Sheridan Rides to Lincoln's Rescue in 1864 Election - Part 1 OF 2: A RUDE AWAKENING

United States Army Military History Institute
A confident looking Phil Sheridan, taken in late 1863.

By Joseph E. Gannon

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

 'Come on Back, Boys! Give 'em Hell, God Damn 'em! We'll Make Coffee Out of Cedar Creek Tonight!

Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay, 
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain's door, 
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar, 
Telling the battle was on once more, 
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

— "Sheridan's Ride" by Thomas Buchanan Read

On an autumn morn in Washington, in a different time, an incumbent president pondered defeat in the fall election, then three weeks away. He was leading the nation through an increasingly bloody and divisive war, a war his adversaries branded a failure. He faced critics who accused him of indifference to the mounting toll of casualties. His opponent, meanwhile, was a popular commander, while he himself had no combat experience, though he did point to his service in the militia during an earlier war.

The date was Oct. 19, 1864, the president Abraham Lincoln, his opponent Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, nicknamed "The Young Napoleon," a veteran of the Mexican War and former commander of Army of the Potomac, the principle Union force facing the Confederates in Virginia.

If Lincoln felt besieged much of that summer and early fall, who could blame him. His opponents too mild an expression, really, considering their passion lambasted him in an intensely personal way, lampooning his gangly frame and whispering that he was demanding gold for his salary in lieu of greenbacks. Lincoln even came under enemy fire in July, when Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early had moved down the Shenandoah Valley to the outskirts of Washington. Lincoln twice visited nearby Fort Stevens to get a first-hand look at the enemy. Shots directed toward Lincoln's party prompted Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to tell Lincoln, "Get down, you fool."

By sundown of this October day, however, a stunning and magnificently timed victory engineered by Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan would dramatically boost Lincoln's spirits and prospects.

United States Army Military History Institute
Jubal Early, Confederate commander in the Valley.

That morning, a Wednesday, started quietly enough, with Sheridan, commander of the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, sleeping soundly in a comfortable bed in Winchester, Va. Sheridan was a pugnacious Irish-American, or possibly even Irish-born, depending on which story one believes. He had left his command five days earlier, and traveled to Washington to meet with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. With the enemy near his army, Sheridan was uneasy, and hurried back Tuesday by train and horse.

On his return, Gen. Horatio Wright, commander of the VI Corps, had reported all was quiet. But as Sheridan slumbered Tuesday, 17 miles south Early was preparing a very rude awakening for Sheridan's force.

The sounds of singing birds in the Valley were masked that morning by a fierce, pre-dawn attack on troops of the VII and XIX Corps, in the advance of the rest of Sheridan's army. Two veteran Confederate division commanders, Joseph Kershaw and John Gordon, commanded the Confederate spearhead. As more and more Confederates splashed across Cedar Creek, reposing soldiers heard some scattered firing, but no general alarm was sounded; when the attack hit most Federal soldiers were still snug in their beds.

A Union officer who escaped the rout that followed said the fight in the foggy gloom "was a blind, confused, feeble scuffle."

Gordon's Division struck about 20 minutes after Kershaw's, just as the sun was coming up, and with it the rout of the advanced Federal forces was complete. By about 10 a.m., the Federal troops had been driven several miles through Middletown, where the VI Corps formed a line.

At that point Early called a halt, feeling sure the Federals were in full retreat. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers, unable to avoid the tempting plunder of the Union camps, had left their units, and those in the ranks were exhausted, having marched most of the previous night. They had now fought for five hours.

This halt marked a turning point, along with the boost that the Federals were about to receive. WGT

Read Part 2, 'This Retreat Must Be Stopped.'

Sheridan's Birthplace: The Record Hints at Cavan

On March 6, 1831, Irish immigrants John and Mary Meenagh Sheridan gave birth to a son, Philip Henry. That much is clear. But where?

In his memoirs, Phil Sheridan stated that he was born in Albany, N.Y. But there is no birth or baptismal record to back that claim. People in County Cavan, Ireland, have claimed for generations that Sheridan was born there. His mother mentioned two possible places of nativity.

Sheridan grew up in Somerset, Ohio, and said he originally thought he had been born there. But his mother 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 Cavan. In Beagh, townland of Killinkere, near the town of Bailieborough, are the remains of the cottage where locals say Sheridan was born. Unfortunately, no one has ever found any documents conclusively identifying his birthplace.

Why the ambiguity? Being born in Ireland could be a liability during the days of the anti-Irish Know Nothing Party in the United States. It may be that his parents wanted to spare him the disability of "Ireland" as his birthplace. Some have claimed that Sheridan did not want people to know of his Irish birth because of the Constitutional prohibition against foreign-born presidents. While he may have had that concern in the 1880s when he contemplated the Republican nomination, he had been claiming American birth before then.

In the summer of 1871, returning from observing the Franco-Prussian War, the general visited England, Scotland, and finally Ireland. According to a 1925 article provided by Cavan Research Centre, during Sheridan's visit to Dublin, he invited a first cousin, Anthony Sheridan, to remain with him during his stay. Anthony's brother, Tom, later told the article's author that "the General spoke often of his home in East Cavan, and was proud of the fact that he was a native Irishman." Sheridan was four-months-old when his parents landed in America, a priest from Somerset told the author, raising the question: How would Sheridan have come to know of his East Cavan home? 

— JEG

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This feature was edited by Gerry Regan, and produced by Joseph E. Gannon and Gerry Regan.

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Tags: American, Civil, States, United, War

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