Stones in the Road: Philip Sheridan at Chickamauga and Chattanooga

Part one in a series

At the close of the American Civil War,  three men received the most accolades for contributing to the capitulation of the Confederacy: Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Henry Sheridan. Of the three, Phil Sheridan seems to draw the most criticism.

Phil Sheridan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Phil Sheridan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I will admit that I am no fan of Sheridan. It is only gritted teeth will I begrudgingly and  reluctantly give him credit for helping to bring about the downfall of the South. However, this may be a moot point. When I examine my bookshelves it is hard to underscore his role in the war. I own several books on Sheridan, including his memoirs as well as books concerning his post-war service. It seems that the number of literary works on Sheridan alone highlights the importance of his service to the United States during the War of the Rebellion.

Unlike Grant, whose rise began in early 1862 with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Sheridan’s ascendency to the mantle of fame began in the latter stages of the war. Much attention has been given to Sheridan’s actions in Virginia in 1864 and 1865. as commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and commander of the Army of the Shenandoah. During this time, Sheridan enjoyed two key advantages that guaranteed his success: the respect of a benevolent benefactor (Grant) who always took his side when a controversy arose and the blessing of skilled and reliable subordinates.

But in the early fall of 1863 such notions were foreign to Sheridan. At the time, he was a Major General commanding a division in William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. Sheridan had cut his teeth at division command first at Perryville in October 1862 and again at the end of the year and early in the new at Stones River. As August turned to September, Little Phil could not imagine that the next three months would be pivotal in the shaping of his military career.

10 Responses to Stones in the Road: Philip Sheridan at Chickamauga and Chattanooga

  1. Daniel,
    I think your initial assessment of Gen. Sheridan is correct. His only credentials were that he was an Ohio officer that Gen. Grant protected. Here is a link that will indicate his poor performance at the battle of Chickamauga and the ‘spin’ he created to mask it.
    Best regards,

  2. Thanks Dave. I was actually looking at that link this past week in anticipation of the series. It is very well done!

  3. I’m no fan of his, either, but it seems that he did hold things together superbly at Stones River in a dire situation. I look forward to more in-depth exploration.

  4. Well, as you know, I never liked Custer much, and yet no study of Union cavalry is complete without him. Same is true for Sheridan. Perhaps getting to know them all will lessen the contempt. It seems to be working for me with George A.!

    1. Yeah, you’ve got to esteem a man who loved dogs as much as he did, if for that reason alone, and kept so many of them at once! (Learned about that from this site!)

      1. Yeah–dogs. I prefer cat men, but cats are just a pain in the neck on a forced march. Did any Civil War soldiers have a cat? Lincoln did–several.

      2. To Meg’s question below regarding cats: The book “Civil War Animal Heroes” describes an incident at the Battle of Resaca during the Atlanta Campaign, in which Federal artillerymen heard meowing in front of their line, and one of them rescued a cat apparently left behind when the resident family left the premises. The cat accompanied the battery from then on, often riding on the caisson or draped across a cannoneer’s shoulders. As Meg points out, cats were a rarity in the army–this one all the more so since he was a male tortoiseshell!

  5. I had a much longer comment but it just disappeared, so let me say this: While undeserving of the “top 3” rating, the modern tendency has been to overcorrect in the opposite direction. Sheridan had plenty of minuses, but on balance still ranks in the upper echelon of Union commanders. His record as infantry division commander was fine except for Chickamauga, and even there the collapse of his command was not of his doing (he was in motion under Rosecrans’ orders when the breakthrough hit, and McCook ordered his lead brigade to charge into the attackers in poor formation.) While Grant’s patronage was obviously important starting in 1864, Sheridan earned that patronage with his performance at Chattanooga (he and Grant had no relationship prior, and in fact their only previous meeting was an uncomfortable one.) His record as cavalry corps commander in May-June 1864 was spotty, except – his personal, dynamic leadership inspired his men and finished the job, already well along since 1863, of transforming the AoP Cavalry into an elite combat unit. (Certainly the soldiers under his command saw it that way.) He did, after all, decisively win the Shenandoah campaign (though his failure to give subordinates, primarily Crook, fair credit is a major black mark.) And his relentless drive was devastatingly effective in both getting the Appomattox campaign underway and finishing the job. Ultimately his success cannot be denied, and it wasn’t ALL patronage and talented subordinates.

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