Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wheeler, Hugh Massy
WHEELER, Sir HUGH MASSY (1789–1857), major-general in the Indian army, grandson of Frank Wheeler of Ballywire, co. Limerick, and son of Captain Hugh Wheeler of the East India Company's service, by Margaret, eldest daughter of Hugh, first lord Massy in the Irish peerage, was born at Ballywire on 30 June 1789. He was educated at Richmond, Surrey, and at Bath grammar school. He received a commission as ensign in 1803, and, joining the 24th Bengal native infantry in the following year, was employed with his regiment in the force under Lord Lake against Delhi. He was promoted to be lieutenant on 5 April 1805 and captain on 1 Jan. 1818.
In December 1824 Wheeler was detached with two companies against the freebooter Diraj Singh. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 27 June 1835, and in December of the same year was posted to the 48th native infantry. He commanded the regiment in the Afghan campaign of 1838–9, at the storm and capture of Ghazni on 23 July 1839, and the occupation of Kabul on 6 Aug. following. He was mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 30 Oct. 1839), and made a companion of the order of the Bath, military division, on 20 Dec. 1839. In August 1840 Wheeler was sent against some insubordinate Waziris, near Kaja, some thirty miles from Jalalabad, fought a successful affair on the 19th, and reduced several forts, for which service he was highly commended by Sir Willoughby Cotton [q. v.], and mentioned in despatches (ib. 9 Jan. 1841). Wheeler accompanied Cotton in December 1840 to India, his regiment forming part of the escort to guard the ex-shah, Dost Muhammad, who had surrendered to Cotton. Wheeler was permitted to accept from the Shah Shuja-ul-Mulkh and to wear the insignia of the order of the Durani empire for his services in Afghanistan (ib. 26 Feb. 1842).
On 13 Dec. 1845 Wheeler was appointed to command the 2nd infantry brigade in the army of the Satlaj. He was severely wounded at Mudki on 18 Dec. Although still suffering from his wound he joined Sir Harry Smith near Ludiana on 26 Jan. 1846, with his brigade, composed of the 50th foot, the 48th native infantry, and the Sirmur battalion, and took a prominent part in the battle of Aliwal on 28 Jan. [see Smith, Sir Harry George Wakelyn]. In his despatch, dated 30 Jan. 1846, Sir Harry Smith says, ‘In Brigadier Wheeler, my second in command, I had a support I could rely on with every confidence, and most gallantly did he head his brigade.’ On 17 Feb. Wheeler crossed the Satlaj, and occupied the strong fort of Philor, and then advanced to the banks of the Beas. For his services in this campaign he received the medal with clasps for Mudki and Aliwal, and was made aide-de-camp to the queen with the rank of colonel in the army from 3 April 1846.
On 29 April Wheeler was appointed to command the Jalandhar Doab as a brigadier-general of the first class. On the outbreak of the second Sikh war he took the field in September, and on the 14th of the following month reduced the strong fort of Rangal Naga, for which he was congratulated by Lord Gough, who ascribed the success to ‘his soldier-like and judicious arrangements.’ He was appointed on 8 Nov. 1848 to command the ninth brigade of the fourth infantry division of the army of the Punjab. In the same month Lord Gough mentioned in despatches that he had tendered his hearty congratulations and thanks to Wheeler for the important services rendered by him in the reduction of Kalawala. Wheeler was again mentioned in despatches (30 Jan. 1849) for having, when in command of the Punjab division and the Jalandhar field force, assaulted and captured the heights of Dallah, in spite of many difficulties, in his operations against the Sikh leader, Ram Singh. On the termination of hostilities the governor-general commented in general orders on the great skill and success with which Wheeler had executed the duties committed to him. Wheeler received the medal, the thanks of both houses of parliament, and of the directors of the East India Company, and on 16 Aug. 1850 he was made a knight commander of the order of the Bath, military division.
He resumed his command of the Jalandhar Doab, was promoted to be major-general on 20 June 1854, and on 30 June 1856 was appointed to the command of the Cawnpore division. When, in May 1857, news reached him at Cawnpore of the revolt of native regiments at Mirat and Delhi, Wheeler does not appear to have appreciated the critical state of affairs. Believing that if he provided for the temporary safety of the Europeans and guarded against a rising in the city and bazaars, any mutinous sepoys would go off to Delhi, he selected a position, which he entrenched and furnished with supplies, outside the city, near the sepoy lines and at some distance from the river, where the hospital barracks afforded considerable accommodation. Sir Henry Lawrence sent him a small reinforcement from Lucknow, and, notwithstanding a caution from Lawrence to beware of his neighbour, the Raja Dundbu Panth of Bithur (afterwards known as the Nana), Wheeler obtained his services with two guns and three hundred men. They came in on 22 May, and took over the custody of the treasury at Nawabganj.
The European women, children, and non-combatants betook themselves to the entrenched position, and at the beginning of June Wheeler himself encamped there, and so confident was he that all would soon be well that on 1 June he wrote to Lord Canning that he had that day sent transport to bring up Europeans from Allahabad, ‘and in a few days—a very few days—I shall consider Cawnpore safe—nay, that I may send aid to Lucknow if need be.’ On 3 June, Lawrence having expressed uneasiness, Wheeler sent two officers and fifty men to Lucknow.
Wheeler's selection of a defence post was injudicious, his defence works were weak, and supplies were altogether inadequate. His confidence in the native troops, who, from all accounts, entertained great respect for him, and his excessive anxiety not to alarm them in their disturbed condition by evincing suspicion of their loyalty, led him deliberately to reject the most suitable defence position. This was the magazine, a large walled enclosure, close to the river and the treasury, amply supplied with arms, ammunition and stores, where he could easily have held out until succour should arrive.
On the night of 4 June the outbreak commenced, the native cavalry joining the troops of the Nana at Nawabganj; the treasury was sacked, the public buildings set on fire, and the magazine, with its heavy guns, ammunition, and stores, was occupied by the rebels. On the following day the native infantry followed suit, and the mutineers, laden with spoil, were all on the way to Delhi, when the Nana persuaded them to return to Cawnpore to attack the Europeans. On the 6th the bombardment of Wheeler's position commenced. The heroic defence, the details of which are well given in Kaye's ‘History of the Sepoy War’ (vol. ii.) and in Trevelyan's ‘Cawnpore,’ lasted until 27 June. The daily casualties were large. Wheeler's son, who lay wounded in a room, where he was attended by his parents and sisters, had his head taken off by a round shot. Extreme heat, hunger, and thirst added to the horrors of the situation.
On 25 June the Nana offered terms of capitulation. Wheeler was unwilling to listen to any terms, but the probable fate, if the siege continued, of the large number of women and children still surviving was pressed upon him by officers who had distinguished themselves by their heroic conduct during the siege, and he reluctantly gave way. The remnant of the garrison, with the women and children, marched out on the morning of the 27th to proceed by river to Allahabad under a safe-conduct from the Nana. At the ghat where they embarked and in the boats on the river the first massacre took place, and Wheeler and his family were among the victims.
[Despatches; India Office Records; Annual Register, 1857; Times (London), 27 and 29 Aug. 1857; Men of the Reign; Coley's Journal of the Sutlej Campaign of 1845–6; Humbley's Journal of a Cavalry Officer, including the Memorable Campaign of 1845–6; Thackwell's Second Sikh War, 1848–9; Archer's Commentaries on the Punjab Campaign, 1848–9; Gough and Innes's Sikhs and the Sikh Wars; authorities mentioned in the text; Mowbray Thomson's Story of Cawnpore; Historical Records of the Queen's Own Corps of Guides; History of the 1st Sikh Infantry.]