Philip Sheridan, Union general, was born to Mary
Meenagh Sheridan and John Sheridan as his family emigrated from Ireland to Ohio.
(The exact location of his birth is uncertain.) Young Sheridan had a limited,
sporadic education in the basics. During his boyhood, he was teased for his
shortness and Irish heritage which provoked his involvement in numerous fights.
In 1845, at the age of fourteen, he began working as a bookkeeper in a dry-goods
store. He was inspired by the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) to enter the
military, and he soon won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point. He was suspended for one year after fighting with an officer. Sheridan
graduated in the bottom third of the class of 1853, and was brevetted a second
lieutenant. He was assigned to Texas, then transferred to California, before
spending five years patrolling an American Indian reservation in Oregon.
Sheridan began service in the Civil War as a
captain in the Union army, first as a military accountant, then as chief
quartermaster for the Southwest Missouri District of General Henry Halleckís
Western Department. He was increasingly frustrated by the Union armyís failure
to assign him to a field command. Finally in May 1862 Sheridan was given the
command of the volunteer Second Michigan Cavalry, whom he led on a four-day raid
in Missouri. A few weeks later he was promoted to brigade commander. When his
800 men were attacked by 5,000 Confederates at Boonesville, Mississippi, rather
than take a warranted retreat, he courageously counterattacked and won.
Afterward, five brigadier generals sent Major General Halleck a telegram
reading, "The undersigned respectfully beg that you will obtain the
promotion of Sheridan. He is worth his weight in gold." Halleck raised him
to the rank of brigadier general.
For his heroics at the battle for Perryville,
Kentucky (October 1862), the Union press nicknamed him the "Paladin of
Perryville." He saw action at Stones River (after which he won a second
star), Chickamauga, and the Chattanooga campaign, where he and his troops broke
through the lines at Missionary Ridge, capturing more than 1700 Confederates. In
March 1864 Ulysses S. Grant, the newly-appointed general-in-chief, placed
Sheridan in charge of the cavalry for the Army of the Potomac. When President
Lincoln remarked to Grant that Sheridan was "rather a little fellow to
handle your cavalry," Grant responded: "You will find him big
Sheridan brought much-needed order and discipline
to a cavalry that had degenerated into disarray. He argued with General George
Meade over the proper use of the cavalry, and received Grantís permission to
attempt to defeat Jeb Stuart, the famed Confederate cavalry leader. Sheridan and
10,000 men set out for Richmond, where they met and defeated Stuartís cavalry
on May 11, 1864, at Yellow Tavern. Stuart was killed in the action.
In August Grant gave Sheridan command of the
Middle Military Division and the task of retaking the Shenandoah Valley from
Confederate General Jubal Early. Sheridanís victory at Cedar Creek in October
was one of the key victories that raised spirits among Union supporters and
helped reelect President Lincoln. Poet Thomas Buchanan Read aptly commemorated
the Cedar Creek victory in verse as "Sheridanís Ride." In February
1865 he received an official Thanks of Congress for his Shenandoah Valley
Sheridan then joined Grant for the siege of
Richmond and Petersburg. Sheridanís cavalry defeated a Confederate force at
Five Forks on April 1, then stopped Confederate General Robert E. Leeís
retreat at Sailorís Creek April 6, capturing 6,000 Confederates, including
five generals. Sheridan boxed Lee in at Appomattox, where the Confederate
commander was forced to surrender to Grant, Sheridan, and other Union officers.
In May Sheridan took command of the Military
Division of the Gulf and was quickly sent to Texas where he and 50,000 troops
faced French troops across the Mexican border. A year later, the French troops
were withdrawn and the French puppet-ruler in Mexico, Archduke Maximillian, was
overthrown and executed by Mexican nationals. In 1867 Sheridan was named
military governor of the Louisiana-Texas district under Congressí
Reconstruction program. When he removed several state officials, including both
statesí elected governors, for allegedly interfering with the Reconstruction
process, President Andrew Johnson removed Sheridan from his position. Johnsonís
action helped provoke the impeachment effort against the president. Of Texas,
Sheridan once remarked, "If I owned both Hell and Texas, Iíd rent out
Texas and live in Hell."
For the next sixteen years, starting in September
1867, Sheridan was in charge of pacifying the Plains Indians. He was relentless
and ruthless in the task. When a Comanche chief called himself a "good
Indian," Sheridan replied that "The only good Indians I ever saw were
dead." In the midst of his years as an Indian fighter, he took a two-year
stint (1869-1871) to observe the German army, including during the
Franco-Prussian War. Sheridan was briefly sent back to Louisiana in 1875 to help
quell political violence perpetrated by anti-Reconstruction paramilitary groups.
In 1883 he succeeded General William Tecumseh Sherman as general-in-chief of the
U.S. Army. Sheridan died four years later, at the age of fifty-seven, following
a series of heart attacks. He once told a West Point class, "Whatever I
took up, even if it were the simplest of duties, I tried to do it better than it
had ever been done before."
Sources consulted: American National Biography;
Mark Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary; James McPherson, Ordeal by
Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.