Philip Henry Sheridan was born into a family of newly arrived Irish immigrants. The location of his birth is uncertain, but most authorities believe it was in Albany, New York, where the family lived for a short while before moving west. Some have argued for Boston, the family's port of entry, and others for Somerset, Ohio, where Sheridan grew up. All three were claimed as his birthplace by Sheridan at various points in his life.
Through the auspices of a family friend, Sheridan secured an appointment to West Point. He was suspended a year for attacking a fellow cadet with a bayonet, but managed to graduate in 1853. He had been an undistinguished student.
Sheridan’s early assignments were at frontier posts in Texas and Oregon. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he served as a supply officer in the western theater under General Henry Halleck. In May 1862, Sheridan received command of the 2nd Michigan Volunteers, his first field assignment.
Sheridan almost immediately demonstrated his quick wits. In July 1862 in Booneville, Mississippi, he managed by subterfuge to preclude a potentially devastating attack by a larger Confederate force. Sheridan arranged for a portion of his contingent to be hauled into town on a train, a maneuver readily observed by the enemy. Those very Union soldiers were then silently marched through a forest to a point on the rail line outside of town, where they reboarded the train and rode back into Booneville. The appearance was one of massive reinforcement.
Sheridan went on to distinguish himself in a host of engagements, including Perryville (October 1862), Murfreesboro (December 1862-January 1863), Chickamauga (September 1863) and a particularly dramatic charge at Missionary Ridge (November 1863).
In March 1864 U.S. Grant, impressed by Sheridan’s initiative at Missionary Ridge, appointed him Chief of Cavalry for the Army of the Potomac. The Shenandoah Valley, chief source of food for the Confederate army, became Sheridan’s target. In May 1864 his soldiers killed the famed opposition cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern and in October snatched presumed victory from the Confederates under Jubal Early at Cedar Creek. From there Sheridan proceeded to the siege of Petersburg and was instrumental in cutting off Robert E. Lee’s forces at Appomattox.
During Reconstruction, Sheridan served in Texas and Louisiana military governments. He played a major role in ending the French occupation of Mexico, but angered Andrew Johnson with his harsh treatment of former Confederate officials.
He was transferred to the Department of Missouri in 1867, where his primary effort was to confine Native Americans of the Great Plains to reservations. In retrospect, this campaign seems needlessly brutal with its excess of killing and routine abandonment of treaties by white settlement on native lands. Sheridan was widely quoted as having said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” a remark he consistently disavowed.
During the Grant administration Sheridan was stationed in Chicago, traveled widely in the West and became an advocate for conferring national park status on Yellowstone Park. He also traveled to Europe as a military observer during the Franco-Prussian War.
In October 1871, Sheridan was charged with maintaining order after the Great Chicago Fire. He was made commanding general of the U.S. Army in 1884, a command he held until his death in 1888.
Philip Sheridan has never been regarded as a military equal of Grant or Lee, but his excellent instincts and willingness to wage total war made him one of the Union’s most valuable generals. The devastation he wrought in the Shenandoah Valley was regarded as a military necessity in the North, but as needless destruction by Southerners.
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