Shenandoah Subordinates: Little Phil and a Big Valley

Conclusion of a series.

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

The Battle of Cedar Creek effectively ended Confederate operations in the ShenandoahValley. Philip Sheridan’s final victory in the Valley removed a key piece of the logistical puzzle that Robert E. Lee relied upon. While Sheridan had failed to destroy Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley, he had delivered an enormous political boon for President Abraham Lincoln. A few weeks later, Lincoln was re-elected for a second term by the Northern populace.

This guaranteed that the war would end with a military, rather than political outcome.While Sheridan should garner some credit for his victory, the praise should be spread around equally. As commander of the Army of the Shenandoah, Little Phil was blessed with subordinates whose capabilities on the battlefield at times exceeded his. They served him well, and in some instances, quite honestly, saved his bacon.

A lack of proper reconnaissance by Sheridan along his axis of advance at Third Winchester caused a massive gap to open in the Union lines early in the fighting. The quick action by David Russell helped plug the gap, costing Russell his life in the process.

George Crook’s formulation and execution of a flank attack at Fisher’s Hill forced the Confederates from a nearly impregnable position, giving Sheridan his second victory in three days. In the postwar years, Sheridan attempted to downplay Crook’s role in the battle in an attempt to gain recognition for something he had not done.

One may argue that Sheridan’s complacency at Cedar Creek led to the surprise and near route of his army on October 19, 1864. Jubal Early’s predawn attack was one of the most successful ever launched by the Confederates in either theater of the war. By midmorning, Early had driven the Army of West Virginia and the XIX Corps from the field. Then, George Getty’s VI Corps division entered the battle. Getty’s defense of the Middletown Cemetery brought the Rebel advance to a grinding halt, buying precious time for the army to rally. It was this reformed force that greeted Sheridan once he finally arrived on the field.

Not to be forgotten was Wesley Merritt’s handling of his division at Tom’s Brook. His performance was just another laurel in what would become a long and distinguished military career.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 solidified Philip Sheridan’s place in the pantheon of great Union commanders. With all things considered, is Sheridan worthy of this position?


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