Philip Henry Sheridan

Commander Army of the Shenandoah, 1864

Philip Henry Sheridan, one of the three Union generals who won the greatest fame in the Civil War, may have been born in any one of several locations on a date which he himself occasionally reestablished. According to his memoirs, he was born in Albany, New York, on March 6, 1831. When he was an infant the family moved to the frontier village of Somerset, Ohio, where the future general secured a basic education, clerked in a country store, and received an appointment to West Point in the class of 1852 by virtue of the failure of the original appointee to pass the entrance examination. A year before his expected graduation, "a quarrel of a belligerent character" with a fellow-cadet (later General William R. Terrill) resulted in his suspension from the Academy for a year. Accordingly he was graduated in 1853, ranking in the bottom third of his class. After eight years of service on the frontier his advance in rank from the grade of second lieutenant, 4th Infantry, was not achieved until the defection of superiors to the Confederate cause created vacancies in the line of promotion in 1861. Sheridan's first active field service was as chief quartermaster and commissary of the Army of Southwest Missouri; next he served as General Henry W. Halleck's headquarters quartermaster during the tortoise-like advance on Corinth subsequent to Shiloh. On May 25, 1862, however, he was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry; thereafter his rise in rank and responsibility was meteoric and is comparable only to that of John B. Hood, Sheridan's classmate who rose from first lieutenant to full general in the Confederate hierarchy. Sheridan was made a brigadier general of volunteers on September 13, 1862, to rank from July 1; fought stubbornly at Perryville and Murfreesboro; and on March 16, 1863, was promoted major general to rank from the date of the battle of Murfreesboro. At Chickamauga Sheridan commanded the 3rd Division of Alexander McD. McCook's XX Corps, losing 1,500 out of 4,000 men brought into action as well as two of his three brigade commanders. Some two months later at Missionary Ridge during the various encounters which made up the battle of Chattanooga, Sheridan's men, without orders from anybody, clawed up the height and wrested it from their Confederate opponents. The position was considered impregnable by the Southern commander, Braxton Bragg, and its loss occasioned his relief from command at his own request. Sheridan, on the other hand, made a reputation which immediately attracted the attention of U. S. Grant, who assigned him to the supervision of all of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac the following spring. At this time Sheridan, a relatively obscure division commander of infantry, sprang into world prominence. Coincident with the beginning of Grant's Overland campaign against Richmond in May, 1864, Sheridan's 10,000 Federal troopers began to make themselves felt in opposition to the depleted and poorly horsed legions of the legendary Jeb Stuart. His men killed Stuart at Yellow Tavern in May, but were not so successful at Hawes' Shop and Trevilian Station. Nevertheless, a constant flow of propaganda magnified Sheridan's successes along with those of Grant, while minimizing the reverses and attendant casualties. After Jubal Early's raid on the environs of Washington in July, 1864, Sheridan was placed in command of the VI and XIX Corps, three divisions of cavalry, and a plentiful supply of artillery (the whole numbering some 43,000 effectives) and ordered to close the "back door on Washington," Virginia's fertile Shenandoah Valley, by destroying everything which could lend support to the Confederate war effort. He defeated and drove back Early at Winchester and Fisher's Hill in September, but in October, while he was absent, his Army of the Shenandoah was surprised and temporarily routed by the numerically inferior Rebels. Only Early's dilatoriness—a consequence of his indulging in the fond hope that the defeated Federals would dissolve into retreat—saved Sheridan, who was en route from Winchester "twenty miles away," from disaster. Arriving on the field after passing a stream of fugitives, Sheridan, a battlefield tactician of the first order, found only Getty's division of the VI Corps and the cavalry in line of battle and resisting the enemy. In a matter of hours and in the absence of further Confederate pressure, Sheridan reformed his army and retrieved victory from defeat. For this exploit he was made a major general in the Regular Army on November 14, 1864, to rank from November 8, and received the thanks of Congress. Having made of the Shenandoah a wasteland where "a crow would be compelled to carry his own rations," Sheridan rejoined the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg in time to take a leading part in the operations which culminated in Robert E. Lee's capitulation at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. At Five Forks Sheridan smashed the weakened Confederate right flank; at Sayler's Creek he compelled the surrender of a large segment of what remained of the renowned Army of Northern Virginia; and near Appomattox he got the leading elements of his men astride Lee's line of retreat. After the conclusion of hostilities in Virginia, Sheridan was instrumental in forcing the government of Napoleon III to withdraw its military support of the Mexican Emperor Maximilian of Austria. The nadir of Sheridan's career was reached in 1867 when he occupied the post of commander of the Fifth Military District, an area embracing Louisiana and Texas which was established by the oppressive Reconstruction acts. Sheridan's administrative policies were so stringent and severe that his removal by President Johnson after six months met with only slight protest from the Radicals in Congress. Upon the accession of Grant to the presidency in 1869, W. T. Sherman became a full general and Sheridan, lieutenant general. Until 1883 Sheridan occupied a number of posts including command of the Division of the Missouri in a period when troubles with the Plains Indians were an everyday occurrence. In 1870-71 he witnessed at first hand the Franco-Prussian War which resulted in the unification of Germany. In 1884 upon the retirement of Sherman he became commanding general of the army and a few months before his death was elevated to the rank of full general to rank from June 1, 1888. General Sheridan died on August 5, 1888, at Nonquitt, Massachusetts, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His wife was a daughter of General Daniel H. Rucker.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.