Philip Henry Sheridan (1831-1888)

During the American Civil war Sheridan was a successful and highly aggressive Union Cavalry commander. Held in high regard by General Grant he was a controversial peacetime military governor and eventually became General in Chief of the US Army.

Sheridan was born on 6th March 1831 but doubt remains over his place of birth with Albany, Boston and Ohio all mentioned. Sheridan did spend a lot of his youth in Ohio and then went on to West Point in 1848. His graduation was delayed until 1853 due to his tendency to be very aggressive and quick to anger. This aggressive spirit controlled by maturity was one of his strengths as a leader and made him ideally suited to the Cavalry. Nine years of active duty in frontier posts in the west earned him a promotion to captain and when the civil war broke out he found himself serving as a quartermaster in southwest Missouri. His determination to fight led him to be promoted to Colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry in 1862 and quickly proved his worth dividing his force to rout a larger confederate force at the battle of Booneville on 1st July. This brought promotion to Brigadier-general of volunteers.

At Perryville, Kentucky on 8th October 1862 he led the 11th division of the Army of Ohio and held well against repeated attacks. In the battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro) Sheridan once more showed his ability to hold the line against repeated attacks between 31 December 1862 and 3rd January 1863, the resulting stalemate being a strategic victory for the Union.  This earned him promotion to Major-general of Volunteers. In September 1863 after the battle of Chickamauga Sheridan was forced to retire and regroup but failed to do so in time to relieve Major-General George Thomas, which attracted criticism after the war. After the battle of Chattanooga in November Sheridan was called east to take command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

Arriving in his new command Sheridan displayed his usual aggressiveness raising the morale of the cavalry by ordering new equipment, and reducing picket and escort duties, which gave the cavalry more freedom of action. Sheridan ordered new repeating carbines, which increased the cavalry’s fire power but needed greater use of dismounted cavalry to be fully exploited, something Sheridan encouraged his officers to do. After the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 Grant ordered Sheridan to lead his 10,000 cavalry on a raid towards Richmond. Sheridan’s cavalry disrupted supply lines, burned stores and damaged the railroads until meeting the Confederate Cavalry in the Battle of Yellow Tavern outside Richmond on 11th May.  Sheridan’s forces met the cavalry under the command of General ‘Jeb’ Stuart and drove them from the field mortally wounded General Stuart as blow to the Southern cause.

Union Cavalry Raids of 1864

On 4th August Grant gave Sheridan command of the Army of Shenandoah with orders to clear out the rebels in the valley and destroy the confederate means of continuing the war. Grant told Sheridan to “eat out Virginia clean and clear…. So that crows flying over it will have to carry their own provender”. After a six week delay various battles followed including the Battle of Cedar Creek when on 19th October the Union forces were ready to break before Sheridan rode 20 miles to take command personally and rallied them, leading a counter attack which shattered the Confederates. By March 1865 Sheridan was with his cavalry at Petersburg and with infantry support encircled the city and cut General Lee’s Railway supply lines. At the end of March he went on the offensive and drove Lee westwards but Sheridan relieved the commander of the 5th infantry (General Warren) of his command for not being aggressive enough in the attack, another action that brought post war criticism. Grant held Sheridan in high regard and saw that his aggressive actions made a huge difference to the Union cause possibly saving many lives in the long term. Sheridan continued his pressure against Lee and helped close his line of escape in the end.

After the war Sheridan was ordered down to the Gulf of Mexico but Sheridan was slow to adjust to the demands of peace and brought criticism of his posts in Texas and Louisiana in 1867, which led to some bringing up old criticisms of his war time record.  Sheridan went on to plan and execute the Indian campaign of 1868-9 and became a Lieutenant General. In 1870-71 Sheridan attended the Prussian HQ during the final stages of the Franco Prussian war as a military observer. He became General in chief of the US army in November 1883 becoming a full general in 1888. He died on 5th August 1888 in Nonquitt Massachusetts.

In many ways Sheridan was what Custer should have been, he was an aggressive and determined cavalry commander but showed real concern over his men and true leadership ability especially at Cedar Creek, things Custer was incapable of.  Sheridan had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and was quick to relieve those he felt had failed him and this was bound to make him enemies. Grant’s patronage of Sheridan served him well but Sheridan was in many ways a born soldier and struggled to adapt to peacetime duties. Without doubt Sheridan was one of the best cavalry commanders in history despite the criticisms levelled at him.

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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (13 May 2006), Philip Henry Sheridan (1831-1888) ,

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