Major General Philip Sheridan was Ulysses S. Grant’s protege and moved with him to the Eastern Theater from the West. Grant transferred Sheridan from command of an infantry division in the Western Theater to lead the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in the East.
Fully grown, he reached only 165 cm (5 feet 5 inches) tall, a stature that led to the nickname, “Little Phil.” Abraham Lincoln described his appearance in a famous anecdote: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”
At the start of the war the 30-year old Sheridan, a West Point graduate, was a captain in the Regular Army. He was ordered to report to Jefferson Barracks in the St. Louis area for assignment to the 13th U.S. Infantry. But Major General Henry W. Halleck commandeered his services to audit the financial records of his immediate predecessor, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, whose administration of the Department of the Missouri was tainted by charges of wasteful expenditures and fraud that left the status of $12 million in doubt. Sheridan sorted out the mess, impressing Halleck in the process.
In December, Sheridan was appointed chief commissary officer of the Army of Southwest Missouri, but convinced the department commander, Halleck, to give him the position of quartermaster general as well. In January 1862, he reported for duty to Maj. Gen.Samuel Curtis and served under him at the Battle of Pea Ridge.
Sheridan soon discovered that officers were engaged in profiteering. They stole horses from civilians and demanded payment from Sheridan. He refused to pay for the stolen property and confiscated the horses for the use of Curtis’s army. When Curtis ordered him to pay the officers, Sheridan brusquely retorted, “No authority can compel me to jayhawk or steal.” Curtis had Sheridan arrested for insubordination but Halleck’s influence appears to have ended any formal proceedings.
Sheridan performed aptly in his role under Curtis and, now returned to Halleck’s headquarters, he accompanied the army on the Siege of Corinth and served as an assistant to the department’s topographical engineer, but also made the acquaintance of Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman, who offered him the colonelcy of an Ohio infantry regiment. This appointment fell through, but Sheridan was subsequently aided by friends (including future Secretary of War Russell A. Alger), who petitioned Michigan Governor Austin Blair on his behalf. Sheridan was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry on May 27, 1862, despite having no experience in the mounted arm.
After the Battle of Booneville on July 1, 1862 Sheridan was promoted to brigadier general. By the fall of 1862 he was in command of a division at the Battle of Perryville. For his actions at the Battle of Stone’s River Sheridan was promoted to major general on April 10, 1863. In six months, he had risen from captain to major general.
At the Battle of Chickamauga Sheridan’s division made a gallant stand on Lytle Hill against an attack by the Confederate corps of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, but was swamped by retreating Union soldiers. The Confederates drove Sheridan’s division from the field in confusion. He gathered as many men as he could and withdrew toward Chattanooga, rallying troops along the way. He returned to the field but took no part in the further fighting.
During the Battle of Chattanooga, at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, Sheridan’s division and others in George Thomas’s army broke through the Confederate lines in a wild charge that exceeded the orders and expectations of Thomas and Ulysses S. Grant. Just before his men stepped off, Sheridan told them, “Remember Chickamauga,” and many shouted its name as they advanced as ordered to a line of rifle pits in their front. General Grant reported after the battle, “To Sheridan’s prompt movement, the Army of the Cumberland and the nation are indebted for the bulk of the capture of prisoners, artillery, and small arms that day. Except for his prompt pursuit, so much in this way would not have been accomplished.”
In April of 1864 General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant transferred Sheridan to the Army of the Potomac as Cavalry Corps commander. When Meade quarreled with Sheridan for not performing his duties of screening and reconnaissance as ordered, Sheridan told Meade that he could “whip Stuart” if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”
Meade deferred to Grant’s judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to “proceed against the enemy’s cavalry” and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry. The raid was less successful than hoped; although his raid managed to mortally wound Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern on May 11 and beat Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee at Meadow Bridge on May 12.
The Cavalry Corps fought in a number of engagements the most significant being holding the critical crossroads at Cold Harbor and withstood a number of assaults until reinforced. Grant then ordered Sheridan on a raid to the northwest to break the Virginia Central Railroad and to link up with the Shenandoah Valley army of Maj. Gen. David Hunter. He was intercepted by the Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton at the Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11–12), where in the largest all-cavalry battle of the war, he achieved tactical success on the first day, but suffered heavy casualties during multiple assaults on the second. He withdrew without achieving his assigned objectives.
In August of 1864 Grant appointed Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. His mission was not only to defeat Early’s army and to close off the Northern invasion route, but to deny the Shenandoah Valley as a productive agricultural region to the Confederacy. Grant told Sheridan, “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. … Give the enemy no rest … Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”
On September 19, Sheridan beat Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s much smaller army at Third Winchester and followed up on September 22 with a victory at Fisher’s Hill. As Early attempted to regroup, Sheridan began the punitive operations of his mission, sending his cavalry as far south as Waynesboro to seize or destroy livestock and provisions, and to burn barns, mills, factories, and railroads. Sheridan’s men did their work relentlessly and thoroughly, rendering over 400 miles uninhabitable.
The destruction presaged the scorched earth tactics of Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia—deny an army a base from which to operate and bring the effects of war home to the population supporting it. The residents referred to this widespread destruction as “The Burning.” The destruction of the Valley is still remembered today. It is believed that Sheridan’s troops burned every barn in the northern end of the Valley. The Confederates were not idle during this period and Sheridan’s men were plagued by guerrilla raids by partisan ranger Col. John S. Mosby.
At Cedar Creek Sheridan made his well-documented ride from Winchester ten miles to rally his men and reverse the Confederate tide. Early had been dealt his most significant defeat, rendering his army almost incapable of future offensive action. Sheridan received a personal letter of thanks from Abraham Lincoln and a promotion to major general in the regular army as of November 8, 1864, making him the fourth ranking general in the Army, after Grant, Sherman, and Meade.
In February 1865 Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps moved out of their winter quarters and headed East. The orders from Gen. Grant were largely discretionary: they were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, then either join William T. Sherman in North Carolina or return to Winchester. They destroyed everything of value to the Confederate government in their path.
Sheridan interpreted Grant’s orders liberally and instead of heading to North Carolina in March 1865, he moved to rejoin the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He wrote in his memoirs, “Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.” His finest service of the Civil War was demonstrated during his relentless pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army, effectively managing the most crucial aspects of the Appomattox Campaign for Grant.
Sheridan’s aggressive and well-executed performance at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek on April 6 effectively sealed the fate of Lee’s army, capturing over 20% of his remaining men. President Lincoln sent Grant a telegram on April 7: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” At Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865, Sheridan blocked Lee’s escape, forcing the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia later that day. Grant summed up Sheridan’s performance in these final days: “I believe General Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.”
The thirteen-day burning of the richest agricultural counties in Virginia by Sheridan’s troops is only mentioned in passing in the regimental histories that were written after the war. Stephen Starr wrote in his Union Cavalry in the Civil War: “The deliberate planned devastation of the Shenandoah Valley has deservedly ranked as one of the grimmest episodes of a sufficiently grim war. Unlike the haphazard destruction caused by (Gen. William T.) Sherman’s bummers in Georgia, it was committed systematically, and by order.” The residents of the Valley remembered. If nothing else stuck in their minds, the time the burners came did, and individual stories of the sufferings of the people were passed from generation to generation.
From September 26 to the close of October 8 there were thirteen days of continuous burning of property and confiscation of livestock in four Valley counties; Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Page. As the top two wheat-producing counties in Virginia, Augusta County and Rockingham County deserved the nickname of the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.
The campaign of destruction, misunderstood from the very beginning, continues to be little understood today. It is often referred to as a “raid,” although it was well planned and involved 5,000 cavalrymen and a brigade of infantry doing the actual destruction, while thousands of additional soldiers in blue were called upon to drive off or kill livestock. To an individual farm family watching hogs slaughtered in the pens and barn and other outbuildings going up in smoke, it must have seemed a random orgy of destruction. In reality, Sheridan had given specific orders: barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be reduced to ashes; but, the properties of widows, single women, and orphans were not to be molested and private homes were not to be harmed. Evidence shows that most of the soldiers followed orders, though there were a number of instances of looting.
From a hill near Mt. Jackson Union cavalrymen counted 168 barns burning at one time. When it was all over Sheridan’s men had systematically destroyed around 1,400 barns, countless other farm structures, seventy mills, several factories, three iron furnaces, warehouses and railroad buildings, and hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and corn, and crops standing in the fields. In Rockingham County alone over 10,000 head of livestock were driven off.