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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Terrible Swift Sword’
Question of the Day
If Ulysses Grant was the prototypical Dwight Eisenhower, and if William T. Sherman foreshadowed Omar Bradley, then it is not too much of a stretch to call Philip Sheridan the George Patton of the Union armies of the Civil War — minus the ego-driven tantrums.
In postwar years, both Grant and Sherman praised Sheridan as the best military commander of that war. And indeed, he would succeed both men as the top commander of the U.S. Army in the decades that followed.
But as this thoroughly researched, well-written biography makes clear, one of the reasons Sheridan’s name is often scanted in the current politically correct histories of today is that — more than either of the others — Sheridan believed in “total war.” That is, he was by temperament and by experience firmly convinced that the only way to shorten the horrors of any conflict was to wage it so destructively that the enemy’s capacity to fight would be destroyed as soon as possible.
As author Joseph Wheelan, a journalist and seasoned military historian, describes Sheridan, “He believed ends justified practically any means, no matter how harsh. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan’s name will always be associated with ‘the Burning’— his systematic destruction of Virginia’s breadbasket. In some parts of the West, his name evokes images of bloody daybreak attacks on Indian villages in wintertime.”
Yet, as Mr. Wheelan also notes, “One thread running through Sheridan’s life was his readiness to defend what he believed needed protecting, utilizing every available resource. After fighting to save the Union, he defended black freedmen against ex-Rebels in Texas and Louisiana; settlers against pillaging Indians; reservation Indians against corrupt agents and contractors; and Yellowstone National Park against vandals, poachers, and corporate exploiters.”
While there is some dispute whether Sheridan was born in Ireland or not, his immigrant father in 1831 moved the family to the village of Somerset, Ohio, where he became a contractor for the mammoth National Road construction project to link the Potomac and Mississippi rivers.
Philip Sheridan was hardly a heroic figure. Barely five feet tall, with short legs but an elongated torso, his head was so oddly shaped that only a pork-pie-style hat would stay on. Young Philip left school at 14 and worked his way up as a store clerk and accountant and by coincidence made friends with a young West Point cadet named William Sherman. The support of friends would be a key element throughout Sheridan’s life.
Nominated by a local congressman, Sheridan entered West Point in 1848 where he had trouble suppressing his willingness to fight cadet upperclassmen over perceived slights — he was suspended for a year and was finally granted his commission by the academy’s superintendant Robert E. Lee in 1853. However, at West Point he had become a devotee of the iconic professor Dennis Hart Mahan who preached the “total war” commandment that, as Mr. Wheelan notes, “A leader … should make it his object to destroy the enemy’s army and not simply to capture territory. Furthermore, he wrote war must be carried into the enemy’s homeland to make the civilian population suffer… .”
Like most young officers in that interbellum period, Sheridan slogged among dismal army postings, spending most of his time chasing resisting Indian tribes who attacked isolated settlers in what would become Oregon and Washington. He did, however, manage to win promotion to captain by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
While Sherman’s friendship was an important force in Sheridan’s rapid rise in the war, it was his methodical organization of his troops and resources that he had absorbed from his storekeeping youth, plus his fierce, combative nature that made him intensely popular among the men he led to repeated success against heavy odds in the years of conflict.
In just two years of hard fighting in Tennessee and Mississippi, both Grant and Sherman pushed through his promotion to the rank of major general and the command of a newly organized Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Heretofore, the Union cavalry had seen desultory service as pickets, guards for supply trains and occasional scouting duties.
What Sheridan argued — and both Grant and Sherman agreed — was that the Union Cavalry should be a strike force of its own, confronting the then-superior Confederate horse force and directly attacking and destroying the civilian capacity to supply the Rebel forces, and to prevent Lee’s masterful maneuvering of his scarce infantry to advantage on the battlefield.
Despite the opposition of some officers — most notably Gen. George Meade — and the clapped-out state of the cavalry’s horses, men and equipment, Sheridan soon whipped them into a unified fighting force imbued with a new spirit. He found allies within the corps itself, most notably Michigan’s fiery George Armstrong Custer. Sheridan also armed his men with the new seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles that were the force multiplier of their day.
Starting with the Wilderness Campaign of 1864 and the killing of Rebel cavalry icon Jeb Stuart at Yellow Tavern, through his miraculous revival of his retreating troops at the battle of Cedar Creek near Winchester that autumn, Sheridan’s personal magnetism so inspired his troops that they truly can be said to have shortened the war. His campaign to burn out the farms, crops, canals, railroads and other resources of the Shenandoah can also be said to have ultimately forced Lee to abandon Richmond the next spring to search for new support beyond Appomattox Courthouse, where the war effectively ended.
The author makes no excuses for Sheridan’s later ferocity to resistant Plains Indians who refused to dwell in reservations, but he also gives us a balanced picture of how he came to support the tribes, particularly against greedy government bureaucrats, and to preserve the breathtaking natural wonders of Yellowstone National Park from the developers of the day.
In all, this book is a readable, informative and, in parts, exciting portrait of a complicated but ultimately heroic figure from our not-so-distant past.
James Srodes’ latest book, “On Dupont Circle,” was published last August by Counterpoint.
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