Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

PHILIP HENRY SHERIDAN
(March 6, 1831–August 5, 1888)

PHILIP HENRY SHERIDAN

“I came back to my native land with even a greater love for her, and with increased admiration for her institutions.” Thus spoke the Irish-born General Philip H. Sheridan upon his return to the United States in 1871 from Europe. Considered by many who have studied the Civil War to have been one of the three most famous Union Army generals, his devotion to his adopted country may well explain the motivation for his heroic activities. Indeed, from the audacity of his troops at Missionary Ridge to his victory at Brandy Station in April 1865, in which he turned Robert E. Lee’s (q.v.) troops, thus cutting off Lee’s ability to move south and effectively ending the resistance of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was truly one of the great Union captains. At the time of his famous ride in late 1864 to relieve his embattled troops in the Valley of Virginia, he became the stuff of legends. His portrait was hung in many a Union home, and his exploits were the subjects of song and verse. Yet aside from the occasional contemporary pietistic outpouring of biographical sketches, and an excellent study of his command in the West after the war, his great Civil War career has not been the subject of modern biography or been reevaluated as to his true accomplishments. To discover the reasons for historians’ neglect of this great leader requires another look at Sheridan’s life.

The best work on his life, written by officers who had fought under Sheridan, attempted to construct an image of gallantry that would be useful to those changing times. Frank Burr and Richard Hinton, in devotion to his memory, in 1888 described a leader who struggled against the adversity of humble birth to become the head of the army. Indeed, Sheridan’s life began most humbly. Supposedly, Sheridan was born on March 6, 1831, to poor Irish immigrants in Albany, New York. But Joseph Hergesheimer, the novelist, conjured up, in his Sheridan, a Military Narrative (1931), a birth on shipboard somewhere out on the Atlantic, having sailed from Dublin, the point of debarkation for many Irish immigrants. His father, John, had owned a farm in County Cavan, which he sold to raise

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