Scrappy Phil Sheridan - The U.S. Army's Little Big Man

By Joseph E. Gannon

Phil Sheridan was born on March 6, 1831 in Albany, the capital of New York, or at least that was one of the dates and places he gave. He, and other people as well, have also given others.

(Right: Sheridan's Ride," by Thure de Thulstrup, depicts Sheridan's famous arrival at the battlefield of Cedar Creek in 1864.)

He had first believed he was born in Ohio, but his mother, Mary Meenagh Sheridan, later told him he had been born in Albany; later still she told the Sheridan Monument Association that he had been born at sea during the voyage from their home in County Cavan, Ireland. The other strong possibility is that he was actually born in Co. Cavan before they began the trip over. That is what the people of Cavan believe and it may be true. Being born in Ireland was a liability during the dark days of the anti-Irish Know Nothing Party in the U.S. His mother's numerous changes in the story of his birth would seem unnecessary if he had actually been born here. Irish birth could account for the lack of any record or witnesses of his birth in any United States location, however. But whether he was born on the Ol' Sod or somewhere over here, two things are certain: his ancestry was Irish, and he is considered one of the three greatest Union commanders of the American Civil War, along with Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sheridan grew up in Somerset, Ohio, a small frontier village where his father, John, had moved the family to work on the National Road. As a youngster, Phil would sometimes use a tin sword while putting his friends through military drills, perhaps dreaming of future glories on the battlefield. Phil grew strong in Somerset, though not very tall -- he would one day top out at 5 feet 5 inches - but there was a big man trapped in that little body. He got into enough altercations around town to earn a reputation as fighter; his later life would do nothing to diminish that early assessment. In March 1848 Sheridan acquired an appointment to West Point when the original appointee flunked the mathematics section of the entrance exam; this was fortuitous for the later fate of the Union.

Sheridan's education had also been weak in the area of mathematics, but he was fortunate to have Henry Slocum, a future Civil War general himself, and a former school teacher, as a roommate that first year.

U.S. Military Academy Archives
Philip Sheridan, center, with West Point classmates George Crook, left, and John Nugen. Crook served under Sheridan in the Civil War and again later against the Plains Indians.

Slocum's tutoring helped Sheridan get by in math, barely. The most noteworthy incident of Sheridan's West Point career occurred in his third year and it was very nearly the last thing he ever did there. Insulted by the tone of an order by Cadet Sgt. William Terrill, a Virginian, Sheridan broke ranks, yelling, "God damn you, sir, I'll run you through!" and he very nearly did before regaining control. The next day the two came to blows. With Sheridan's only excuse for the entire problem being the improper tone used by Terrill in issuing an order, he was very lucky to escape with a one-year suspension.

If West Point officials expected to see a contrite Phil Sheridan on his return, they were mistaken. He fell only seven demerits shy of being automatically dismissed from the school and finished 34th out of 49. Several other members of that class of '53 would also become well-known during the war, including John Schofield, John Bell Hood, James McPherson (1st in the class), and Joshua Sill.

As was generally the case with low-ranking West Point graduates then, Sheridan ended up in the infantry. His advance was slow, even by pre-war Regular Army standards. After eight years serving with the 4th Infantry in Texas and in the Northwest, he was still a 2nd lieutenant when pre-war officer resignations opened the way for him to rise in the ranks. Like many other Civil War officers, Sheridan's army career would probably have been undistinguished without the war intervening.

Even with the coming of the war there was little in the first few months of Phil Sheridan's war service to make anyone believe

"IF I COULD GET INTO LINE DUTY, I BELIEVE I COULD DO SOMETHING."

 he would one day command vast numbers of troops. Promoted to captain, he was Union Army commander Henry Halleck's quartermaster during the campaign for Corinth, Mississippi. Though most thought Sheridan did a fine job in the post, personal problems with Gen. Samuel Curtis led him to ask for a transfer. At the time of the Battle of Shiloh, he was even further from the action of the war, buying horses in the Midwest. To this point, Sheridan's war career resembled his prewar-war career, but his fortunes were about to change.

Intent on asking Halleck for a field command, he hurried back to St. Louis, but Halleck had gone to Pittsburg Landing to confer with Grant. As fate would have it, Halleck's adjutant general was a West Point classmate of Sheridan's, Col. John Kelton, and he issued orders for Phil to report to Halleck at the front. After a brief time undertaking more supply duties, Sheridan came to the attention of Michigan Gov. Austin Blair, who appointed him colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry on May 25, 1862. Sheridan had once told another officer, "If I could get into line duty I believe I could do something." Now was his chance. Could he live up to his prediction?

Library of Congress
General Joshua Sill, killed at Murfreesboro
.

When he finally reached the action, Sheridan was as good as his word. His performance and rise in the ranks would be steady and spectacular. He was now on a course that would not end until he one day succeeded Sherman in command of the entire U.S. Army. By mid-September. he would be a brigadier general. That month, at Perryville, he distinguished himself in command of a division. At Murfreesboro, in December, he would be credited with saving Rosecran's army by his troops' stiff resistance. The night before that fight his friend and classmate Joshua Sill, who was commanding a brigade in Sheridan's division, accidentally took Sheridan's tunic after a meeting in his tent. The next day, desperately trying to rally his routing troops, Sill would die wearing Sheridan's tunic.

His performance at Murfreesboro would win Sheridan a second star -- he was promoted to major general in May '63. Later that year he would distinguish himself in command of the XX Corps at Chickamauga in September and at the battle of Chattanooga his troops would defy military logic with their charge up Missionary Ridge, taking the position against all odds. Unlike so many Civil War commanders, Sheridan was not content with merely taking a position, he drove his men onward capturing numerous wagons, artillery and Confederate prisoners before finally being halted by darkness. "Run, boys," he yelled to his men, "Don't wait to form! Don't let them stop!" It was one of the most incredible victories of the war and more importantly for Sheridan, it had happened right in front of their new commander, U.S. Grant.

Grant liked what he saw of Sheridan, and when he went to Washington to take over the war in the East, he wanted the fiery Irishman with him. 

Men, by God, we'll whip them yet!

Their experiences in the war had been similar in many ways, taking a while to get going but once in motion each became an irresistible force, headed steadily upward to the top of their profession. In March '64 Grant appointed Sheridan to command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. When a staff officer complained that the diminutive Sheridan might be too small for such a big job, Grant replied, "You will find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him."

In the last part of 1863, particularly after the June 9, 1863, battle of Brandy Station, Federal cavalrymen had begun to shed their inferiority complex. Sheridan pitched into his new job with his usual energy and completed that job. By the time Grant's famed Overland campaign of 1864 began, Sheridan's cavalry, like his troopers' new commander, was ready for a fight. In May, Sheridan led them on a major raid toward Richmond and on the 10th, at Yellow Tavern, the cavalrymen of the Federal Army finally eliminated their nemesis, mortally wounding Jeb Stuart. Sheridan's success with his cavalry command earned him an independent command; Grant made him commander of the Army of the Shenandoah after ConfederateMaj. Gen. Jubal Early's raid toward Washington.

Library of Congress
General Philip Sheridan.

In the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan would have his most famous moment of the war. On Oct. 19, his army was surprised by Early and was nearly routed. Sheridan was away from the army in Winchester, having just returned from Washington, when he heard the sound of the battle. Spurring on his horse, Rienzi, he rode quickly to the front, arriving just in time to rally his army. "Men, by God, we'll whip them yet," he cried out as he reached the Federal line,"we'll sleep in our old camps tonight." A private who saw Sheridan ride into sight remembered thinking, "No more doubt or chance for doubt existed; we were safe, and every man knew it." As usual, Sheridan's prediction came true -- they slept in the old camps that night. Returning to Grant's army for the Spring campaign of 1865, Sheridan told members of Grant's staff that he was "ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things" and once again he backed up his boast. Sheridan was instrumental in the victory at Five Forks, which sealed the fate of Richmond, the Confederacy's capital. He later drove his men hard to cut off Lee's retreat at Appomattox, which sealed the fate of Lee's army, and effectively ended the existence of the Confederacy.

Sheridan's post-war career was highly successful, if not always completely admirable. While commanding the military district of Louisiana and Texas he helped bring about the end of the French adventure in Mexico. However, Sheridan's administration of the former rebels in his district was considered oppressive by many. Andrew Johnson removed him from the post after only six months. He may have been in some trouble had Johnson been in office longer, but the election of Sheridan's good friend Grant in 1868 assured him of a bright future.

Denver Public Library
The new lieutenant general in uniform, 1869.

Grant promoted Sheridan to lieutenant general and got him away from politics and back into a area in which he was more proficient: combat. Much of the rest of Sheridan's life revolved around the struggle against the Plains Indians. Sheridan had little sympathy for those Indians, and many have criticized his actions since, with some justification. He has taken much abuse over his supposed comment that, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Some claimed he said, "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Given the fact that most of the Indians he had contact with until then were actively fighting the U.S. government, that quote would be less racist. Sheridan himself vehemently denied that he had ever said either.

Whatever else one says about these Indian fighting years, Sheridan remained a good, and also aggressive, soldier. He did the job his country sent him out to do to best of his ability, which was considerable. In the midst of those struggles Sheridan found some solace in his personal life. On June 3, 1875, he married Irene Rucker; she was the daughter of a long time army officer, and at 22, was half his age. She would bear him three daughters and a son, Philip Jr.

In 1884, the scrappy little Irishman reached the pinnacle of his profession. When Sherman retired, Sheridan, promoted to full general, became commanding general of the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, "Little" Phil would not have long to enjoy his achievement. He developed heart disease and on August 5, 1888, he died in Nonquitt, Massachusetts. Sheridan's body was returned to Washington and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, very close to the former home of Robert E. Lee.

Sheridan was a complex man, but his life story is one to make any Irishman swell with pride. John and Mary Meenagh Sheridan had once been dirt-poor tenant farmers on the Cherrymount estate in County Cavan. When they left that land, where their people had not known freedom in hundreds of years, like so many before and since, they hoped for a new life in the country the Irish often referred to as simply "the land of the free." Fifty three years later their son rose to command the army of that land.

Chicago Historical Society
Irene Rucker, Mrs. Philip Sheridan.

Sheridan was not forgotten by his family nor comrades after his death. His young wife outlived him by 50 years, but never remarried, once saying, "I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living." Sheridan's famous horse Rienzi, renamed Winchester after it carried Sheridan on his desperate ride from there to Cedar Creek, was later stuffed and displayed at the Army museum on Governors Island in New York Harbor. In 1922, the museum was damaged by fire and it was decided that Winchester should be sent to the Smithsonian. The few remaining veterans of the city did not let Sheridan's war-horse leave without a fitting goodbye. The grandson of one of the veterans read Thomas Buchanan Read's poem "Sheridan's Ride," and then, with the 22nd Infantry Band playing martial airs and the veterans shouting "Hurrah for Sheridan, hurrah, hurrah, for horse and man!" the wagon pulled away. Perhaps there were one or two of those old men, looking through tear-filled eyes, who could remember another day, in another place, when the sight of that little big man, on that same large horse, had assured them that "we were safe, and every man knew it."

The American soldier's Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general's name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright,
"Here is the steed that saved the day,
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester, twenty miles away!"

-- From "Sheridan's Ride" by Thomas Buchanan Read


Selected Bibliography

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Tags: American, Civil, States, United, War

Comment by James Francis Smith on March 5, 2013 at 5:49pm

Congratulations on your excellent articles on General Phillip Sheridan. My grandfather—who lived within 200-yards of the Sheridans in Beagh Upper, Parish of Upper Killenkere—professed the belief that the general was born there and he had met an old man who witnessed Phillip being carried to the boat. Furthermore, a friend’s grandmother, Margaret McSweeny Hickey’s McGarry, was Phil’s first cousin. Finally, Sheridan’s feats are embodied in my novel, The Civil War’s Valiant Irish.
James Francis Smith

Comment by Gerry Regan on March 6, 2013 at 10:27am

Jim, provided the link for the book in case someone is interested in obtaining it. Do you have any pix of this part of Ireland you might share with us here?


Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on August 5, 2013 at 6:18am

On August 5, 1888, General Philip Sheridan, who had County Cavan roots, died in Dartmouth, Massachusetts


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on April 3, 2014 at 12:41pm

Belinda, Nonquitt, Massachusetts is a burrough of Dartmouth. So technically Dartmouth is correct, but Nonquitt is more exact.


Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on April 4, 2014 at 3:38am

Nonquitt was his Summer residence.   

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