Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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One of the most highly decorated officers in military history, Sheridan stands out for his exploits in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. He is known for his famous ride during the Battle of Cedar Creek and for his implementation of a hard war that scarred the landscape in what some Virginia residents aptly termed "The Burning." Historians typically group Sheridan among the top three generals on the Union side in the Civil War, next to Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Together the men ...
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Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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One of the most highly decorated officers in military history, Sheridan stands out for his exploits in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. He is known for his famous ride during the Battle of Cedar Creek and for his implementation of a hard war that scarred the landscape in what some Virginia residents aptly termed "The Burning." Historians typically group Sheridan among the top three generals on the Union side in the Civil War, next to Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Together the men formed the team that helped defeat the Confederacy and preserve the Union.
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On the morning of October 19, 1864, Major General Phil Sheridan learned that his army was in trouble. Returning from meeting with superiors in Washington, he had stopped for the night in Winchester, Virginia, roughly twenty miles from where Confederates had dislodged his troops from a camp along Cedar Creek. Alerted to the danger, Sheridan mounted his warhorse Rienzi and told the stragglers he encountered along the way to turn around and re-engage the enemy. Sheridan called to one group of men: "Boys turn back; face the other way. I am going to sleep in that camp tonight or in hell." His presence electrified the soldiers, who subsequently reversed the momentum, turning defeat into victory. This dramatic action in the battle of Cedar Creek, which culminated weeks of engagements in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall of 1864, further restricted the resources available for Robert E. Lee at Petersburg, cheered a weary Union that had grown disgruntled with a steady stream of casualties, and helped ensure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

This book contains Sheridan's account of this dramatic battlefield reversal, along with numerous other episodes in the career of one of the most famous soldiers in U.S. history. Sheridan stands out most to students of the Civil War for his exploits in the Shenandoah Valley-both his famous ride during the Battle of Cedar Creek and for his implementation of a hard war that scarred the landscape in what some Virginia residents aptly termed "The Burning." Historians typically group Sheridan among the top three generals on the Union side in the Civil War, next to Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Together the men formed the team that helped defeat the Confederacy and preserve the Union. Read in conjunction with the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, the reminiscences provide readers with the maneuvers that eventually trapped Lee's army at Appomattox Court House.

Yet Sheridan's life involved much more than the fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, or even the Civil War for that matter. The memoirs reproduced here cover the general's life up to his return from observing the Franco-Prussian War. Missing are the final years of his life when he succeeded Sherman as commanding general of the army, but he enjoyed a long, distinguished military service that spanned from the Old Army in the antebellum period to the wars against Native Americans after the conflict. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in military history. When promoted to lieutenant general, he was among only four men to share the honor to that point. With his fellow officers Grant and Sherman, he became among the first in the nation to hold the rank of general. The three men had much to say about the policies, conduct, and shape of the U.S. military into the twentieth century. Through these reminiscences, published shortly after his death in 1888, readers can witness more than his life: they can see the evolution of the U.S. Army as the nation matured through bloody Civil War and western expansion.

Contemporaries considered Sheridan to have a personality more expansive than his diminutive frame. "Little Phil" was short, rising to no more than five feet five inches and weighing in the vicinity of 115 pounds. People were especially captivated by the size and form of his head, which was noticeably large and bullet shaped. The most famous portrait of the general comes from Colonel Charles S. Wainright, who notes: "He is short, thickset, and common Irish-looking. Met in the Bowery, one would certainly set him down as a 'b'hoy'; and his dress is in perfect keeping with that character." Sheridan was anything but common in battle. Unlike his superior officer Grant, he became highly animated, dashed from point to point, shook his fists, encouraged, entreated, and pressed his men to perform. Horace Porter, one of Grant's aides, marveled at the passion shown by the general and commented that it would be a sorry soldier who could avoid following such a leader.

Sheridan's early years contained little to foreshadow a noteworthy career. Biographers typically note his common roots and the fact that his actual birthplace is uncertain. Sheridan claims birth in Albany, New York, on March 6, 1831. Historian David Coffey proclaims that Sheridan's nativity "could have occurred anywhere between Ireland and Somerset, Ohio." Sheridan grew up in Ohio, where his father worked as a contractor on various canal and macadamized road projects. The young Sheridan received a basic education in what he calls a small village school, which equipped him with reading and math skills. At the age of fourteen he began work in a town store and then progressed to a dry-goods establishment where he supervised the bookkeeping.

His first step toward fame came when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, yet his career at the academy contained little to mark him for greatness. In fact, his pugnacious character nearly cost him graduation. Taking issue with a command from a cadet sergeant, he charged the man with a fixed bayonet. Put on suspension for a year, he finally graduated in 1853 and ranked thirty-four out of fifty-two cadets. Like many professional soldiers then, he was assigned to the West where the U.S. army conducted surveys and tried to stabilize white settlements in territory contested with Native Americans. This section of the memoirs reveals the challenges of this kind of fighting, the smallness of the Old Army, and some of the characters who become more familiar later in the Civil War.

Sheridan experienced a spectacular rise through the ranks during the war. When the conflict opened in 1861, he was still a second lieutenant stationed on the West Coast. By November 1861 he had risen to captain and was assigned to the army in Missouri under the command of Henry Wager Halleck. There Sheridan cleaned up a mess left on the books and, as chief commissary and then quartermaster of the Army of Southwest Missouri, demonstrated an organizational facility and appreciation for logistics that caught the eye of superiors. Promotion to brigadier general came in July 1862. He was active in both the Perrysville and Murfreesboro campaigns, with the latter action resulting in his promotion to major general by early 1863. He led the men who successfully assaulted Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1863. Afterward, he was brought to the East and appointed commander of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864.

The Union cavalry had been maturing as an effective fighting force, but the new commander accelerated the process. Sheridan argued for using the cavalry as an offensive weapon, rather than for reconnaissance and guarding supply lines. In May 1864, he launched an expedition to threaten the Confederate capital at Richmond. In the process, Sheridan's cavalry met and defeated its old nemesis, Confederate horse soldiers under J. E. B. Stuart, who was killed in the battle of Yellow Tavern. From then on, whenever Grant needed a person to handle an emergency or push into a critical situation, he seemed to look in Sheridan's direction. The commanding general tapped Sheridan to assume an independent command to eliminate the Confederate threat in the Shenandoah Valley, which featured his famous ride from Winchester. During a critical moment in the fighting at Five Forks in the spring of 1865, Sheridan was placed in command of infantry corps to press the action. Finally, he played an instrumental role in chasing Lee's retreating forces toward Appomattox.

The careful reader of these memoirs will notice important ingredients of Sheridan's military leadership. In addition to the passion and adaptability that he demonstrated in battle, he also was more calculated. First, he appreciated the importance of caring for his men and animals. Logistics mattered to Sheridan, especially if it meant having men who were fit enough, motivated enough, and equipped well enough to beat the enemy. He also did everything he could to become familiar with the ground and the disposition of the enemy force. He liked to study the opponent and the situation. To help this effort, he used what he calls "scouts," another name for spies. In the Shenandoah Valley, for instance, Sheridan deployed men in Confederate dress who fooled residents loyal to the Confederacy into thinking they were friendly forces. Finally, he used whatever hard tactics he could. Before William Tecumseh Sherman made his march to the sea in the Savannah Campaign, Sheridan eagerly visited upon much of the Shenandoah Valley a hard brand of warfare designed to limit the ability of the Confederacy to sustain itself. On October 7, 1864, he happily reported to Grant that his soldiers had destroyed more than 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; more than seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; and killed, drove off, or slaughtered for the army thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses.

After the war, Sheridan remained in the center of important developments for the nation. Chosen to serve during Reconstruction as military commander of the district encompassing Texas and Louisiana, the general created controversies by using the army to overrule civil authority. It was the only way for him to protect black people who received no justice from the courts. To accomplish law and order, Sheridan removed elected officials from office, which caused President Andrew Johnson eventually to replace the general. Assigned to the West, Sheridan became somewhat infamous for his campaigns against Native Americans, although he denied ever saying the phrase, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." He did, however, revisit the hard tactics used in the Shenandoah Valley and conducted a winter campaign to destroy the subsistence base of the Native Americans. In 1883 he was named general in chief of the army, a position he retained until just before he succumbed to heart disease on August 5, 1888, in Norquitt, Massachusetts.

The memoirs were constructed toward the end of his life, after his superior officer and friend, Ulysses S. Grant, had enjoyed incredible success with the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. Sheridan took up his pen about a year and a half before his own death. Neither man saw the publication of their efforts. In an incredible irony, Sheridan died just after finishing his project-similar to his mentor. Sheridan had finished looking at the page proofs only a day before he was finally struck down. According to one account, the general remarked as he sent the proofs off, "I hope that some of my old boys will find the book worth the purchase."

Charles Webster & Company published the reminiscences. Mark Twain owned the enterprise and had been responsible for encouraging Grant to complete his memoirs, which came out in 1885. Twain's company produced the works of some of the most important military figures of this era. In addition to Grant and Sheridan, the company printed the reminiscences of Major General George B. McClellan, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, and the widow of George Armstrong Custer. Sherman had gone with another publishing house in 1875, but came over to Charles Webster for a printing in 1891. For the first edition, the publishers chose a format that echoed the highly successful book by Grant. Both collections originally came out as two volumes in what are known as the shoulder strap editions, so-called because they have the four stars of a general on the spine.

The reception of the book was much more modest than the acclaim that befell the writings of Grant. The New York Times of November 19, 1888, commented that most of the stories were familiar-some having been published elsewhere-and revealed little new about the man or the officers he encountered. The Times ended the column, however, with a generous appreciation of the author's simple writing style, claiming "he has narrated this story with a vigor and clearness which many professional authors might well aspire to rival." Harsher was the review of the Nation. While conceding that the events described were important and the personality of Sheridan interesting, it was struck that "a soldier could compose so long a memoir without anything approaching a critical or comprehensive judgment of a campaign." It added: "He sees clearly and vividly the thing immediately under his eye, he acts with great vigor his own part in the struggle, but he seems to have little disposition to frame an intellectual conception of the problem as a whole, and he acts upon his instinctive rather than his reflective judgment."

Today Sheridan continues to receive mostly accolades from historians, although more recently he has come under criticism for having a reputation that exceeded his talents. Eric Wittenberg's recent study of the general claims that Sheridan was a weak tactician who was better at protecting his career through battle reports that inflated his own role at the expense of subordinates. Wittenberg's work is, at this point, the lone voice, although others have noticed limitations in Sheridan's military abilities. More subtle is the biography of Roy Morris, who believes that Grant made the difference in the heights that Sheridan scaled. According to Morris, Sheridan probably would have risen no higher than divisional commander without his mentor. It would be fair to say that Sheridan was no more capable than a number of officers, but that his aggressive style fit with the needs of Grant, who felt pressure late in the war to have successes that would give the Lincoln administration a better hope for re-election.

No matter what historians think of him, Sheridan enjoyed the esteem of the country. During his funeral, the general was lionized by the national press. Because he had suffered heart attacks at various times, the public knew his health was failing. As a consequence, he commanded a good deal of public interest. When the news finally came of the massive heart attack that claimed the general, there was an outpouring of praise. The New York Times captured the sentiments of many when it wrote: "Few men of our day are so secure of renown in the generations to come as the great soldier who rose from humble circumstances to the command of the Army of the United States and has now just passed away." It added in words fitting for anyone wishing to sample Sheridan's memoirs: "The brilliant Lieutenant, on whom Grant so confidently relied, and whom he loved to praise, possessed those qualities of dashing soldiership which always commanded the enthusiasm of mankind and over which readers muse and linger."

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    Posted September 20, 2013

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