Philip H Sheridan

Philip H Sheridan

Civil War (Union) · US Army · Colonel

The New York Times, 6 August 1888, 1

    The New York Times, 6 August 1888, 2

      The Battle of Cedar Creek

        _"A victory turned from disaster…"_Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan

        Following his victories in September and October, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his 32,000 man Army of the Shenandoah conducted a systematic destruction of a 75 mile swath of the Shenandoah Valley. "The Burning" essentially laid waste to the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy." Confident the campaign was over, Sheridan camped his army north of Cedar Creek before traveling to Washington, D.C. to confer with higher authorities about future movements.

        The poorly equipped and ill-fed Confederate Army of the Valley, led by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, reduced to between 14,000-15,000 men, seemed to pose little threat. Desperate to achieve a victory, however, Early and his commanders devised a daring plan to attack Sheridan. Following an all-night march along the base of the Massanutten Mountain, including two river crossings, the Confederates rolled out of a dense fog in the pre-dawn hours of October 19. Catching many Northern soldiers sleeping, the Confederate onslaught overran the Union 8th Corps and then 19th Corps, and drove past the Belle Grove Plantation. The Union 6th Corps, given more warning, was able to offer stiffer resistance (including a determined stand amongst the stones of the Middletown cemetery), but by 10:30 a.m. the stunned Union army was in full retreat.

        Feeling his had achieved a spectacular victory, Early sought to secure their captured spoils (including 24 Union cannon and over a 1,000 prisoners), while his soldiers solidified their final line just north of Middletown. Exhaustion, along with widespread looting of the captured Union camps, however, reduced the strength of the already outnumbered Confederate army.

        Sheridan, riding from Winchester that morning, was completely unaware of the disaster that had befallen his army. Upon hearing the growing sounds of battle, however, he quickened his pace and rode hard to the field. "Sheridan's Ride" (later celebrated in art and poetry) forever cemented his status in American history. Rallying his defeated forces, he then ordered a counterattack at 4:00 p.m. which swept the Confederates from the field, recaptured all of the lost artillery (plus 24 Confederate cannons) and over 1,200 prisoners. Total casualties numbered approximately 8,600 (5,700 Union and 2,900 Confederate), making it the second bloodiest battle in the Shenandoah Valley.

        Early's army was shattered, and with it further Confederate resistance in the Valley ended. Occurring just three weeks before the presidential election, Cedar Creek gave sagging Northern morale a much needed boost and helped carry Abraham Lincoln to a landslide victory at the polls.

            A ruthless warrior, General Philip Sheridan played a decisive role in the army's long campaign against the native peoples of the plains, forcing them onto reservations with the tactics of total war.

            Sheridan was born in Albany, New York, in 1831, but grew up in Ohio. He attended West Point and, after a year's suspension for assaulting a fellow cadet with a bayonet, graduated near the bottom of his class in 1853.

            Like all the U.S. generals of the Indian wars, Sheridan gained his military experience in the Civil War. An obscure lieutenant serving in Oregon when Fort Sumter was shelled, Sheridan rose to the command of the Union's cavalry by the time the Confederacy surrendered. He saw action in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and in Virginia, where his campaign through the Shenandoah Valley laid waste to an important source of Confederate supplies. At Petersburg he won an important victory that halted Robert E. Lee's retreat from Richmond and helped bring the war to an end.

            After the war, Sheridan was first given command over Texas and Louisiana, where his support for Mexican Republicans helped speed the collapse of Maximillian's regime and where his harsh treatment of former Confederates led to charges of "absolute tyranny." Within six months he was transferred to the Department of the Missouri, where he immediately shaped a battle plan to crush Indian resistance on the southern plains.

            Following the tactics he had employed in Virginia, Sheridan sought to strike directly at the material basis of the Plains Indian nations. He believed -- correctly, it turned out -- that attacking the Indians' in their encampments during the winter would give him the element of surprise and take advantage of the scarce forage available for Indian mounts. He was unconcerned about the likelihood of high casualties among noncombatants, once remarking that "If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack."

            The first demonstration of this strategy came in 1868, when three columns of troops under Sheridan's command converged on what is now northwestern Oklahoma to force the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne onto their reservations. The key engagement in this successful campaign was George Armstrong Custer's surprise attack on Black Kettle'sencampment along the Washita River, an attack that came at dawn after a forced march through a snowstorm. Many historians now regard this victory as a massacre, since Black Kettle was a peaceful chief whose encampment was on reservation soil, but for Sheridan the attack served its purpose, helping to persuade other bands to give up their traditional way of life and move onto the reservations.

            In 1869, Sheridan succeeded William Tecumseh Sherman as commander of the Division of the Missouri, which encompassed the entire plains region from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. With Sherman, he refined his tactics -- massive force directed in surprise attacks against Indian encampments -- to mount successful campaigns against the tribes of the southern plains in 1874-1875, and against those of the northern plains in 1876-1877. Where some of his generals in these campaigns, such as Nelson A. Miles, occasionally expressed a soldierly respect for the Indians they were fighting, Sheridan was notorious for his supposed declaration that "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead" -- an attribution he steadfastly denied.

            Sheridan became commanding general of the United States Army in 1884 and held that post until his death in 1888.