A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan
By Eric J. Wittenberg
Published in 2002 by Brassey's, Inc.
The four years of the Civil War produced hundreds of generals, few of whom were as controversial
or had careers as paradoxial as that of Phil Sheridan, raised in our neighboring community of
Somerset in Perry County.
For that matter few generals enjoyed such a meteoric rise through the ranks as did Little
Phil. At the time of Shiloh, when U. S. Grant already wore two stars emblematic of his rank
as a major general, Sheridan was a captain serving as a roving quartermaster to buy horses in
Chicago. Sheridan's active duty career was delayed because he had been suspended for a year
from West Point after he had threatened a fellow cadet with a bayonet. As a captain he had
court martial charges preferred against him after he was found to be violating regulations
to give vouchers for military supplies taken from southern sympathizers.
Although Sheridan had had scant experience as a horse soldier, prior to launching the Overland
Campaign in May 1864 Grant brought Sheridan east to take command of the Cavalry Corps of the
Army of the Potomac. (It should be noted that Sheridan had previously excelled as an infantry
division commander at such places as Perryville, Stone's River, and Missionary Ridge) By August
1864, Grant, despite objections that Sheridan was too young for such responsibility, assigned
Sheridan to take command of the Middle Military Division, which was formed to protect Washington
from C.S.A. LGen. Jubal Early's advances against Washington, and to drive Early out of the
Shenandoah Valley. In a campaign that presaged Sherman's March to the Sea as well as his march
through the Carolinas, Sheridan set out to utterly destroy the Confederacy's Breadbasket, devastation
that was so complete that Sheridan later claimed that a crow flying across the Valley would have
to carry its own lunch to survive. Shortly before his death in 1889 at the age of fifty-eight,
Sheridan had become only the third member of the Army to earn the four stars of a full general.
Against this background, Wittenberg, probably the foremost authority of the cavalry of the Army
of the Potomac, takes a critical, if not scathing, view of Sheridan's career, especially as
that career unfolded after Sheridan came east. Wittenberg, whose day job is that of an attorney
practicing in Columbus, and who maintains his own active website titled
"Rantings of a Civil War Historian,"
disputes the conventional opinion that Sheridan was a
great cavalry commander, instead concluding that Sheridan's generalship in the Shenandoah Valley
in 1864 was mediocre at best. Wittenberg contends, among other things, that Sheridan's Shenandoah
Campaign, while victorious, was hardly decisive since Sheridan forfeited a good opportunity to
strike a fatal blow against Early who was able to rejoin Lee at Petersburg.
However, Wittenberg aims his sharpest criticisms against Little Phil for Sheridan's propensity for
insubordination that benefited him when others may have been tried by court martial. Most Civil
War students are familiar with Sheridan's insubordination at Todd's Tavern during the Overland
Campaign and how Grant not only excused such conduct but awarded Sheridan by allowing Sheridan to
take his cavalry elsewhere. Wittenberg points out that Sheridan's subsequent escapade - which did
result in the death of Jeb Stuart - significantly hampered Meade's march to Spotsylvania and the
subsequent Union efforts at that prolonged and bloody battle.
But Wittenberg really seems most upset by the way that Sheridan treated subordinate generals whom
Sheridan believed to have been insubordinate to him. Two instances are explained in great detail,
these being conflicts with Generals William W. Averell and Gouveneur K. Warren, the latter of
course had been one of the Union heroes of the second day at Gettysburg. Both these generals had
their military careers abruptly ruined by Sheridan's precipitous actions, although other historians
are not as sympathetic to Warren, especially, as is Wittenberg.
Wittenberg is laudatory about Sheridan's efforts during the Road to Appomattox. And Wittenberg
also takes pains to list all the towns and monuments named for Little Phil. But on the whole
Wittenberg's critical treatment of Sheridan is unlikely to make Sheridan's many supporters very
happy; nevertheless Wittenberg's clear writing style and cogent description of the battles and
campaigns in question as well as his different perspective of one of the Civil War's great heroes
make this a valuable book for any Civil War student.