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  Name:  Philip Henry Sheridan
  Born:  March 6, 1831
  Died:  August 5, 1888

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Sheridan, Philip Henry (March 6, 1831 – August 5, 1888)

Philip Sheridan was a career army officer who was one of the most successful and important Union generals during the Civil War.

He was born on March 6, 1831, 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 first to Texas and 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 Halleck’s Western Department.  He was increasingly frustrated by the Union army’s 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 enough.”

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 Grant’s 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 Stuart’s 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.  Sheridan’s 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 “Sheridan’s Ride.”  In February 1865 he received an official Thanks of Congress for his Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Sheridan then joined Grant for the siege of Richmond and Petersburg.  Sheridan’s cavalry defeated a Confederate force at Five Forks on April 1, then stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s retreat at Sailor’s 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 Congress’ Reconstruction program.  When he removed several state officials, including both states’ elected governors, for allegedly interfering with the Reconstruction process, President Andrew Johnson removed Sheridan from his position.  Johnson’s action helped provoke the impeachment effort against the president.  Of Texas, Sheridan once remarked, “If I owned both Hell and Texas, I’d 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 on August 5, 1888, 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:  Thomas A. Lewis, “Sheridan, Philip Henry,” American National Biography (online); Mark Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary; and, James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.


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