Sheridan Rides to Lincoln's Rescue in 1864 Election - Part 2 OF 2: 'THIS RETREAT MUST BE STOPPED'

Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library
Sheridan portrayed inspiring his troops in "Sheridan's Ride" by Thure de Thulstrup.

Sheridan Rides to Lincoln's Rescue in 1864 Election

By Joseph E. Gannon
Managing Editor

PART 2 OF 2: 'THIS RETREAT MUST BE STOPPED'

Sheridan had been awakened shortly after dawn that morning by an officer reporting the sound of artillery fire from the south. The commander was not overly concerned, believing it was merely Wright's planned reconnaissance meeting resistance. But he ordered breakfast made and had Rienzi, his huge horse (17 hands), saddled. By 9 a.m., the 5-foot-5 Sheridan swung himself onto Rienzi -- his men sometimes joked that he had to shinny up his saber to do so -- and headed to the sound of combat.

Reporter Brings Heroics
to Millions of Readers

Though Thomas Buchanan Read's poem made "Sheridan's Ride" the stuff of legend, New York World correspondent Jerome Bonaparte Stillson generated Phil Sheridan his headlines. Buffalo, N.Y. native Stillson covered Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah for The New York World, a lively, anti-war newspaper that supported the election of Democratic candidate George B. McClellan.

Though containing nonsequiturs and contradictions, Stillson's account of the Battle of Cedar Creek stirred readers' emotions, along with newspaper sales. Newspapers throughout the North reprinted Stillson's dispatch. Here Stillson describes Sheridan's arrival on the field:

The general rode on with his staff and escort, which soon become in the distance a mass of dust and gleaming hoofs. Galloping past the batteries to the extreme left of the line held by the cavalry, he rode to the front, took off his hat and waved it, while a cheer went up from the ranks not less hearty and enthusiastic than that which greeted him after the battle of Winchester. Generals rode out to meet him, officers waved their swords, men threw up their hats in an extremity of glee. General Custer, discovering Sheridan at the moment he arrived, rode up to him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek. Waiting for no other parley than simply to exchange greeting, and to say, "This retreat must be stopped, by God," Sheridan broke loose, and began galloping down the lines, along the whole front of the army. Everywhere the enthusiasm caused by his appearance was the same. It increased at last until that part of the army in line of battle became a new being, having twice its previous will to fight, and until that part of the army in rear, hearing of it, became partially ashamed of secession, and came back.

The further he rode the more of his retreating army he met. Sheridan's blood up now, he waved his hat and shouted to them as he went: "Come on back, boys! Face the other way! We'll make our coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!" A cowed colonel cried, "The army is whipped!" "You are, but the army isn't," Sheridan retorted. Not all listened, but many did.

Finally, about 10:30 a.m., after riding 14 miles, the commander arrived at the VI Corps line, a veritable whirl of motion. Gen. Emory told him that his troops could cover the retreat. "Retreat hell," Sheridan replied. "We'll be back in our camps tonight!" One officer recalled that the effect was electric. "Every man knew Sheridan would do it."

At noon, the Federal line was stabilized. An officer on Sheridan's staff suggested Sheridan ride the length of the line to inspire the men. Union Army captain and future president William McKinley suggested Sheridan remove his cap, so his well-recognized bullet-shaped head could be seen. This he did, rippling a tumultuous tide of cheering from one end of the line to the other.

Sheridan continued to reorganize, and Early cooperated by staying where he was, ignoring warnings from Gordon that his left was in danger. The only fighting for the next few hours was a halfhearted Confederate assault on the Federal right, which was easily repulsed.

About 4 p.m., 200 Federal bugles sounded the charge. Early's exhausted troops resisted for half an hour, then George Armstrong Custer's cavalry got around that left flank, and suddenly the Confederate line began to disintegrate. By sundown, Sheridan's inspired troops had swept Early's army from the field.

"We believe that not another man in America could have got that victory out of that army," said the 14th New Hampshire's Francis Buffum of Sheridan. Arguably no victory of the war could be said to have been more distinctly the work of one inspirational leader than Sheridan's at Cedar Creek.

How important was it that Sheridan avoided a rout of his army? If Sheridan had been driven from the Valley, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee might have stripped troops from Petersburg to reinforce Early to again threaten the capital. With the election three weeks away, Early might have been threatening the capital on Election Day.

Harper's Weekly, Nov. 5, 1864
Sheridan riding to the rescue, from the cover of Harper's Illustrated Weekly. For a larger view of this cover, click here.

Sheridan's stellar performance did more than just avoid that disaster, which surely helped Lincoln's election. Inspired by the torrent of newspaper coverage, Thomas Buchanan Read quickly composed a 63-line poetic tribute to Sheridan and Rienzi titled "Sheridan's Ride." It was read all over the country in the week before the election, adding to the pro-Lincoln tide. As well, three days before the election, Sheridan and Rienzi were featured on the cover of Harper's Illustrated Weekly, with a circulation exceeding 100,000.

Writing in "The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War," historian Bruce Catton assessed the impact of Sheridan's victory:

Coming on the heels of (victories at) Mobile Bay and Atlanta, Sheridan's conquest was a tonic that checked war weariness and created a new spirit of optimism. No longer could the Democrats make an effective campaign that the war was a failure. The war was visibly being won, and although the price remained high it was obvious that the last crisis had been passed.

Catton added: "[Maj. Gen. William T.] Sherman, [Admiral David G.] Farragut, and Sheridan were winning Lincoln's election for him."

On Election Day, Nov. 8, less than three weeks after Sheridan's exploit, Lincoln rode a groundswell of support to victory, receiving 2,218,388 votes to McClellan's 1,812,807, gaining 212 electoral votes to 21 for his rival. The one-time militia officer handily defeated the warrior McClellan.

Read Part 1: A Rude Awakening.

A Wartime President Vs. a Wartime Legend

Harper's Weekly
Lincoln's supporters celebrate his victory in New York City.

In mid-September 1864, three years into America's Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's reelection prospects looked grim.

Lincoln won Republican renomination in June after defeating an effort by party dissidents to gain the nomination for Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. In August the Democrats nominated Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and adopted a platform that stated "justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities. ..."

But Admiral David G. Farragut's closure of the key Confederate port Mobile, Ala., on Aug. 5, William T. Sherman's capture of Atlanta, on Sept. 2, and Phil Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley, most notably at Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, diminished the appeal of the Democrats' peace platform. They paved the way to Lincoln's landslide victory. WGT

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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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