Philip H. Sheridan

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Philip H. Sheridan

Born March 6, 1831
Albany, New York
Died August 5, 1888
Nosquitt, Massachusetts

Union cavalry general

Led successful Shenandoah Campaign in
1864 and won Battle of Five Forks in April 1865,
which ultimately resulted in General Lee's
surrender at Appomattox

Philip Sheridan was one of the Union Army's finest military leaders during the second half of the Civil War. His steady direction was vital in improving the performance of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry corps in 1863. A year later, his successful invasion of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley pushed the Confederacy one step closer to surrender. Finally, his victory at Five Forks in April 1865 forced General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) to abandon his defense of Richmond (the capital city of the Confederacy) and helped bring the war to a close. In recognition of these accomplishments, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) stated, "I believe General Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal."

Aiming for a military career

Philip Henry Sheridan was born in Albany, New York, in 1831. After attending school in Albany, he was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in July 1848. During his time at West Point, however, he got in a quarrel with a fellow cadet (military student). Sheridan was suspended for the incident, but he eventually was allowed to return to the academy.

After graduating from West Point in July 1853, Sheridan was assigned to a variety of military posts in Kentucky, Texas, and Oregon. These military assignments in the West often took him to outposts that were hundreds of miles from the population centers of the United States. But no matter where he was stationed, Sheridan followed the growing tensions between America's Northern and Southern regions with great interest.

By the 1850s, the North and South had become deadlocked over several emotional issues, including slavery and the concept of states' rights. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish (eliminate) it. They also contended that the federal government had the authority to pass laws that applied to all citizens of the United States. But a large part of the South's economy and culture had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. In addition, they argued that the federal government did not have the constitutional power to institute national laws on slavery or other issues. Instead, white Southerners argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. Finally, America's westward expansion made the situation even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.

In early 1861, several Southern states became so fed up with the situation that they seceded from (left) the United States to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The U.S. government, though, declared that those states had no right to secede and that it was willing to use force to make them return to the Union. In the spring of 1861, these bitter differences finally erupted into war.

Sheridan makes his mark in battle

As a native New Yorker who had pledged to serve the U.S. Army, there was no doubt that Sheridan would fight for the Union in the Civil War. During the first months of the war, he served as a staff officer for higher-ranking officers in the army, helping with strategy sessions and administrative duties. In May 1862, though, Sheridan was promoted to colonel and given command of the Second Michigan Cavalry.

During the remainder of 1862, Sheridan distinguished himself in several different battles in the Civil War's western theater (the region of the South between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains). First, he led a successful raid on Booneville, Mississippi, in July. Then, Sheridan and his troops helped the North take hard-fought victories at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky and the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In recognition of his impressive military performance, Sheridan was promoted to the rank of major-general at the beginning of 1863. During the next sixteen months, he remained in the West as an infantry commander in the Union's Army of the Cumberland.

Service in the Army of the Cumberland

The Army of the Cumberland spent much of the summer of 1863 in the state of Tennessee. Their main opponent in that state was the Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by General Braxton Bragg (1817–1876; see entry). By late September 1863, Army of the Cumberland maneuvers masterminded by Union general William S. Rosecrans (1819–1898) convinced Bragg to abandon the city of Chattanooga and clear out of Tennessee. But when Rosecrans continued his pursuit of Bragg into northern Georgia, the Confederate general counterattacked. This battle—known as the Battle of Chickamauga—ended in disaster for the North, as Union divisions under the command of Sheridan and other Union officers broke into chaotic flight.

Bragg's army chased the retreating Union soldiers all the way back to Chattanooga, then surrounded the city. For a short time it appeared that the Army of the Cumberland was in danger of being destroyed. But Union reinforcements soon arrived, and General George H. Thomas (1816–1870; see entry) organized a successful counterattack in late November. Sheridan's division played an important part in this counterattack. Their capture of the strategically important position known as Missionary Ridge triggered a complete Confederate retreat back into Georgia.

Sheridan joins Grant

In February 1864, General Grant assumed command of all Union armies. Leaving General William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) in charge of the Union Army in the West, Grant moved east to take personal control of the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac was the primary Union army in the war's eastern theater, and Grant wanted to guide its activities himself. (General George Meade [1815–1872; see entry] remained the official head of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant exercised ultimate control over its actions.)

Upon taking over the Army of the Potomac, Grant decided to make Sheridan its new cavalry commander. The reassignment delighted Sheridan, and he immediately requested greater freedom to use his cavalry without waiting for orders all the time. He believed that if he were given an independent command, he could go out and track down Jeb Stuart (1833–1864; see entry), the leading Confederate cavalryman in Virginia. Grant liked the idea, and he quickly approved the plan.

The Battle at Yellow Tavern

In the spring of 1864, Sheridan advanced on Richmond with a force of twelve thousand cavalry. As he hoped, his march on the rebel capital convinced the Confederates to send Stuart and his cavalry to stop him. Stuart managed to halt the Union advance at a small village called Yellow Tavern, located a few miles outside of Richmond. But Stuart had only about forty thousand horsemen under his command, which gave Sheridan a big advantage in battle.

The two cavalry forces clashed together on May 11, 1864. Fighting desperately to defend their capital, Stuart's troops halted Sheridan's advance and eventually forced him to retreat. But Stuart was mortally wounded in the clash and died a day later. According to Sheridan, Stuart's death made his mission a success. "Under [Stuart], the cavalry of Lee's army had been nurtured but had acquired such prestige that it thought itself well nigh invincible [unconquerable]," Sheridan later stated. "Indeed, in the early years of the war, it had proved to be so. This was now dispelled [eliminated] by the successful march we had made in Lee's rear, and the removal of Stuart at Yellow Tavern had inflicted a blow from which entire recovery was impossible."

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Sheridan's performance against Stuart convinced Grant that he should use the steady cavalry commander against other troublesome Confederate cavalry forces. In the summer of 1864, he sent Sheridan into the Shenandoah Valley, an area of northern Virginia that had been a favorite Confederate invasion route and supply source since the war's early days.

Sheridan's main target in the Shenandoah Valley was a fifteen thousand–strong Confederate cavalry force led by Lieutenant General Jubal Early (1816–1894). But Grant also wanted to eliminate the valley as a source of food and supplies for the South. He thus ordered Sheridan not only to drive Jubal Early's cavalry out of the region, but also to destroy the farmlands that had been used to supply Confederates with needed food and supplies. "Carry off stock [livestock or supplies] of all descriptions and negroes so as to prevent further planting," Grant ordered. "If the War is to last another year we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste."

Armed with a forty thousand–man force of cavalry and infantry, Sheridan moved through the valley with grim determination. In August, his army—designated the Army of the Shenandoah by Grant—began their assault on the valley's pro-Confederacy farms and villages. They burned barns, destroyed crops, and captured livestock wherever they went, obeying Sheridan's declaration that "the people [of the Shenandoah Valley] must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war." Confederate guerrillas (armed raiders) led by John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916; see entry) repeatedly struck against Sheridan's army during this time, but their efforts proved useless in stopping the destructive Union advance.

By late September, Sheridan's army had smashed much of the valley's farmland and claimed two victories over Early's dwindling cavalry force. But Early was not forced to leave the valley until mid-October, when Sheridan showed the entire country the strength of his military leadership. Confident that his army could maintain control over the valley in his absence, Sheridan and some members of his staff traveled to Washington for a conference. On the morning of October 19, however, Early's cavalry launched a surprise attack on the Army of the Shenandoah's camp at Cedar Creek. The assault shocked the Union soldiers. They fled the camp in a disorganized retreat, leaving behind food, artillery guns (large guns too heavy to carry), and other supplies.

Unfortunately for Early, though, Sheridan ran into his fleeing soldiers on his way back from Washington. "There burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army," Sheridan recalled. "Hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score [groups of twenty], all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion."

The sight of Sheridan, however, immediately changed the attitude of his frightened troops. Using a combination of encouragement and verbal abuse, Sheridan stopped the retreat. He then reorganized his troops and led a furious charge back into their Cedar Creek camp. Sheridan's counterattack crushed Early's cavalry. By the time the Confederate cavalry was able to escape, it had been torn to pieces. Sheridan's victory at Cedar Creek established Union control over the Shenandoah Valley for the remainder of the war.

The Battle of Five Forks

After his triumph in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan continued to show his value to the Union cause throughout Virginia. In early 1865, he was ordered to rejoin Grant's Army of the Potomac at Petersburg, where Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had maintained a months-long defense of that city and neighboring Richmond. As Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah moved across the Virginia countryside, it launched a series of successful raids against Confederate positions.

Soon after Sheridan reached Petersburg, Grant sent him on an important mission. Grant knew that both Petersburg and Richmond were running short of food and other supplies. He reasoned that if he could seize control of the Confederates' last remaining railroad line, he could force Lee to evacuate his army from the two cities. He thus ordered Sheridan to take twelve thousand cavalry and capture the railroad at an area south of Petersburg known as Five Forks.

On April 1, Sheridan's force successfully seized the rail line at Five Forks. Confederate troops led by George Pickett (1825–1875) tried to protect the area, but Sheridan smashed them with ease. By the evening of April 1, Sheridan had taken more than five thousand rebel prisoners and cut off the last remaining supply line into Petersburg. When Sheridan informed Grant of his victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a full assault on the Confederate defenses at Petersburg.

Lee evacuated his army from Petersburg on April 3, leaving it and Richmond to the advancing Union forces. The Confederate general mounted a desperate bid to escape the area, but Grant immediately gave chase. For the next week or so, Sheridan's cavalry struck again and again against Lee's flanks, as the remainder of the Union Army followed in close pursuit. On April 7, Sheridan's cavalry successfully cut off the rebels' last remaining escape route, forcing Lee to halt his battered army at an area known as Appomattox. Lee surrendered two days later, ending Confederate hopes of independence once and for all.

After the war

In the months following the end of the Civil War, Sheridan was appointed to lead federal Reconstruction (1865–77) efforts in Texas and Louisiana. (Reconstruction is the name given for the period immediately after the war, when the federal government worked to put the war-torn nation back together again.) But Sheridan had a difficult time implementing Reconstruction policies, which were intended to rebuild the South and protect the rights of blacks. His policies were so harsh that he was removed from this assignment after only six months.

Sheridan then spent several years in the American West, where he took part in cavalry operations against many Indian tribes in what he called "at best an inglorious [dishonorable] war." He also spent a great deal of time working for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In 1884, he was named general-in-chief of all U.S. forces. He died four years later.

Where to Learn More

Carter, Samuel. The Last Cavaliers: Confederate and Union Cavalry in the Civil War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Heatwole, John L. The Burning: Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Charlottesville, VA: Rockbridge Pub., 1998.

Hutton, Paul Andrew. Phil Sheridan and His Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Longacre, Edward C. Mounted Raids of the Civil War. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1975. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Morris, Roy, Jr. Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992.

Perry County Historical Society. The Sheridan Monument. [Online] (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Stackpole, Edward J. Sheridan in the Shenandoah. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961. Reprint, 1992.

George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876)

General Sheridan's favorite officer in his command was George Armstrong Custer, a cavalryman who became known for his bravery and daring during the Civil War. But while Custer's Civil War exploits made him a familiar figure to American newspaper readers, he became even more famous in 1876, when Sioux warriors killed him and all 264 soldiers under his command at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Born in Ohio in 1839, Custer moved to Michigan as a youngster. In 1857, he enrolled at West Point. He graduated in 1861, but ranked last in his class. Three weeks after graduating from the academy, he fought at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) in the cavalry of the Union's Army of the Potomac.

Over the next four years, Custer fought in many of the Civil War's biggest and bloodiest battles. During this time, the young officer built a reputation as a bright strategist and a fearless soldier. In fact, Custer once said that he would "be willing . . . to see a battle every day during my life." Everyone who knew the dashing young soldier knew that such statements accurately represented his feelings about the war. But Custer was not universally loved. Some of the soldiers in his command viewed him as an unnecessarily harsh disciplinarian. Even people who liked Custer admitted that his thirst for publicity and fame sometimes got out of hand.

Nonetheless, Custer's battlefield performances impressed Sheridan. After Sheridan took command of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry in 1863, he quickly promoted Custer through the ranks. Custer eventually became the youngest major general in American military history. During Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864, Custer's cavalry led many of the Union offensives (attacks) on Confederate foes. The performance of Custer's troops made it much easier for Sheridan to seize control of the valley by the end of the year.

After the Civil War ended, Custer stayed in the U.S. military. When federal efforts to seize lands from Native American tribes heated up, Custer transferred to military posts in the West. In 1876, he led the army's Seventh Cavalry in a campaign against Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in southern Montana. But on June 25, Custer stumbled into a large war party led by the legendary chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) near the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his cavalrymen were wiped out in the resulting battle, which remains the most famous Indian military victory in American history.