representative Joy even introduced a bill in Congress to present Miss Wheeler with a medal for her distinguished services during the war as a nurse, but no medal ever materialized. Whether she liked it or not, however, by now Annie Wheeler was a national celebrity, referred to by the press as the "Angel of Santiago. ' She accompanied her father, President and Mrs. McKinley, members of the U.S. cabinet, and a military entourage on a tour of army installations in the South.
Now in her thirties and confident that she could withstand whatever obstacle life threw her way, Annie Wheeler resumed the life of a daughter of the Wheeler household. There were suitors along the way, but she never married, dedicating herself to caring for her aging father, managing the plantation, and, when opportunity presented itself, to travel. Following the death of her father in 1906, the grief-stricken Annie used travel as a palliative for her pain.
Two events would shatter the calm of her life in the next decade. The first was the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. When news of the tragedy struck, Phillip Franklin, vice-president of the White Star Line, asked Annie to meet survivors aboard the Carpathia when the ship docked at the pier in New York. Although more than a decade had passed since her service in the Spanish American War, she was still so widely known for her compassion that she was considered a natural for missions such as this.
The second shattering event was the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. Determined to go to war alongside her brother Joe, the surviving male member of the family, Annie volunteered for service in France. However, because regulations prohibited a woman from serving abroad if a family member was already overseas, she was sent to Gun Hill Road Hospital No. 1 in New York, as a "comforter and cheer builder." Such danger-free work was not what Miss Wheeler had in mind. "They told me if I went overseas I would die," she wrote a friend. "I replied, 'I'll sure die if l don't go.'"
When the regulation was changed several months later, she sailed for Europe immediately on a voyage fraught with danger (the ship was chased by a submarine) and eventually wound up at a base hospital near the front in France. "I simply loved the work and just fit in," she wrote her friends at Gun Hill. She admitted, however, that much of it, particularly writing the parents of soldiers who had died in battle, was painful: "I wrote to the mother of each dear lad who fought a good fight and finished his course and kept the faith and had gained the crown God had prepared for them that loved him."
Much of the work was tedious and menial. She wrote a friend: "I work in the wards from early morning till nine at night with a tray slung from my neck like street venders of jewelry and shoe strings, only my tray is filled with cigarettes, gum, oranges, etc.'' The doughboys, or American infantrymen, called her "Miss Sunshine." The source of her strength, she later wrote, was her faith in God and "the inspiration and glory of [her] pride" in America's soldiers.
Following World War I, Annie returned home to the Wheeler Plantation–a place, locals said, she knew "as Caesar knew his army." By now she was universally referred to as "Miss Annie" and was well on her way to becoming an institution in the Tennessee Valley. Although she contributed to hundreds of charitable causes helping children seemed to be her special province. "No one knows," the Moulton Advertiser reported in 1955, "just how many [polio victims] there are in Lawrence County who have been helped to walk again by the generosity of Miss Annie." She paid for operations, special shoes and braces, and took children to Birmingham and Memphis for treatment. In addition, she built two churches on the Wheeler Plantation for her tenants, one of them, "the church of no denomination," welcoming both Blacks and whites.
People living in the vicinity of Wheeler, Lawrence County, Alabama, in the 1930s and 1940s could often see a diminutive, white-haired lady driving a pack of unruly children in her car. As the local postmaster recollected, ''You can always tell Miss Annie's car. She picks up every kid she passes." People tended to stay out of her way. "She drives her car with
the same abandon that she once rode her mare 'Memory,’” an article in the Southern Railway System magazine noted in 1948, "so neighbors prudently give her the whole road."
In 1955, while visiting relatives in Virginia, Annie Wheeler died from complications following a fall. She was eighty-six. Many came to pay their last respects when her body was brought home to Alabama. Prior to the funeral, a reporter asked several people in the area what they remembered most about Miss Annie. One young woman said she remembered that "Miss Annie never really approved of the phrase 'pursuit of happiness.' She always said that you were never made happy by seeking your own happiness, but you incidentally found your own happiness by seeking it for others." Miss Annie, the reporter concluded, must have had a happy life.
This feature was previously published in Issue 53, Summer 1999. You can purchase Issue 53 online.