Little Phil Takes Command

Major General Philip H. Sheridan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Major General Philip H. Sheridan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At a simple rail stop outside Frederick, Maryland the two commanders shook hands as the train prepared to depart. After a brief meeting, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the General-in-Chief of the United States Armies, handed written orders to his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. At Monocacy Station, just outside Frederick, Maryland, both commanders were headed in different directions. Grant was planning to travel east, Sheridan, west to Harper’s Ferry and a new command. The next day, August 7, 1864, Sheridan’s appointment to command the Middle Military Division was announced. His immediate task at hand was to clear the Shenandoah Valley of all Confederate forces. Interestingly, there was little in Sheridan’s record to prove that he would be up to the task.

Sheridan had begun the war in the Western Theater. As a division commander, he had fought at Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga. His division’s assault on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga caught the attention of U.S. Grant. When Grant was made General-in-Chief in March, 1864, he requested that Sheridan transfer to the East and take over the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. This assignment would not fit Sheridan well. Never before had he wielded such authority, let alone in a branch he was, for the most part, unfamiliar with.

Sheridan’s first clash was not with the enemy, but with army commander George Meade, over the proper use of the mounted arm. Little Phil wanted to turn the corps into a strike force, while Meade preferred they retain their traditional role of picketing and conducting reconnaissance. It would not be long before the two came to blows.

Sheridan’s cavalry botched the opening movement of the campaign on May 4 by failing to guard the outer fringes of the army and allowing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to surprise the Federals in the Wilderness. A few days later, he would bungle the army’s march to Spotsylvania Court House, by failing to clear and secure the main road to the hamlet. This episode brought on a fiery and expletive laced confrontation with Meade which ended in Sheridan vowing to whip the Confederate cavalry if Meade would only allow it. While Meade had his reservations, Grant did not, and Sheridan set out on his mission.

While the Federals would defeat and mortally wound the J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan became entangled in the outer defenses of Richmond following the fighting. Surrounded at Meadow Bridge, Sheridan’s force was surrounded and nearly captured, save for the gallant actions of one of his subordinates. Not surprisingly, when the cavalry returned to the army in late May, Sheridan kept his distance from Meade.

Following the fighting at Cold Harbor, Sheridan was dispatched by Grant on a diversionary raid into Central Virginia. At Trevilian’s Station, Sheridan was turned back by Wade Hampton, Stuart’s successor. Even while Sheridan limped back to the Army of the Potomac following the battle, events were beginning to unfold that would have an enormous impact on his future.

In an effort to distract Grant, Lee had dispatched his Second Corps under Jubal Early to the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to stop Union general David Hunter from capturing the rail junction at Lynchburg. Not only did Early chase Hunter away from Lynchburg, but he marched down the Valley and entered Maryland. Gaining a victory at Monocacy, Early then threatened Washington before withdrawing back to the safety of the Shenandoah. His actions convinced the Lincoln administration that something had to be done; a new commander would have to be sent to deal with the Rebel threat.

After considering veterans such as George McClellan and William Franklin for command, Grant finally decided on Sheridan. Given his performance since coming to Virginia, one could only wonder as to Grant’s motivations for appointing Sheridan to command in the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps Grant still had faith in Sheridan’s hard driving tactics, the same that he had witnessed at Chattanooga. Or, perhaps the shrewd general knew that Sheridan’s relationship with Meade was broken and Sheridan had to be transferred. Time would only tell if Grant’s decision was the correct one.


3 Responses to Little Phil Takes Command

  1. Great summary of Little Phil’s career up to August 1864. Actually, Grant and Sheridan’s relationship went back further. In 1862, Sheridan was assigned to Grant’s army during the Corinth campaign. When several divisions were transferred to Buell’s army to go into Kentucky, Grant tried to keep Sheridan with him. Little Phil’s highly creditable performances at Perryville and Stones River would have come to Grant’s attention, before the two men renewed their association at Chattanooga.

  2. I am currently reading Terrible Swift Sword: The life of Phiilip
    Sheridan by Joseph Wheelan. It takes an opposite positive view of Sheridan’s campaigns and actions in contrast to this article’s negative views

    1. There are many good books out there on Sheridan. I have yet to read Terrible Swift Sword. I would also recommend Eric Wittenberg’s Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Philip H. Sheridan.

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