Philip "Little Phil" Sheridan
George Pickett's Nemesis

March 6 (1831) is the birthday of Philip Henry Sheridan, famous Civil War cavalry general. Although Confederate General George Pickett (see an earlier post of mine from January 16 of this year) won fame and immortality with his failed charge at Gettysburg in July 1863, his defeat at the Battle of Five Forks at the hands of Phil Sheridan in April 1865 earned him only humiliation – though few people know of the latter debacle. 

Sheridan was quite short, only 5’5”, as you can see in this photo showing him (left) and one of his officers (Col. James Forsyth) late in the Civil War.  

Sheridan graduated from West Point as a second lieutenant in 1853 and was promoted to first lieutenant in March 1861. When the Civil War started a month later in April 1861, he was immediately promoted to captain. He served initially in the western theater, but in May 1862 was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. His aggressiveness and skill at brigade–level command got him promoted to brigadier general in September 1862. By April 1863 he had been promoted to major general. General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant made him commander of all the cavalry forces of the Army of the Potomac.  

By the end of March 1865 Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was spread out thin around Petersburg and Richmond, fending off Grant and the Army of the Potomac. The two armies had been locked in a terrible siege of attrition since the previous summer.  

On April 1 the far right of the Confederate line, southwest of Petersburg, was held by Major General George Pickett in command of a force of about 10,000 troops. His forces were spread out on either side of a town called Five Forks, the key to an important supply and possible evacuation route for Lee’s army. Pickett had just pulled back to this modest defensive line of logs and dirt earlier that day. The line was not well chosen because of low spots. Also, he had placed his cavalry and artillery poorly. 

At about 1:00 pm on April 1 Sheridan’s forces hit the front and right flank of Pickett’s line. This pinned down the Confederates, and two hours later Sheridan hit the Rebel left flank, hard. 

But while this pitched battle was erupting, Pickett was having a late, leisurely lunch of baked shad about a mile and half behind his lines with his cavalry commander, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew. The two generals assumed that Sheridan would not start an attack so late in the day; Civil War battles usually ceased at sunset. In one of the quirks of Civil War battles, the noise of this particular engagement could not be heard by Pickett and Lee because of an intervening pine forest and a heavy, humid atmosphere. (The phenomenon was called an acoustic shadow.)  And neither Pickett nor Lee had told subordinates where they were. In particular the next in command, Major General Rooney Lee, didn’t realize he was in temporary command of the Confederate line. And he was on the far right of the Confederate line anyway. The Confederate defenses suffered from a temporary lack of overall leadership. 

Union forces overwhelmed the Confederates. By the time Pickett realized a massive attack was under way, he could only try to organize a rapid retreat and save as many of his men as he could. The Confederates suffered many casualties and lost many prisoners. Pickett himself did manage to escape the rout – barely - and his remaining forces moved north, off the line. 

When Grant learned of this collapse of the Confederate right on April 1, he ordered an attack all along the Petersburg line the next day, April 2. That attack punctured the Confederate line and forced Robert E. Lee and his army to retreat to the west. Petersburg was lost, and Richmond, the goal of the Union Army for four years, had to be abandoned. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant on April 9. Pickett surrendered along with him and was paroled. 

After the Civil War Sheridan was assigned duty in the West. In August 1867 he was made commander of the vast Department of the Missouri, which encompassed most of the American plains. He was promoted to lieutenant general in 1869, and he was in command during most of the Indian wars on the plains. He was quoted as saying either “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” or “The only good Indians I saw were dead.” Whichever it was, it portrayed him as an ardent racist. 

In November 1883 he was made Commanding General, US Army, succeeding William T. Sherman in that post. He was promoted to general (equivalent to a four-star general today) in June 1888. He died on August 5, 1888.