In Defense of Sheridan

Emerging Civil War welcomes back Nathan Provost.

General Philip Sheridan was a hard man of war. He was egotistical and bold, and his personality traits negatively struck many officers, and later historians. In the last twenty years, Sheridan’s legacy has diminished from belonging in the pantheon of great Union victors to nothing more than an ill-tempered opportunist and crony. Some remarkable histories of General Sheridan make legitimate claims to question his tactical decisions. Nonetheless, I am not arguing that Philip Sheridan was a military genius. He was an adept general that grabbed the attention of Ulysses S. Grant during the Battle of Chattanooga, yet some historians continue to criticize his command decisions. I want to give credit where it is rightfully due.

Nowhere does Sheridan receive more criticism than during the Overland Campaign after the Battle of the Wilderness, where he failed to scout the enemy before Warren’s movement to Spotsylvania Courthouse. Consequently Meade took a shot at Sheridan, pointing out his failure. Neither Meade nor Sheridan had much patience for one another. Sheridan made the bold claim that he would whip J.E.B. Stuart if only he (Meade) would let him. Meade expressed his frustrations to Grant by relaying what Sheridan told him. Grant’s response was not surprising. “Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”[1]

Gordon Rhea has blamed Grant for snubbing Meade by letting Sheridan do what he wanted, thereby purposefully causing thousands of deaths. Context is everything in history, and 20/20 hindsight permits historians to take easy potshots at rational actors. The counterargument to this hindsight is that Grant should have realized the cavalry’s disastrous role at the Wilderness, and then properly utilize it for reconnaissance, as was one of its primary  intended roles. However, with the contentious relationship felt between Meade and Sheridan, some questions arise. Would Meade have properly used Sheridan or kept him on a short leash after this event? Would Sheridan have listened to Meade or effectively used the cavalry for reconnaissance under Meade? It is difficult to say, but from what history tells us, Sheridan made better use of the raid on Richmond than reconnaissance at Spotsylvania Courthouse.

At this point in the war, it was clear to Grant that the Army of the Potomac’s political culture was toxic. Political rivalries existed, and it was Grant’s responsibility to quell such divisions in the army. Grant thought that getting rid of Sheridan would rid Meade of this worry. Furthermore, Grant was put in an awkward position. Sheridan made it clear to Grant he did not want to come east with him, and Grant worked to maintain a good relationship with Meade. Again, having Sheridan go on a raid was a good option in Grant’s view because it not only alleviated a toxic work relationship, but Grant had previously used cavalry for highly successful raids in both the Vicksburg and Chattanooga Campaigns. No one could have foreseen the consequences of this decision. After the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Grant requested Meade’s promotion to the rank of full major general.[2] Grant felt no ill will of Meade and highly respected him. It is speculated by some historians that Grant favored Sheridan over Meade but this is simply inaccurate.

Grant raids between both the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns were widely successful, opting to forego traditional cavalry reconnaissance. There is no reason to believe that Grant had any intention of utilizing cavalry for reconnaissance in the eastern theater. While Sheridan’s primary objective was to beat J.E.B. Stuart, his secondary objective was to threaten Richmond with the destruction of the railroad behind Lee’s army.[3] Grant’s decision to cut Sheridan loose was also a way to measure Sheridan’s combat capacity. In short, he wanted to see if Sheridan could prove his worth. Sheridan achieved his objectives and proved to be an effective cavalry commander. If one is to judge Grant so harshly of this decision, then it should be applied equally to General Robert E. Lee’s decision before the Battle of Trevilian Station where Lee sent his cavalry to meet Sheridan’s force west of Cold Harbor. It had much more disastrous consequences as Grant was able to withdraw both the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James from Cold Harbor without detection, and pinned Lee at Petersburg. Sheridan impressed Grant, while many of his contemporaries remained narrow and biased of the ill-tempered Irishmen. As Dr. Woodworth notes, while this raid deprived Grant of his cavalry for two weeks, it permanently deprived Lee of J.E.B. Stuart.[4] Finally, Sheridan managed to damage miles of railroad track, and destroyed the Confederate supply base at Beaver Dam Station with its 1,500,000 rations.[5]

Sheridan proved to Grant that he was a capable cavalry commander, and that Grant could rely on Sheridan’s aggressiveness. Sheridan hesitated at times, but in this raid, he caused panic in Richmond much to the same effect as Jubal Early did to Washington, DC in July 1864.[6] Sheridan did stumble, just as many corps’ commanders did, though Sheridan’s growth as a corps commander from the Overland to the Appomattox Campaign was more significant than any general in the eastern theater. Therefore, he should be credited for helping Grant bring the war to an end despite all his flaws. Grant saw potential in Sheridan, and if Grant saw it, military historians should as well.

Bibliography

Grant, Ulysses. Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant / Selected Letters, 1839-1865. Edited by William McFeely. New York: Library of America, 1990.

Murray, Williamson and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Woodworth, Steven. The Great Struggle: America’s Civil War. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

[1] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 377.
[2] Ulysses Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant / Selected Letters, 1839-1865, Edited by William McFeely, (New York: Library of America, 1990), 556.
[3] Steven Woodworth, The Great Struggle: America’s Civil War, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), 258.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 377.
[6] Steven Woodworth, The Great Struggle: America’s Civil War, 258.

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7 Responses to In Defense of Sheridan

  1. John Pryor says:

    No. No. No. Sheridan’s successful insubordination with Meade had a crippling effect on Meade and Grant’s relationship and Grant’s operations in the Overland Campaign. The death of Stuart led to the rise of Wade Hampton, who was at least Stuart’s equal. Sheridan never really grasped the key role of reconnaissance in cavalry operations, and Grant’s failure to do the same arguably unnecessarily prolonged the war. Sheridan was a brave and talented commander of infantry, as Perryville, Stone’s River and Missionary Ridge proved. But as far as a commander of cavalry or mixed arms, as in the Valley, only his vastly superior numbers saved him from profound embarrassment.

    • Nathan Provost says:

      John,

      I hope you are doing well. I want to address a few of these points. First, the relationship between Grant and Meade was always contentious, but it hardly ruined their relationship. Grant continued to admire Meade and recommended him for promotion. Meade did not look fondly at Grant, but he never held a grudge or attempted to disrupt his plans. In fact, they came to an agreeable relationship by the Petersburg Campaign. Wade Hampton was a very capable cavalry commander, but did he affect the war in the long-run? I think that is debatable. It is clear though that he did not change the outcome of the war in the east, so we know his rise to prominence did not throw off Grant. Furthermore, it is not that Sheridan did not understand reconnaissance; he was more in favor of using the cavalry as an offensive tool. And Grant absolutely understood the role of reconnaissance. If you look through the OR, you will find multiple orders from Grant to his corps commanders to conduct reconnaissance out front. The purpose of recon is to gain intelligence on the enemy. Clausewitz stated that there are four ways to gather intelligence, and Grant used all four. One of those four was the use of espionage. Grant refined the BMI (Bureau of Military Intelligence) in which it became deadly as the war progressed in the east. I recommend William Feis’s work on this subject. Finally, Eric Wittenberg does concede that Sheridan’s role in the Appomattox Campaign was profound given his success in mixed arms. This was perfected during the Valley Campaign of 1864. And yes, numbers do matter. However, they do not define victory or defeat. Jackson proved he could beat armies larger than his own time and again. Jubal Early proved that he did not necessarily need the numbers to win at Cedar Creek. Numbers do not tell the whole story. Grant built up the army in the Shenandoah because it was an election year and given the history of the Confederates doing a lot with a little, he made sure that the Confederates could not shift forces from one theatre to the other. There was a military officer that once said, “If you consistently find yourself outnumbered, then your tactics stink.”

  2. Douglas Pauly says:

    “Context is everything in history, and 20/20 hindsight permits historians to take easy potshots at rational actors.”

    Amen to that. Grant and Sheridan had a good (enough) relationship while they were in the West together. They got results. It was logical that Grant would bring Sheridan east with him, Remember that Grant took command in the East in March, and the Wilderness campaign and hence the Overland Campaign started in early May. That’s not a lot of time for Grant or Sheridan to get the lay of the land or to adapt to new relationships as far as the officers they would be serving with. There is always a learning curve that manifests itself. I think the results speak for themselves when everything is added up. Certainly some mistakes and bad decisions were made in the process. The term “Grant the Butcher” came about for a reason. But they won. As far as Sheridan’s claim that he would “whip Stuart”, well, he did, didn’t he? The elimination of JEB Stuart was a huge boost for the Union, among other things. Sheridan would remain very much involved as events unfurled when the breakthrough was achieved at Petersburg and the relentless pursuit of Lee started that would culminate at Appomattox. And when it’s all said and done, Grant, Sheridan, and Meade “did alright”. To me anyway!

  3. scott s. says:

    I’ve been curious about the Sheridan / Granger relationship. I guess it seems to me there might be something of interest there.

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    “…ill-tempered opportunist and crony” [Nathan Provost “In Defense of Sheridan” (2021)].
    Captain Philip Sheridan first appeared in the field at Pittsburg Landing, a few days after the Battle of Shiloh. An auditor on the staff of Henry Halleck, he ingratiated himself to Halleck’s friend, William Tecumseh Sherman; and Sherman attempted to pull strings and gain the colonelcy of an Ohio regiment for Sheridan. When that fell through, the opportunity arrived for Sheridan to take command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry (the Governor of Michigan happened to be visiting his boys in Tennessee at the time.) So Colonel Sheridan accompanied Halleck’s Crawl to Corinth; and when the Confederate garrison commanded by Beauregard evacuated southward end of May, Sheridan and his Michigan cavalry were part of the pursuit of that Rebel force. On June 9th Brigadier General Rosecrans (to whom Sheridan now belonged) reported to Halleck: “I have just heard from Colonel Sheridan. He is at Baldwin Mississippi with his regiment, having pushed his advance towards Guntown…” This brought ten days of pursuit to an end. Major General Halleck was proclaimed a hero for taking control of the crucial railroad junction of Corinth without need for a major battle; his pursuing force reported “The Confederate Army is disintegrating before our eyes.” And within weeks Halleck was called east to replace the ineffectual experiment of Lincoln & Stanton as “Joint Commanders of United States Forces” …taking the role as General-in-Chief of the Army. And about the same time, Sheridan was promoted to Brigadier General.

  5. Nathan makes a number of good points, IMO. Perhaps the most original (I’ve never seen it before, that I recall) is the notion that letting Sheridan go off on his raid was a way to help with the obviously toxic relationship that had developed between Meade and Sheridan. As for the effect on the army’s operations of the absence of the cavalry, when had the Army of the Potomac ever used its cavalry for battlefield recon or screening? The cavalry work on the way to Gettysburg, of course, is legendary, and so is much of the combat during the three days of the battle. But I can’t think of an instance during the war when a tactical move was preceded by a cavalry scout or shielded by a cavalry screen. Now, the advance to Myer’s Hill at Spotsylvania might well have been helped by a cavalry screen, but would Meade have ordered one? I don’t see much evidence that the classic scout/screen role for cavalry, at the *battlefield* level, was part of the AotP’s DNA.

    One reason that Third Winchester and Cedar Creek were such decisive victories was the employment of the Federal cavalry as an active combat wing, in an almost “proto-blitzkrieg” kind of role. That was born of confidence gained at Yellow Tavern and Haw’s Shop and numerous other small actions. There is much about Sheridan that deserves criticism, but he was often a very effective battlefield commander.

  6. ronzzo1 says:

    “Sheridan never really grasped the key role of reconnaissance in cavalry operations”
    I think he did. However, he wanted the infantry to do the traditional work of the cavalry. As mentioned above, he wanted the cavalry to be an offensive fighting unit.

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