Phil Sheridan and the Road to Opequon Creek

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This was Scott Patchen’s presentation at the 2014 “Shenandoah on Fire” Sesquicentennial Conference at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, VA.

He told us that Philip H. Sheridan was kind of a man of mystery.  We know him as an aggressive cavalry commander who led the Union cavalry corps to victory.  In August of 1864 he was not the person to be expected.  There is, according to Scott, no certain documentation of where he was born.  His family emigrated from Ireland, supposedly in the year of his birth.  He grew up in Somerset, Ohio.  His father was away from home quite a bit due to his work.  He was fascinated with military history at an early age.  He had a one-room schoolhouse education by an itinerant Irish schoolmaster.  Sheridan was a fairly good student, and he ended his formal schooling at the age of 14.  He was then taken under the wings of some local merchants to learn clerking.  Sheridan was always the smallest guy around, and he got into many fistfights.  West Point was a clash of cultures for him.  He was an Irish Catholic blue collar person in an Anglo Protestant culture dominated by Southern aristocrats and Northern bluebloods.  Sheridan’s a fish out of water there.  He was suspended from the Academy for a year due to a fistfight with a senior cadet from Virginia, who ironically will fight by Sheridan’s side in the West until the Virginian was killed at the Battle of Perryville.  After graduation he saw service in Texas and Oregon.  He was on the West Coast until the fall of 1861, and then on Henry Halleck’s staff in St. Louis.  His first assignment is to audit the mess that John C. Fremont had turned all the supply issues in the Department of Missouri into.  He straightened that out and reorganized that department’s recordkeeping system and supply system, and as a reward for the good job he did there, Halleck assigned him to the staff of Major General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest during the Pea Ridge Campaign.  He does an excellent job supplying uniforms and food for the army during that campaign.  But he runs afoul of Samuel Curtis because Curtis’ officers are stealing horses from the civilian populace and wanted the Quartermaster to pay for them.   Sheridan refused, so he was sent back to Halleck’s staff.  His opportunity for a combat command comes from the state of Michigan, when he’s appointed commander of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry.  Sheridan made his mark in the summer of 1862 in the Battle of Boonville in Mississippi, routing a larger confederate force with a small force of only 900 Union cavalrymen.  His stint as a cavalry commander ends very quickly.  Major General William S. Rosecrans sent a request to the War Department saying, “Brigadier generals scarce, good ones scarcer.  The undersigned respectfully request the promotion of Colonel Sheridan to brigadier general.  He is worth his weight in gold.” [see another request from Horatio Gouverneur Wright using the same phrase here]  That request will be granted, and Sheridan will be a brigadier general.  He’ll make his mark as an infantry commander in the Army of the Ohio and ultimately the Army of the Cumberland.  His first action is at the Battle of Perryville in October of 1862.  On December 31, 1862 outside of Murfreesboro, Braxton Bragg’s army strikes the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Stones River.  Phil Sheridan and one of his brigadiers, Joshua Sill, had been on the alert from the night before.  They heard noise coming from the confederate ranks, and they were the only division in that army who were under arms and ready to fight when the attack came.  The entire line to his right had given way, but Sheridan holed up and fought.

He’ll be promoted to major general as a result of his actions at the Battle of Stones River.  He’ll participate in the Tullahoma Campaign, and he’ll also be at Chickamauga.  This was the worst day of his entire military career.  He was defeated in his mind.  You don’t see the combative Sheridan there.  He’ll be front and center when Ulysses S. Grant takes over Union forces in Chattanooga and in the famous assault there.  Sheridan was a good, aggressive division commander.  Sheridan is at the base of Missionary Ridge.  He’ll capture many guns in the assault.  He was the only division commander who pushed his division over the ridge, while others were celebrating, and continued the pursuit of the enemy.  That aggressiveness is what Grant saw and liked about Sheridan.

In 1864 he was the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  Once the Overland Campaign starts, the cavalry has mundane duty, screening the advances and flanks of the army and guarding wagon trains.  Sheridan actually performs poorly at first.  He and Meade get into a feud about Sheridan being able to whip Stuart.  Grant allows Sheridan to go on his Yellow Tavern Raid.  His next raid, Trevilian Station, is a failure.  He’s involved in some of the diversions around Richmond during the Petersburg campaign.

Grant forms the Middle Military Division from neighboring departments in the Valley, placing Sheridan in command of the whole.  Sheridan starts studying the maps and getting familiar with the geography of the Valley.  He revamps his medical department and eventually has one of the best field hospitals in the army.

In the middle of August, Sheridan receives a message from Grant telling him that Dick Anderson is moving to reinforce Early in the Valley, making the combined force about 40,000.  This is actually double what the force will be.  Anderson’s original orders were to operate east of the Blue Ridge as a distraction to try to get Sheridan to split his force, which would allow Early to attack.  At Early’s request, Anderson crosses through and enters the Valley.  Sheridan begins a withdrawal toward Winchester.  As Anderson’s troops cross the Shenandoah River on August 16 near Front Royal, Custer and Merritt counterattack and inflict 400 casualties on the vanguard of Anderson’s division.  In the next few weeks Anderson will lose nearly a thousand men as casualties.  Sheridan will miss a couple of opportunities where Early has left Anderson with a small force in front of Sheridan, and Sheridan doesn’t take the bait.  At this point, Sheridan is locked into a strategy that assumes the confederates are too strong to attack, so he’ll remain on the defensive until he learns for certain that Early has detached forces back to Richmond.  His cavalry is involved in daily skirmishes with rebel cavalry.  It becomes a routine affair where Union cavalry advances down the Valley Pike toward Winchester, they drive off the confederate cavalry, and Early has no course but to send his infantry to restore the lines.  As a result, Sheridan’s cavalry becomes quite adept at fighting against infantry.

Sheridan begins to push is line out toward Opequon Creek.  Sheridan will be on the east bank and Early is on the west bank.  Every day, Sheridan hits a part of the confederate line.  They’ll break through and infantry has to restore the line.  Sheridan learns Early returned Kershaw’s division back to Winchester, and he develops a plan which he shows to Grant.

Robert Rodes is killed at Third Winchester.  Third Winchester sowed the seeds of Early’s defeat at Cedar Creek.  Sheridan learns a lot, and in the Appomattox Campaign he’s much more of a risk-taker.

This campaign was a game-changer for the Union.  Lincoln fully recognized the political impact of the campaign.  A lot of the preliminary Congressional and local legislative elections in key states in the North took place in early October of 1864, making the impact of Third Winchester and Cedar Creek very important.

This was really a terrific presentation.  Scott did an outstanding job with it.

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One comment

  1. jfepperson · · Reply

    I have long thought that Sheridan actually had a bit of a confidence problem—that a lot of his bluster was a cover for really being insecure and unsure of himself. This comes out in his erratic performance through August of ’64. In addition to the mistakes that others often cite, he missed an opportunity at First Deep Bottom (late July, 1864). I think Third Winchester was his turning point, in that it proved to him that he could “do this” and do it well, and he was never unsure of himself after that.

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