Phil Sheridan: Youth and Early Military Career
Philip Henry Sheridan was born to Irish parents on March 6, 1831, possibly while the family was en route from Ireland to Somerset, Ohio. (Some historians speculate that he was born in Albany, New York, where his family lived briefly before settling in Ohio.) Sheridan worked as a bookkeeper in a dry goods store during his teen years, and was inspired to pursue a military career after reading stories about the Mexican War (1846-48). He obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1848, but was suspended in September 1851 for threatening a cadet sergeant after a perceived insult. Despite the incident, Sheridan was allowed to return a year later; he graduated from West Point in 1853.
Sheridan spent the next 12 years on the frontier in Texas, California and the Pacific Northwest in a variety of minor roles. He saw action during combat and negotiations with various American Indian tribes and was promoted to captain immediately after the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.
Phil Sheridan: The Rise to Cavalry Commander
As a native Northerner, Sheridan’s decision to fight for the Union was a natural one. His early role in the war was limited to administrative assignments, but his performance was sufficient to earn him command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry in May 1862. He distinguished himself in several minor raids and skirmishes and was rewarded with the rank of brigadier general in June 1862 and major general in December of that same year.
Sheridan became an infantry commander in the Army of the Cumberland. Led by General William S. Rosecrans (1819-98), this Union army spent most of the summer of 1863 in Tennessee operating against Confederate General Braxton Bragg (1817-76). After suffering a crushing defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga in September, Sheridan’s division played a key role in the counterattack that forced Bragg to retreat back into Georgia.
In February 1864, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) gave Grant command of all Union armies. After assuming control of the Army of the Potomac, Grant appointed Sheridan his cavalry commander.
Sheridan soon requested–and was granted–permission to engage in strategic raiding missions. Grant sent him on a raid at Richmond, Virginia, to force Southern General J. E. B. Stuart’s (1833-64) cavalry to challenge Sheridan. Stuart smothered Sheridan’s advance, but the Confederate commander was severely wounded at Yellow Tavern, near Richmond, on May 11, 1864. Stuart’s death the following day made the Battle of Yellow Tavern (which was part of Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia during May and June of 1864) a strategic victory for the Union.
Phil Sheridan: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Sheridan’s performance in the Overland Campaign convinced Grant to send him into the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. His main target was the 15,000 Confederate cavalry troops under General Jubal Early (1816-94). The Confederacy relied on the fertile valley for much of its food, so Grant also ordered Sheridan to devastate the area’s precious farmland.
Through September and October of 1864, Sheridan’s mixed force of 40,000 infantry and cavalry obeyed Grant’s order to turn the valley into a “barren waste.” They destroyed crops, burned barns and captured livestock, foreshadowing Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s (1820-91) similar application of a “scorched earth” policy during his March to the Sea in Georgia only weeks later.
Sheridan repulsed several Confederate attacks during the campaign, but the most notable of these took place at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Early’s cavalry launched a surprise attack on the Union camp while Sheridan was absent from his army. The Northern soldiers were routed by Early’s well-executed attack. However, when the returning Sheridan encountered his fleeing army, he rallied them into a blistering charge against Early’s cavalry. The Southern force withered under the counterattack, and Early’s force was rendered incapable of further action. The Union now controlled the Shenandoah Valley and, by extension, much of the Confederacy’s food supply.
Phil Sheridan: The Battle of Five Forks
Sheridan and his cavalry rejoined the Army of the Potomac in March 1865 at Petersburg, Virginia, where Lee’s army had resisted Grant’s siege since August of the previous year. Desperate to drive Lee from Petersburg, Grant ordered Sheridan and his 12,000 cavalry to capture a nearby railroad known as Five Forks. Lee’s army depended on the railroad for supplies, and any disruption would cripple Lee’s dwindling food stores.
Sheridan’s force seized the rail line on April 1, 1865, despite Confederate General George Pickett’s (1825-75) attempt to stop him at the Battle of Five Forks. By nightfall, some 5,000 Southern soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured, and the last rail line supplying Petersburg was under Union control.
Grant ordered the final assault the next day. The Union army broke through the Confederate lines, but a brief stall in the advance allowed Lee to flee with his battered force at nightfall. He retreated west in an attempt to meet up with other Confederate forces, but Grant, Sheridan and additional Union troops relentlessly pursued him, eventually surrounding Lee’s beleaguered army. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War.
Phil Sheridan: Post-Civil War Life and Death
After the war, Sheridan was appointed to supervise federal Reconstruction (1865-77) efforts in Louisiana and Texas; however, he rapidly earned a reputation as a harsh leader. President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) transferred him to the Department of the Missouri only months later, where he spent several years in the West directing cavalry operations against Native American tribes.
Sheridan succeeded Sherman as general in chief of the U.S. Army in 1883. He held the position until his death at age 57 on August 5, 1888, in Nonquitt, Massachusetts.