Phil Sheridan

Today, March 6, is the birthday of Philip Henry Sheridan (1831). He was a famous Civil War general and an infamous general during the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War period. 

He 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. In a single year he had gone from first lieutenant to major general. 

Sheridan was quite short, only 5’5”, and he was nicknamed “Little Phil”.

He was a favorite of General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, who made him commander of the cavalry forces of the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan was credited with hounding Robert E. Lee in his retreat from Richmond in April 1865 and forcing his final surrender at Appomattox Court House.  

His most dramatic action in the Civil War was his dash from Winchester, VA in October 1864 to rejoin his army which had suddenly been attacked in the Battle of Cedar Creek. He rallied his troops and defeated Confederate General Jubal Early. The exploit was made famous in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read, “Sheridan’s Ride”: 

After the Civil War he 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 mass killer. 

Little known is that he was a strong proponent and protector of Yellowstone National Park. The military administered the park until 1916 when it was taken over by the National Park Service. 

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. 

Sheridan’s statue is found in many places, his name has been applied to cities, counties, parks, schools, forts, tanks, and squares, and his likeness has appeared on U.S. stamps and currency.