Book Review

Little Phil
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.