Stones in the Road: Phil Sheridan and the Shadow of Chickamauga

Part three in a series.

During the American Civil War, or any armed conflict for that matter, the action or inaction of a high ranking officer often spawned controversy. Some of the more popular examples we can point to today are George McClellan’s sluggishness after receiving Robert E. Lee’s “Lost Order” during the Maryland Campaign and the performance of Richard Ewell and Daniel Sickles at the Battle of Gettysburg. Another such controversy surrounds Phil Sheridan at the Battle of Chickamauga.

The Battle of Chickamauga. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Battle of Chickamauga. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While preparing for this post, I realized, and I am sure some of you will agree, that such discussions over major events are better suited with colleagues and enthusiasts on the battlefield itself with a nice cigar.  Accordingly, I have decided to take a different route with this post (and no, I am not saying that next Saturday everyone who is able should meet at Chickamauga, although that would be incredible). Unlike in the past where I have related a story, I am going to present three separate interpretations of Sheridan’s actions at the battle. Two of them will be primary, given by the source himself, “Little Phil”. The last will be a modern treatise on the subject. I will provide context for each before they are presented and some commentary when necessary. First, I will set the stage.

Following the the capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee, William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland pursued Braxton Bragg’s Confederates into Georgia. On September 19, 1863, Bragg’s army turned and assailed Rosecrans along  Chickamauga Creek.  In a fight that rivaled the ferocity of Stones River, Bragg sent his men against the Union lines. At the end of the day, the Federals would not budge. That night, Rosecrans called a council of war. The result was, despite a hard day of fighting, the army would remain in place. Throughout the conference, Major General George Thomas, commanding the XIV Corps and holding the Union left, pushed for the need to reinforce his end of the line. Many of the Confederate hammer blows that day had fallen on Thomas.

On the morning of September 20, the fighting resumed. As he had the day before, Bragg again focused on the XIV Corps. As the battle raged, Thomas sent request after request to Rosecrans to send reinforcements.  On one of these errands, one of Thomas’ staff officers mistakenly informed Rosecrans of a gap in the line. When Rosecrans gave orders to have the gap closed, he opened an actual one. Filling the void was Bragg’s Left Wing, commanded by James Longstreet, newly arrived from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This assault torn open the Union line. Rosecrans himself rode hell bent for leather back to Chattanooga. Still on the field was Thomas. In places known as Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, Thomas would earn the sobriquet “Rock of Chickamauga”. The remaining Yankees held on until darkness set in and then withdrew.

George Thomas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
George Thomas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout the battle, Sheridan’s division held the right of the line. On the first day, he led one of his brigades in a counterattack that helped stabilize the Federal center. When Longstreet’s attack rolled forward, two of Sheridan’s brigades were in the process of moving to reinforce Thomas. The attack effectively cut Sheridan off from the rest of the army. Attempting to stem the gray tide, one of his brigades commanded by William Lytle made a desperate counterattack. Lytle would lend his name to the crest where he fell.  Little Phil attempted to form a defensive line but like his comrades, was caught up in the route.

During the retreat, John T. Wilder, commanding the famous mounted infantry brigade suggested that Sheridan join him in another counterattack. Sheridan refused and continued on to the moutain passes that led back to Chattanooga. When Sheridan reached McFarland’s Gap, he was overtaken with a request from Thomas to march to his assistance. Unlike the earlier request from Wilder, Sheridan acquiesced. However, he took the most round about way back to the battlefield, marching first to Rossville and not reaching the field until the fighting had ended.

John Turchin, a Union officer who fought at Chickamauga, wrote of Sheridan’s actions “It is surprising why, as senior officer, he did not assume the command of those troops and have handled them as he was emminently able to do”.  It also did not reflect well on Sheridan, or any of the higher ranking Union officers in the army, that Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps would join Thomas’ position that afternoon. Granger had taken the initiative and marched from Rossville-the same route Sheridan took later in the day-to the battlefield. Granger’s men would be heavily engaged throughout the remainder of the fighting.

Whether or not Sheridan could have done more to not only attempt to stop the Confederate assault but to also return to the battlefield in a timely manner are questions of considerable debate. Sensing that he would come under scrutiny in the months and years following the battle, Sheridan attempted to justify his actions.

The first interpretation is Sheridan’s Official Report of the battle. It was written on September 30, 1863, only days after Chickamauga. Sheridan’s report was penned to cover the period from September 2 to September 23. As he reached the point in his report after Longstreet’s assault, Sheridan wrote: “I…learned positively what I had before partially seen, that the divisions still farther on my left had been driven, and that I was completely cut off. I then determined to connect myself with the troops of General Thomas by moving on the arc of a circle until I struck the Dry Creek Valley road, by which I hoped to form the junction…On reaching the Dry Creek Valley road I found that the enemy had moved parallel to me and had also arrived at the road, thus preventing my joining General Thomas by that route. I then determined to move quickly on Rossville and form a junction with him on his left flank via the La Fayette Road. This was successfully accomplished…After forming the junction with General Thomas on his left, his command was ordered to fall back to Rossville, and I was directed to fall back to the same place, where the command rested during the night”.

The second interpretation also comes from Sheridan’s pen, this time in this memoirs. Little Phil began writing them in 1886, well after he had achieved fame in the Shenandoah Valley and in the Plains Indians Wars. “Shortly after my division had rallied…I discovered that the enemy was wedging in between my division and the balance of the army; in short endeavoring to cut me off from Chattanooga. This necessitated another retrograde movement, which brought me back to the southern face of Missionary Ridge, where I was joined by Carlin’s brigade of Davis’ division. Still thinking I could join General Thomas, I rode some distance to the left of my line to look for a way out, but found that the enemy had intervened so far as to isolate me effectually. I then determined to march directly to Rossville, and from there effect a junction with Thomas by the Lafayette Road. I reached Rossville about five o’clock in the afternoon, bringing with me eight guns, forty-six caissons, and a long ammunition train, the latter having been found in a state of confusion behind the Widow Glenn’s where I was being driven back beyond the Dry Valley road. The head of my column passed through Rossville, appearing upon Thomas’ left about six o’clock in the evening, penetrated without any opposition the right of the enemy’s line, and captured several of his field-hospitals. As soon as I got on the field, I informed Thomas of the presence of my command, and asked for orders. He replied that his lines were disorganized, and that it would be futile to attack; that all I could do was to hold on, and aid in covering his withdrawal to Rossville”.

The final interpretation is a modern one and comes from the website This is an excellent resource on the Army of the Cumberland. The article is entitled Sheridan’s Ride at Chickamauga and is authored by Bob Redman. It is a highly detailed and thorough examination of Sheridan’s actions at Chickamauga:

Now, it is for the reader to decide….

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