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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2000
HOME | NEWS | FORUMS | ARCHIVES | OBITUARIES | WEATHER

Gen. Joe Wheeler was entangled in recount

By Jim Lawley
DAILY Staff Writer

The battle for the U.S. presidency has gone on for a month.

This photo of Joe Wheeler was taken about the time he served in Congress.
DAILY Photo by David Higginbotham
This photo of Joe Wheeler was taken about the time he served in Congress.

In the late 1800s, a similar fight about votes involving Gen. Joseph Wheeler lasted nearly two years.

Wheeler, a Confederate general who supported growth in the Tennessee Valley, devoted much of his life to public service.

But when he was selected by the Democrats to run against Republican incumbent William Lowe for Alabama's 8th Congressional District seat, Wheeler was not in a giving mood. He contested the 1880 election results.

"This probably was as big a deal around here back then as what's going on with (Al) Gore and (George W.) Bush now," said Melissa Beasley, site director of Pond Spring, Wheeler's home in Lawrence County.

After the Civil War, Wheeler (1836-1906) moved to Pond Spring near Courtland and became a farmer and lawyer. At that time Lowe, a Confederate soldier, returned to his Huntsville home to resume his job as a lawyer. Lowe became a state legislator in 1875, and aspired to be a U.S. senator. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878.

Democrats nominated Wheeler to run against Lowe and his "Radical-Greenback-Independent-Everythingarian-Nothingania-hybrid opponents of the Democratic Party," wrote John Dyer in his 1941 biography "From Shiloh to San Juan: The Life of 'Fightin' Joe' Wheeler."

Dyer described Wheeler as an earnest, if not fluent, speaker during the Wheeler vs. Lowe campaign battle, which "was one of the most viciously fought political feuds in the annals of the state."

Illegal writing

Wheeler won the 1880 election by 43 out of 24,773 votes -- after election judges rejected 601 Republican ballots alleged to be illegal.

Wheeler and his backers contested the ballots because Alabama election law, they said, did not allow figures or numbers on the handwritten ballots -- only the candidates' names. Some ballots cast for Lowe, they said, included numerals that designated electors by districts.

While Lowe contested his defeat, Wheeler was sworn in as a member of the 47th Congress.

"I'm sure it caused a big stir," said Mary Morris, historical interpreter for Pond Spring, who also works for the Alabama Historical Commission. "I would think it was a big issue. Times haven't changed that much and people haven't changed that much over the years. There were editorials written about it in major newspapers nationwide."

Results change

A few months after the election, the congressional Committee on Elections concluded that the so-called illegal votes were valid, reasoning that when a state law is contrary to a federal statute it becomes null.

The dispute about ballots cast in the 1880 election is not unlike the presidential election debate about dimpled chads and voter intent.

Rep. William Thompson, an Iowa Republican who led the committee, backed the decision with this statement, according to Dyer: "If the ballots had been printed on red paper or on white paper, six inches long or a foot long, one inch wide or three inches wide, the only duty of the officers was to take them out and count them after ascertaining whose name was on the ballot for congressman, irrespective of every law the state of Alabama could pass …"

Dyer added in his biography that Thompson said, "Let us rise above party feelings and prejudices, and like men demand and insist upon what the Constitution provides, that there shall be a fair vote and an honest count."

The committee and Congress declared Lowe the winner. By the time Lowe took over Wheeler's congressional job, however, Wheeler had served 10 of the 11 months that the 47th Congress was in session.

This means that by the time the dust settled nearly two years after the election, Lowe served only during the final month.

Seeking a duel?

Wheeler returned to his Lawrence County home to begin a campaign of vindication. Friends said Wheeler was preparing for a duel with Lowe, ordering revolver ammunition and doing target practice in nearby mountains, Dyer wrote.

But no duel ever took place, and Lowe's return to power was short. He came home from Washington to Huntsville during the last stages of tuberculosis and died in October 1882.

Wheeler won a special election and served the few weeks remaining in the 47th Congress. But Wheeler supported the election of Democrat Luke Pryor to the 48th Congress. Pryor became the district's representative for one two-year term.

Wheeler was re-elected to Congress in consecutive terms from 1884 to 1898, according to the scholarly journal "Alabama Review."

While in Congress, Wheeler presented his plan to develop a canal along the Tennessee River to provide a navigable waterway past Muscle Shoals.

Wheeler also served as a major general during the Spanish-American War. He died in 1906 in Brooklyn, N.Y., of pneumonia while visiting his sister.

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