Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan was an important leader in the struggle to save the United States from dissolution during the 1860s. He is known in the Shenandoah Valley for his scorched-earth policy meant to end the rebellion, but his accomplishments are often eclipsed by the shadows of his immediate superiors: Ulysses Grant and William Sherman.
Sheridan followed a career path similar to that of Gen. Nathaniel Greene, George Washington’s go-to guy in America’s war against England at the end of the 18th century.
Like Greene, Sheridan began his military career as a logistician. His job was to find, procure and distribute supplies to the troops in the field. The coming of the War of Rebellion gave him an opportunity for field duty and that quickly led to field command.
Unlike Greene, Sheridan preferred an offensive stance on the field of battle. Sheridan was an alert soldier whose planning and readiness kept the rebel army from a potentially game-changing victory at Stones River, Tenn. Sheridan also brought to battle an attitude not seen before in American combat. He believed that a war should not spare civilians, especially when those civilians were supplying the enemy.
His approach was also the inspiration for Gen. Sherman’s famous march through Georgia — a movement designed to bring the war to the civilians who were financing the insurrection.
In 1870, Sheridan was consulted by Otto von Bismarck, whose Prussian army was trying to suppress French guerrillas during the Franco-Prussian War. Sheridan’s advice: “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with after the war.” According to Wheelan, this bit of advice was the genesis of the German warfare of the mid-20th century.
Sheridan showed his fearless leadership often but is perhaps best known for his work at the battle of Cedar Creek where he rode his horse back and forth in front of his troops to inspire them.
The rebel army had routed the larger American forces, which were in retreat when Sheridan rode at full speed toward the front exhorting his troops to turn and fight. He removed his hat so the troops could see that it was their commanding general riding between the American line and the enemy. That action was the inspiration for the statue in Sheridan Square near where Sheridan and his family lived in Washington.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan was fashioning the U.S. Cavalry into a lethal offensive weapon, and his work would show its effect in the battle of Five Forks during the rebel retreat toward Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865.
Sheridan was also the first American general to conduct battlefield maneuvers involving cavalry, infantry and artillery working as a unit. His pioneering strategy would become standard operating procedure.
Sheridan was instrumental in the action leading to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He was in Washington after Appomattox for a celebratory parade when he was given orders to report to Texas to find and arrest former rebel soldiers who were planning attacks from Mexico.
His experience in the war and in the West brought him another assignment: Bring the Plains Indians back to their reservations. He used his scorched-earth tactics there as he had in the Shenandoah Valley. He waged war in the winter. He slaughtered buffalo in large numbers. He was ruthless, but he won. He also quickly turned from aggressor to protector for the Plains people he had subdued.
Sheridan waged another war where he was the prime defender of an American treasure. He fought against vandals and poachers and entrepreneurs who were a three-pronged threat to Yellowstone National Park.
At the end of his career, Sheridan became the commander of the United States Army, following, in order, Grant and Sherman.
Wheelan’s biography also shows aspects of Sheridan’s battlefield leadership that foreshadow the work of 3rd Army commander, Lt. Gen. George Patton, who exhibited the same energy and personal leadership during World War II.
Wheelan has provided a detailed, very personal portrait of a dynamic American leader whose accomplishments helped shape our country after the rebellion crisis of the mid-19th century. Many books treating aspects of the American Civil War provide detailed accounts of battles that can become mind-numbing to the average reader of history. Here the battle scenes focus more on Sheridan’s character, his skills, and his leadership than the action on the field, providing a complete portrait of a man who helped shape American history.