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Philip Henry Sheridan

By John T. Marck

Born to Irish immigrant parents on March 6, 1831, in Albany, New York, Philip Sheridan received his basic education in Somerset, Ohio where his family moved shortly after he was born.

Although too young to serve in the Mexican War, he desired a military career so he falsified his birth date by one year, enabling him to be admitted to West Point in 1848. Not long after arriving at West Point, he broke ranks during a military formation in a fit of anger and chased a fellow cadet with a fixed bayonet, resulting in his suspension for one year. He did return a year later, and although he was very impulsive person, he did manage to graduate in 1853, thirty-fourth in his class of forty-nine.

He then was breveted a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Infantry Division and assigned to a frontier post along the Rio Grande, then was transferred to the Northwest to fight hostile Indians.

At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed a captain in the 13th Infantry, serving as quartermaster for his regiment, then as quartermaster for Major General Henry W. Halleck's troops during the Corinth, Mississippi Campaign. Unhappy with staff duties, he demonstrated this dissatisfaction in his relationships with others. To the delight of those around him, he was transferred to the 2nd Michigan Cavalry as a colonel on May 25, 1862. This assignment in the cavalry division would become a turning point in the right direction for Sheridan. In his first assignment in the cavalry, he won a decision at Booneville, Mississippi, resulting in his promotion to brigadier of volunteers. Six months later he further distinguished himself at the Battle of Perryville, as an infantry commander, then again at Stone's River, where he was responsible for saving Major General William S. Rosecrans and his army. On March 16, 1863, Sheridan was promoted to major general of volunteers.

In the fall of 1863, Sheridan was the commander of the XX Corps, Army of the Cumberland. He continued to distinguish himself at the Battle of Chattanooga, where he and his force made a gallant charge up Missionary Ridge, defeating Confederate General Braxton Bragg. This action brought Sheridan to the attention of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who when promoted to lieutenant general, promoted Sheridan as commander of all cavalry in the Army of the Potomac. With this responsibility, Sheridan had in his charge three divisions consisting of about ten thousand men. Sheridan or "Little Phil" as he became known, had two positive personality traits that contributed to his success. First was that he always had the willingness to take the offensive, and secondly, that he always capitalized on every opportunity given him by the enemy. Using these traits, Sheridan was able to beat the Confederates decidedly, especially in 1864 and 1865 when the Rebels were vulnerable.

From May 9 and May 25, Sheridan's cavalry was creating havoc for the Confederacy when they cut communication lines near Richmond, creating a near panic situation in the capital. They also destroyed about ten miles of railroad track on three separate railroad lines, disabled the telegraph system, and captured many stores and supplies. Sheridan and his men were also responsible for the Confederate defeat at Yellow Tavern as well as the killing of Lieutenant General J.E.B. Stuart, which was a devastating blow to the Rebels. Although Sheridan suffered defeat at times, such as at Trevilian Station on June 11-12, 1863, they nonetheless were generally successful.

In 1864, Grant decided to send Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley. This area was important to the Union in stopping the Rebels, but more important to the Confederacy as they received supplies and food in the Valley. In sending Sheridan here, Grant told him to destroy all supplies and food that could possibly assist the enemy, as well as push them south. Although Sheridan moved slowly at first, causing some criticism, he then justified his preparations by defeating Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early at Third Winchester, as well as at Fisher's Hill a few days later. For his actions here, Grant promoted him to brigadier general. In Sheridan's devastation of the valley, under a "scorched earth policy," he justified his actions as hoping it would end the war. Sheridan was now despised in the South, as he was the one who destroyed the beautiful land in the Valley, and in doing so created starvation for its inhabitants.

In an effort to retaliate against Sheridan, Confederate General Early launched a surprise attack on him at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Sheridan was caught unprepared, but Sheridan then made his famous ride to the front, rallying his men, turning what should have been a defeat into a victory. For this, Congress rewarded him with thanks and a promotion to major general the Regular Army.

Sheridan continued his destructive ways for the remainder of the war, winning engagements at numerous locations between Winchester and Petersburg, especially at Waynesborough, where he again defeated General Early.

After the war, Sheridan remained in the military, serving as a commander in the Department of the Gulf, handling matters along the Mexican border. During Reconstruction, he was placed in command of the Fifth Military District in Texas and Louisiana, however, was removed six months later for his ruthless treatment and policies. In 1869, upon William T. Sherman being promoted to full general and commander-in-chief of the army, upon Grant's election to the presidency, Sheridan assumed the rank of lieutenant general. Sheridan served in various military posts, until he replaced Sherman as commander-in-chief in 1884, and then he was promoted to the rank of full general on June 1, 1888.

Philip Sheridan died in Nosquitt, Massachusetts on August 5, 1888. Just three days before he died, he completed writing his book, titled: Personal Memoirs.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.