Sheridan the Inevitable

This is a book by Richard O’Connor originally published in 1953. It’s a good read, but much has been learned since the book was published.

Still, it tells us a number of things. “Long after the war Sheridan told a boyhood friend how he felt about burning out the Shenandoah Valley: ‘I am sure there is more mercy in destroying supplies than in killing their young men, which a continuance of the war would entail. If I had a barn full of wheat and a son, I would much sooner lose the barn and wheat than my son. … The question was, must we destroy their supplies or kill their young men? We chose the former.’ ” [p. 16] Also, “To him, the last of the great horse cavalrymen, the cavalry was a striking arm, not a throwback to the days of chivalry. The horse was a means of bringing a soldier to a battle, but not necessarily into battle. If aimed fire from the Federal army’s new repeating rifles and carbines was more effective, then, in his opinion, only a fool would employ sabers and pistols from the unstable platform of a horse’s back.” [p. 17] That corresponds to an impression I’ve developed in reading about Sheridan as the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps and his command of the Army of the Shenandoah. He transformed the cavalry into more of a mounted infantry corps than it had been, though it did retain its ability to perform normal cavalry functions as well.

Philip wasn’t the only Sheridan boy in the army, though he’s the most famous. His brother John enlisted as a private, and his brother Mike was an officer on Phil’s staff. Phil Sheridan first made a name for himself not as a cavalryman, nor as an infantryman, but as a staff officer. “Sheridan was appointed president of a board auditing [Major General John C.] Fremont’s expenditures and passing on claims against the army. For almost two months Sheridan and his board struggled with Fremont’s eccentric accounting. He kept his patience in trying circumstances, although it might be expected that a man of his active disposition would resent such dreary chores. … He performed his tasks so well that General Halleck marked him down as a most promising officer. On December 27, 1861, he was transferred to the staff of Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Army of the Southwest, which was preparing to drive the Confederates out of southern Missouri and come to grips with Sterling Price once and for all. First appointed chief commissary of the army, Captain Sheridan did not hesitate to point out to General Halleck that he ought to be made chief quartermaster as well. He argued that the Army of the Southwest would have to live off the country as much as possible while it moved southward. It would be better if one man controlled the transport of rations as well as their collection and distribution. General Halleck finally yielded to his arguments, and Sheridan proceeded to General Curtis’ headquarters at Rolla, the army’s railhead.” [p. 57]

As a biography of Sheridan, the book is engaging and informative. Its major drawback is the author’s uncritical acceptance of Sheridan’s word. Other than that, though, it’s well worth the read.

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