On the evening of March 23, 1864, a telegram arrived at Phil Sheridan’s headquarters in Loudon, Tennessee. It was addressed to Sheridan and had been forwarded from Major General Henry Halleck, the Army’s Chief of Staff. It read: “Lieutenant General Grant directs that Major General Sheridan immediately repair to Washington and report to the Adjutant-General of the Army”.
The directive came as somewhat of a shock to Sheridan. Since he had helped break the siege of Chattanooga back in November, his division had been dispatched to support Union forces defending Knoxville. With the arrival of winter in East Tennessee, Sheridan had taken a forty day furlough, visiting Somerset, Ohio, Chicago and Milwaukee. He had only recently returned from his Northern sojourn and, as he mused mildly later, “was not informed of the purpose for which I was to proceed to Washington”. Despite his curiosity, he set out on the long trip the next day.
What Sheridan didn’t know and the purpose of the summons, was to place him in command of the Cavalry Corps of the eastern Army of the Potomac. Just several days prior to his departure, Grant had been promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of all the Union armies. Through all of pomp and celebration of his promotion-not since George Washington had an Army officer held the rank-Grant had not forgotten Sheridan’s aggressiveness in leading his division up Missionary Ridge. This was the kind of leadership that Grant was looking for to infuse in the Potomac army’s horsemen.
Sheridan’s experience leading cavalry, was virtually non-existent. Arguably, there were other, more qualified officers, but Grant wanted Sheridan. Little Phil was inheriting a command that had undergone a transition the previous year. In early 1863, the many mounted units in the Army were finally consolidated into one crops under one commander. This reorganization, along with the emergence of several young and capable officers, combined with veteran leadership and top notch equipment had triggered a reformation. Slowly and gradually, the Union troopers began to rise to the combat efficiency of their Confederate counterparts. It was this command that greeted Sheridan when he arrived at their winter encampment in Culpeper County, Virginia.
Sheridan’s performance since the summer of 1863, specifically at Chattanooga, had catapulted him to Virginia and the Cavalry Corps. Interestingly, this time frame did not include probably his finest hour as a commander at Stones’ River. It may be safe to surmise, considering the fate that befell his brother officers after Chickamauga, that Sheridan may have been cashiered for his retreat from the battlefield. Although the facts surrounding his efforts to return to aid George Thomas are murky and may remain so for future generations, one point remains clear. Sheridan, unlike other brother officers, made an attempt to reach Thomas. This action may have saved him. Had he not been at Chattanooga, Sheridan would not have come under Grant’s attention and may not have been elevated to corps command in the spring of 1864.
How he would fare in this position, well, that is another story for another day….