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The Washington Post
"Scorched Earth is part policy treatise, part history, and part adventure story."
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril's play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
"I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day."
—Thomas Buchanan Read, 1871
The Gilmer and Salisbury stage rolled north out of the shanty and tent town of Corrine, Utah, on May 13, 1870. It was carrying cargo more valuable than the mail and payrolls for Montana miners that were its usual fare. General Philip H. Sheridan, the feisty former cavalry commander, known as "Little Phil," was aboard after a long trip west on the Union Pacific Railroad. In the five years following the Civil War, Sheridan had already become an American legend. Along with William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, now the nation's president, he was one of the war's top three hero generals. He won the last major battle of the war, defeated cavalry genius Jeb Stuart, and led the Union's successful Shenandoah Valley campaign. His famous ride from Winchester, Virginia, to rally his troops to victory at Cedar Creek in 1864 would become the subject of a popular poem, recited by schoolchildren. He was honored and feted in the North, hated in the South because of his harsh policies during Reconstruction, and feared by American Indians in the West for his brutal winter attacks on women and children.
In 1870, Sheridan was in the midst of the federal government's war to subjugate western American Indian tribes and tame the frontier for settlement. He had ridden west to tour the forts in his vast command that stretched from the Rio Grande to Canada and west from Chicago. Corrine was a wide-open gentile shantytown amidst Brigham Young's Mormon-controlled Utah. The Golden Spike had been sunk only a year before, linking America's eastern and western shores by railroad. Corrine was the junction between the railroad and the Montana Road, which ran to the mining boomtowns of Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena, Montana. Sheridan's ride west had been by rail and in relative comfort up to now. He even got hold of a newspaper from back east that reported the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. The old warrior reacted to the news like a Dalmatian hearing a fire alarm. He started making plans for a trip to Europe to observe the first big war since his own glory days. But first he had commitments in Montana that could not be ignored.
Sheridan's five-hundred-mile journey carried him over the Cache Mountains, through Idaho's sagebrush desert, atop the high mountain passes of the Continental Divide, and finally through deep river canyons to Helena. Scenic as it was, a trip by stage in 1870 was arduous beyond any traveler's experience today. The six-horse teams pulled the two-seated, springless carriages ten to twelve miles per hour at top speed over rough, rocky roads. In the spring the dust turned to mud, and tiny stream crossings turned into mud wallows.
Sheridan stopped late in the second day at the Pleasant Valley stage station—as it would turn out, just thirty miles west of today's Yellowstone National Park. His party stayed only long enough for the driver to change the horses and check out the wheels and harnesses. Normally the stage drove straight through, a sixty-six-hour journey that could bust the strongest of kidneys. Sheridan wanted none of that. The bachelor general knew he would have full days and nights when he arrived in Helena, and he wanted a good night's sleep before his arrival. His staff negotiated a deal that allowed them to commandeer the stage for Sheridan and his entourage so he could insist on an overnight stop.
Late on the third day, the stage stopped for the night at a station near Parsons Bridge on the Jefferson River in Montana. There Sheridan and his road-weary crew met "an old mountaineer" named Atkinson, who had traveled widely through the Rocky Mountains. This chance frontier meeting would have a profound effect on the future of public land management and, later, the environmental movement. The mountain man regaled Sheridan with tales of a place of almost supernatural sensation where hot spouting springs gushed straight out of the ground a hundred feet in the air. Atkinson described boiling mud pots cooking red and yellow clays and volcanoes that sputtered mud and boiling water as they roared out of the side of mountains. This mysterious high-mountain locale, it was said, had fields of lime surrounded by meadows of wildflowers enveloping prismatic springs of sapphire and robin-egg-blue bubbling ponds. There were black glass mountains and petrified forests of solid quartz too. Such tales had been passed regularly among the trappers and explorers of the West for nearly sixty years. But the stories, often exaggerated, had yet to reach eastern circles as anything more than folk tales and rumors.
You can almost see Sheridan, an avid hunter and former ornithologist, leaning closer as Atkinson told of large game herds in that place protected from the settlers who were moving West by its high elevation and hard winters. The stories were so fascinating to Sheridan that he forgot the Franco-Prussian War for the moment and yearned to learn more. "His information was very indefinite, mostly second-hand," Sheridan would report in his memoirs.
From that night to his death, Sheridan was to devote himself to the exploration and then preservation of the region that would soon become Yellowstone National Park. When historians talk about the great conservation figures in the nineteenth century, they talk about John Muir, who championed Yosemite National Park; Gifford Pinchot, who created the U.S. Forest Service; and perhaps George Bird Grinnell, a friend and protégé of Sheridan's who fought for Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and started the Audubon Society. Almost never mentioned is Sheridan.
Sheridan made his name in the Civil War with a scorched-earth campaign through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to wipe out the Confederacy's last hope. And he's known for his leading role in the war against western American Indian tribes, encouraging the near-extinction of the bison to bring the tribes to heel. Yet, though rarely recognized today, he also became one of the most effective voices for protecting Yellowstone National Park's geologic wonders and wildlife. Sheridan's campaign against monopoly control of the park's resources by the Northern Pacific Railroad would save the park and help to inspire the budding preservation movement. His crusade was one of the precursors to the twentieth century's progressive movement. And Sheridan's view that a strong federal government was necessary to carry on preservation and conservation grew into the model that dominated thinking on the subject for a century. It was, in fact, Sheridan who first created a vision of a Greater Yellowstone, the idea of including important wildlife habitat beyond its borders. This was the seed upon which landscape or ecosystem management was developed, a concept that inspires environmental thought today worldwide.
Sheridan stood five feet five inches tall and had a thick neck, long arms, short legs, and dark, shining hair. American Indians who negotiated with him in Kansas said he looked like an angry bear. To his troopers in the Civil War he was a beloved leader, a small town everyman whose Irish grit pushed him, and them, through every obstacle. His own motivations for saving Yellowstone would be many and by no means simply altruistic. Sheridan's worldview was shaped in the rural Irish Catholic immigrant home of his parents and tempered on the battlefield. He was born the third of six children on March 6, 1831, but no one knows for sure where. His parents, John and Mary Sheridan, came to the United States from Ireland around that time, and Sheridan eventually claimed Albany, New York, as his birthplace, though his mother said he was born on the ship from Ireland. His parents settled in Somerset, Ohio, then a town of one thousand people. His father became a building contractor, first on the Cumberland Road, and then on canals and roads throughout Ohio, which kept him away for much of Phil's childhood.
His mother, a strong quiet woman, taught Sheridan the virtues of honesty and hard work and raised him in the values of the Catholic Church. Sheridan himself became deeply patriotic at an early age. A boyhood friend recalled Sheridan watching an old Revolutionary War veteran in a Fourth of July celebration filled with cannon blasts, cheering crowds, and high oratory. "I never saw Phil's brown eyes open so wide or gaze with such interest," he said. Yet Sheridan's patriotism was tempered by a deep sense of partisanship. When Democratic vice presidential candidate Richard M. Johnson, a famous American Indian fighter, campaigned in Somerset in 1840, young Phil, a Whig, refused to shake his hand. This demonstration of loyalty and partisanship would later express itself in his view toward rebel enemies and in his support of those who fought under him. As Sheridan saw it, you were either for him or against him.
His first teacher regularly employed the rod and switch. He left his own indelible mark on Sheridan's character with the brand of justice he meted out in the one-room schoolhouse. "If unable to detect the real culprit when any offense had been committed, [he] would consistently apply the switch to the whole school without discrimination," Sheridan wrote in his memoirs. "It must be conceded that by this means he never failed to catch the guilty mischief-maker."
At fourteen, Sheridan took a job in a country store in Somerset with a salary of $24 per year. After twelve months he left to earn more pay, finally in a dry goods shop where he earned $160 a year as a bookkeeper. In 1848, Sheridan obtained an appointment to West Point from an influential friend of his father Congressman Thomas Ritchie whom he had gotten to know. He left Ohio for the first time, traveling on steamboat into a world unfamiliar to his sparse rural upbringing. He found the pomp and pageantry of the academy pretentious, and he especially disliked the aristocratic manners of the southern cadets and upper-classmen who hazed and lorded over him, he said in his memoirs. He struggled academically, depending heavily on tutoring and hard work to pass his exams. Socially, he found it even more difficult to adjust.
His quick temper nearly cut short his military career before it really began. Sheridan was given a drill-field order from a cadet sergeant from Virginia that he "considered an improper tone." Sheridan charged at the Virginian with his bayonet, stopping just short of sticking his superior. Officials expelled him from West Point for a year, during which he returned to bookkeeping in Somerset, seething and brooding over histreatment. The academy allowed him to return only because of his previous good conduct. Despite this reprieve Sheridan remained bitter about the incident until years later.
When Sheridan returned to the academy, he stayed in line but remained a mediocre student. He graduated thirty-fourth out of a class of fifty-two, not high enough to win an immediate commission. He thus entered the army as a brevet second lieutenant and was assigned to the First Infantry in Fort Duncan, Texas. The Mexican border fort was considered among the most primitive and least desirable posts in the army. But Sheridan found in the creek bottoms and dry prairies of West Texas what became his lifelong love of the outdoors and the sport of hunting. Under the tutelage of a soldier named Frankman, Sheridan learned to stalk and kill deer, antelope, and wild turkeys. A butcher by trade, Frankman also showed the former bookkeeper how to field dress and prepare the meats. Eventually, Sheridan would revel in his ability to feed the marching columns of the command while on patrol in the grasslands and riparian oases of cottonwoods along West Texas streams. During this happy time Sheridan also took up ornithology, collecting specimens of the many colored birds that wintered in the Rio Grande area. Though Sheridan eventually gave up his active practice of ornithology, he remained a dedicated hunter the rest of his life. From these natural pursuits he developed an interest in science that eventually laid the foundation for his conservation efforts.
From Texas, Sheridan, now a lieutenant, moved to posts in California and the Pacific Northwest, participating in various American Indian wars and police duties on reservations. In these posts in the late 1850s, Sheridan came to know many American Indians, for whom he held little respect. He abhorred their religious practices and superstitions and viewed them as barbarous savages. Sheridan did make several friends, however, based primarily on their loyalty to him. He also took an American Indian mistress and learned the Chinook language. His early approach to American Indian affairs he would carry into his Reconstruction duties and his later command of the American Indian wars.
"I found abundant confirmation of my early opinion that the most effectual measures for lifting them from a state of barbarism would be a practical supervision at the outset, coupled with a firm control and mild discipline," Sheridan wrote about American Indians.
Throughout his career the nation's leaders would turn to him when they needed "firm control." From the rebel farms of the Shenandoah Valley to the power politics of reconstructed New Orleans to the villages of the Plains Indians, Sheridan reinforced his belief that only the strong hand of the federal government could ensure a civilization of justice and efficiency.
On April 4, 1861, posted on the Grande Rond Indian Reservation in the verdant Willamette Valley of Western Oregon, First Lieutenant Philip Sheridan had built a mild reputation for his competency in administering American Indian policy but had yet to exceed the low expectations he carried from West Point. With events of this day, however, his fortunes would begin to change.
Across the country in Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, starting the southern rebellion, a breach of loyalty the young officer could never reconcile with his own sense of honor. Sheridan was promoted to captain and in September was called east to St. Louis, where he was assigned as chief quartermaster for General Samuel Curtis, placing him behind the lines in charge of supplies. Here, it wasn't his temper but his honesty that got the former bookkeeper into trouble. His refusal to pay officers for horses they stole from rebel farmers caused Curtis to court martial him for disobeying orders and Sheridan was transferred. His case never went to trial; to his good fortune on May 25, 1862, he instead went to the front when offered command of the Second Michigan Cavalry.
His leadership as a warrior became apparent immediately. Sheridan, now elevated to the ranks of colonel, led his troops in a series of successful skirmishes, including a daring 180-mile raid into enemy territory and finally a brilliant defense of a forward outpost of 827 troopers near Booneville, Missouri, in July 1862. Outnumbered by more than 4,000 troops, Sheridan loaded up soldiers on train cars and sent them up the tracks to Booneville, where they conspicuously emptied out. Then surreptitiously, his troops marched back through the woods up the tracks and reloaded the train over and over, fooling the Confederates into believing he was getting reinforcements. They routed the Confederates, and Sheridan was promoted to brigadier general.
Sheridan rode into Union army legend on November 25, 1863, at the battle of Chattanooga. The Rebels had nearly 30,000 men dug in on a ripple of Georgia land three miles east of the Tennessee River called Missionary Ridge. Grant himself considered the position invulnerable to frontal attack. Sheridan's division and others were to attack the front only to prevent the Rebels from shoring up their flanks, but Sheridan's men didn't stop at the base of the ridge. They kept advancing, seeking safer ground closer to the Rebel ramparts. Sheridan saw the opportunity and asked for orders to attack. He was denied. "There the boys are, and they seem to be getting along; I can't stop them until they get to the top," he told his aide. Then with sword in one hand and his hat waving in the other, he rode up the ridge. "Forward boys, forward, we can get to the top," he cried. "Come on boys, give 'em Hell."
Excerpted from Scorched Earth by Roland "Rocky" Barker. Copyright © 2005 Roland "Rocky" Barker. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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