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"Paul Hutton’s study of Phil Sheridan in the West is authoritative, readable, and an important contribution to the literature of westward expansion. Although headquartered in Chicago, Sheridan played a crucial role in the opening of the West. His command stretched from the Missouri to the Rockies and from Mexico to Canada, and all the Indian Wars of the Great Plains fell under his direction. Hutton ably narrates and interprets Sheridan’s western career from the perspective of the top command rather than the battlefield leader. His book is good history and good reading."Robert M. Utley
The Making of a General: "Worth His Weight in Gold"
On September 5, 1867, Major General Philip Henry Sheridan left New Orleans for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to assume command of the Department of the Missouri. His new command embraced the states of Missouri and Kansas, the Indian Territory, and the territories of Colorado and New Mexico. Only three years before, he had led forty-five thousand men to victory in the Shenandoah Valley; now he commanded but six thousand troopers scattered about a vast territory. Nevertheless, he was happy to be rid of the thankless duty of reconstructing Louisiana and Texas.
A massive torchlight parade staged by Carl Schurz, local commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, greeted him when he reached St. Louis. Veterans from twenty organizations enthusiastically cheered Sheridan and loudly condemned President Andrew Johnson for dismissing their hero from command of the Fifth Military District.
After a hurried trip to Fort Leavenworth to assume command of the department, Sheridan began his first extended leave—six months—since entering the army nineteen years earlier. He visited his home in Somerset, Ohio, but remained only a few days, for he would never again be satisfied with a sleepy Ohio village. He had acquired grander tastes and now claimed among his friends famous generals, powerful politicians, business tycoons, and the leaders of fashionable society.
Many of New York's socially prominent citizens, none of whom normally would have associated with an Irishman from the Ohio back country, fawned over Sheridan. The stubby little general, even in his medal-bedecked dress uniform, could not have been very impressive to the admirers who crowded around him. Abraham Lincoln once described him as "a brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can skratch [sic] them without stooping." With the hard days of campaigning behind him, he gained weight, his barrel-shaped torso reaching such proportions that it was a marvel his stumpy legs and tiny feet supported the mass. Moreover, his oversized, bullet-shaped head, from which protruded in back two large bumps, made it almost impossible for him to wear a hat. His head was crowned by a growth of coarse, short hair that, as one wag remarked, resembled "a coat of black paint." Below heavy, arched eyebrows, however, Sheridan's dark eyes, long and narrow, sparkled with a fire that betrayed him as the victor at Missionary Ridge, the warrior who had turned an army around at Cedar Creek, and the commander who had broken Lee's forces at Five Forks. John Schuyler Crosby, one of Sheridan's closest friends, insisted that "one could tell from his eyes in a moment whether he was serious, sad, or humorous, without noticing another feature of his face." Another admirer admitted that the "stumpy, quadrangular little man" had a "forehead of no promise," but added that "his eye and his mouth shew force" and marked him as a fierce warrior. His facial features disclosed his Irish descent, but his voice carried no trace of a brogue. Some thought Sheridan a drunkard because his face was always flushed, but this was in reality the result of an abnormally rapid heartbeat which, combined with a fondness for rich food and fine liquor, would send him to an early grave.
The exact place of Sheridan's birth is unknown. He confused the issue himself, giving Boston and Somerset on various official documents before finally settling on Albany, New York. A strong case can also be made for County Cavan, Ireland, where his parents worked as tenant farmers before migrating to America. Some authorities have suggested that he was born on the way over. To assert their claim, the city fathers of Albany in 1916 lavished twenty-five thousand dollars on an equestrian statue, even though there is no record of his birth there.
Philip, born March 6, 1831, was the third of six children of John and Mary Sheridan. He was only an infant when the family settled in Somerset, a hamlet of slightly more than one thousand residents, where John Sheridan found work on the Cumberland Road. Because the internal improvements boom kept John Sheridan employed but away from home most of the time, Philip was reared by his mother, a quiet, strong woman with firm convictions on honesty, piety, industry, and patriotism. She led her family faithfully to Somerset's Church of Saint Joseph, the oldest Catholic church in Ohio.
Things military were all the rage among Somerset's boys, and, next to Christmas, the Fourth of July was the most important day of the year. Every year on that day, after the amateur orators were exhausted, Somerset's own genuine veteran of the revolutionary war would hobble out to greet the crowd. While the town's tiny brass cannon sputtered salutes and the crowd cheered wildly, young Sheridan would gawk at the ancient warrior. "I never saw Phil's brown eyes open so wide or gaze with such interest," noted his playmate Henry Greiner, "as they did on this old Revolutionary relic." Little wonder that Ohio was a miniature Prussia in the first half of the nineteenth century! It produced sixty-four Civil War generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, William B. Hazen, George A. Custer, James Forsyth, David S. Stanley, and George Crook. These officers proved important to Sheridan's career. But military fervor had its limits. When Richard M. Johnson, the reputed slayer of Tecumseh and Democratic vice-presidential candidate, campaigned in Somerset, Philip refused to shake his hand, even though he admired the Indian fighter, declaring it improper for a Whig to shake with a Democrat. Loyalty, be it to a political party, the Union, or a comrade, was early Sheridan's first consideration.
Sheridan attended Somerset's one-room schoolhouse. He had two teachers. The first was an itinerant Irishman named Patrick McNaly, who believed that education could be beaten into students; the second, a more progressive educator named Thorn, introduced the slate-board to Somerset, much to the dismay of many citizens who feared the children would spend their time drawing pictures. Although one of Sheridan's classmates remembered McNaly as a drunken brute, Phil recalled with admiration that the Irishman consistently punished every "guilty mischief-maker" by whipping the whole class when unable to detect the actual culprit. At age fourteen, with "a smattering of geography and history, and ... the mysteries of Pike's Arithmetic and Bullions' English Grammer" somewhat mastered, Sheridan secured a clerk's position in a local general store. He soon became a bookkeeper in the town's largest dry goods shop. Although neither widely read nor given to philosophizing, he had a profound respect for education. It was "the little white schoolhouse of the North [that] made us superior to the South," he once remarked: "Education is invincible."
Sheridan's love of the military, doubtless reinforced by glorious tales originating in the Mexican War, led him to apply for nomination to West Point in 1848. Congressman Thomas Ritchie, who knew both Philip and his father, was pleased to make the appointment. His family had misgivings, and a local Dominican priest suggested that it would be better to cut the boy's throat than send him to a den of heretics. David S. Stanley, Sheridan's classmate at West Point, traveled with him from Ohio to the academy. The trip was the first meeting for the two future generals, and Stanley remembered Sheridan as "small and red faced, [with] long black wavy hair, bright eyes, very animated and neatly dressed in a brown broadcloth sack suit." The wavy locks were soon shorn, the suit exchanged for the uniform brown linen jacket, or "plebe skin," of the freshman cadet. Sheridan's diminutive figure was not flattered; Stanley described him as "the most insignificant looking little fellow I ever saw."
The seventeen-year-old plebe found little to admire at the academy. Unimpressed, he found taking the oath of allegiance and receiving the cadet warrant on February 17, 1849, all quite pompous. The ceremony reminded him of the Dominican priest's plea to cut his throat, for as he stared at the imposing row of officers in full dress uniform and sword, he could think only that "it looked just like they were going to cut somebody to pieces."
A momentary respite from depression was provided when some twenty colors captured during the Mexican War arrived at the academy. Sheridan received a flag taken at Chapultepec. As he carried the tattered banner up the hill from the dock, amidst the roar of forty eighteen-pounders, he could not help dreaming of military glory. Within a month, however, his colorful daydreams faded, while the gray buildings, dark wintry skies, and rocky landscape reinforced the monotonous regimen of cadet life. "It is colder than Greenland here," he complained to his sister in February 1849. Even the climate conspired against him.
Sheridan's days at the academy tested him. His grades ranged from modest to dismal, and it was only through the tutoring of his roommate that he managed to pass his examinations. Although he found solace in the company of a trio of Ohio cadets—George Crook, Joshua Sill, and John Nugen—Sheridan never fit into the aristocratic, southern clique that dominated social affairs at West Point. Rural, Irish Catholic, and Whig, he felt ill at ease with the southerners, who prized refined manners and stately posturing. Traditional hazing frayed his short temper, and in a significant break with his conservative nature he came to regard it as "a senseless custom which an improved civilization" would, he hoped, eradicate.
His pent-up resentment and frustration finally broke forth in September 1851. On the drill field late one afternoon cadet Sergeant William R. Terrill of Virginia ordered Sheridan to align himself properly in the ranks. There may have been more to it than that, perhaps some previous altercation. Terrill's imperious manner enraged Sheridan, and he lunged forward with his bayonet to strike at his tormentor. For an instant, all the demons that hounded him for being Irish, Catholic, short, and ugly were loose, but he regained control before disaster and pulled back. A horrified Terrill reported the incident to his superiors, as duty required. Further enraged, Sheridan immediately sought out Terrill and attacked him, but this time with his fists. At a wiry five-foot-six, Sheridan was no match for the larger Virginian and was saved from a sound thrashing by the intervention of an officer.
His first outburst compounded by the second, Sheridan gloomily awaited the deliberations of his superiors. He knew that expulsion would not be unwarranted, and although unrepentant and convinced that his actions were justified, he thought long and hard on the wages of an uncontrolled temper. Only the intervention of the superintendent of the academy, Captain Henry Brewerton, saved Sheridan from dismissal. Since Sheridan's conduct record had been good up until the time of his outburst, he received only a year's suspension.
Although fortunate to have avoided expulsion, Sheridan harbored deep resentment against all the parties involved in the incident. He spent nine humiliating months as a bookkeeper in Somerset before reentering the academy in August 1852. His attitude was, if anything, worse than before his suspension, and at the time of his graduation he lacked but eleven demerits for expulsion. Graduating thirty-four in a class of fifty-two, he ranked too low to win an immediate position and was assigned as a brevet second lieutenant until a vacancy occurred.
The fresh shavetail was assigned to the First Infantry and ordered to Fort Duncan, Texas. Although the most desolate and primitive post in all the army, to Sheridan it was an improvement over West Point. He occupied his time with hunting, amateur ornithology, and excursions over the Rio Grande to the Mexican hamlet of Piedras Negras for dances with the local senoritas. He was impressed by the Mexicans, by "their graceful manners and their humility before the cross." But he still considered them "a half-breed population." To Sheridan, the mixing of "wild Indian blood" with that of the Spaniards had produced a bastardized people, too weak to protect themselves from the Indian raids that devastated their land. If the Mexicans were a degraded lot, the "blood-thirsty savages" that terrorized them were even more contemptible. His few glimpses of raiding Lipans and Comanches, or their handiwork, disabused him of any latent image of "noble savages."
Sheridan's next assignment, as second lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry stationed at Fort Reading, California, gave him a much closer look at Indians. Fort Reading stood at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, an area filled with all varieties of the world's humanity in search of a quick fortune in the gold fields. Prices were so exorbitant that in 1851 Congress voted to increase the pay of soldiers serving in California and Oregon. The extra pay, however, was insufficient, and some Fourth Infantry officers—Sheridan's friend George Crook, for example—leased land and raised wheat to earn extra money. Since common laborers received higher wages than army officers, morale was low, and the desertion rate high. Many of the officers succumbed to alcohol, an occupational hazard of frontier service; still others "were petty tyrants ... in command of small posts so long that their habits and minds had narrowed down to their surroundings."
Following the Cayuse War of 1847, Indian relations in the Pacific Northwest had steadily deteriorated. For years, the Indians had been abused by miners and squatters who "would about as soon shoot an Indian as eat supper." The Indians—Pit Rivers, Rogue Rivers, Walla Wallas, Cayuses, Nez Perces, Spokanes, and Yakimas—responded in kind. The settlers were incited by the governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens, who hoped to clear all Indian land titles, open up the Northwest to white settlement, and encourage Congress to adopt the northern route for the proposed transcontinental railway. Stevens negotiated a series of specious treaties with the tribes which, coinciding with discovery of gold at Colville, Washington, drove the Yakimas and Rogue Rivers to war. Pugnacious General John Wool, commanding the department, viewed the conflict as "one of plunder of the Indians and the treasury of the United States." Stevens and Oregon's Governor George Curry, to "promote their own ambitious schemes and that of pecuniary speculators," wanted General Wool to deal more harshly with the Indians.
Crook, agreeing with General Wool, viewed Indian-white relations in the region as "the fable of the wolf and the lamb. It was no unfrequent occurrence," he noted, "for an Indian to be shot down in cold blood, or a squaw to be raped by some brute," and the white culprit to escape punishment. Crook was frustrated because the army was powerless to aid the oppressed, but when the Indians "were pushed beyond endurance and would go on the war path we had to fight when our sympathies were with the Indians." Sheridan, however, was unmoved by the Indians' plight. It was, after all, but the natural pressure of civilization that threatened to dispossess them of their lands and homes. He was disgusted by the "miserable wretches" native to the region, and the fact that their "naked, hungry and cadaverous" condition resulted from white thievery did not elicit sympathy. Sheridan's consistent demonstration of cruelty toward those he designated as enemies is nowhere more apparent than in his inability to perceive the tragedy of the northwestern tribes.
Sheridan's first campaign against the Indians was a pathetic affair. A detachment of 350 regular troops and a regiment of Oregon mounted volunteers was dispatched under the command of Major Gabriel Rains in October 1855 against the Yakimas. Although the campaign gave Sheridan his first look at warriors massed for battle—"a scene of picturesque barbarism, fascinating but repulsive"—it yielded no results. The Indians fled before the advancing troops, who had to satisfy themselves with burning a Catholic mission on the Yakima River that had tended the Indians. Their inability to force the Yakimas to fight was fortunate, for the soldiers were an inept lot. On one occasion Sheridan, in command of an advance column, galloped in pursuit of a party of supposed Indians for two miles before discovering them to be a company of Oregon mounted volunteers. Winter snows ended the campaign, and the officer's conversations quickly degenerated into recriminations about who was to blame for the failure. Captain Edward O. C. Ord brought charges of incompetency against Major Rains, who replied in kind by accusing Ord of stealing a pair of shoes from the Catholic mission before it was burned. General Wool properly ignored them both.
Excerpted from Phil Sheridan and His Army by Paul Andrew Hutton. Copyright © 1999 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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|List of Maps|
|List of Illustrations|
|Ch. 1||The Making of a General: "Worth His Weight in Gold"||1|
|Ch. 2||Sheridan's Campaign: "The Enemies of Our Race"||28|
|Ch. 3||Battle of the Washita: "Kill or Hang All Warriors"||56|
|Ch. 4||Winter War: "The Most Sacred Promise of Protection"||77|
|Ch. 5||Campaign's End: "This Shameless Disregard for Justice"||95|
|Ch. 6||Division of the Missouri: Personalities, Politics, and Policies||115|
|Ch. 7||Varied Duties of Division Command||153|
|Ch. 8||Forming Military Indian Policy: "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian"||180|
|Ch. 9||Diplomacy at Home and Abroad||201|
|Ch. 10||Military Factionalism and Indian Policy: "The Nest at Fort Sill Should be Broken Up"||227|
|Ch. 11||The Red River War: "Instruct Them to Act with Vindictive Earnestness"||245|
|Ch. 12||Reconstructing Louisiana: "To Charge upon the Liberties of His Fellow-Citizens"||262|
|Ch. 13||Crisis on the Northern Plains: "Sooner or Later These Sioux Have to Be Wiped Out"||282|
|Ch. 14||The Great Sioux War: "We Ought Not to Allow Savages to Beat Us"||302|
|Ch. 15||The Closing Military Frontier||331|
|Ch. 16||Four Stars||346|