War was a tonic for Phil Sheridan. “He was a wonderful man on the battle field,” one of his brother Union officers recalled, “and never in as good humor as when under fire.” Sheridan was a throwback to an earlier age of warfare, a warrior who lived for the comradeship of camp and field. But there was nothing romantic about his view of war. Sheridan, like his fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, believed that “war is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact.”
The trajectory of Sheridan’s career traced back to his childhood in Somerset, Ohio. Things military were all the rage among Somerset’s boys. Next to Christmas, the Fourth of July was the most important day of the year. Every year, Somerset’s one Revolutionary War veteran would be trotted out to greet the crowd. As the town’s cannon barked its salute and the crowd cheered wildly, young Sheridan would gawk at the old warrior. “I never saw Phil’s brown eyes open so wide or gaze with such interest,” remembered a friend, “as they did on this Revolutionary relic.”
The son of Irish immigrants, Sheridan managed to secure an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in the bottom third of his class in 1853. He spent the next eight years on frontier duty with the Army. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he was assigned to the Department of the Missouri, under the watchful eye of Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. By December 1861, Sheridan had sufficiently impressed his fussy commander to be named chief quartermaster and commissary of the Army of Southwest Missouri, then organizing for the Pea Ridge campaign. But he soon grew restless with administrative work, and in April 1862, he found field duty with the topographical engineers accompanying Halleck’s army at the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.
The Rise of “Little Phil”
Sheridan’s slow but steady rise continued when he was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry on May 25, 1862, and gained a decisive victory over a much larger enemy at the Battle of Booneville, Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, he was made a brigadier general and given command of the 11th Infantry Division of the Army of the Ohio. He led his troops with a keen tactical eye and bulldog tenacity at the bloody Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, in October and 10 weeks later at the even bloodier Battle of Stones River, Tennessee, where his skillful maneuvering and stubborn defensive stand helped save the army and earned him a promotion to major general.
At the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, Sheridan lost over a third of his division and, like many of his fellow Union generals, was driven from the battlefield. However, that November he redeemed himself by helping to lead the impulsive charge up Missionary Ridge, which ended the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. His combativeness caught the eye of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the new commander of Union forces, and when Grant was promoted and brought east in March 1864, he brought Sheridan with him to head the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
The man known to his troops as “Little Phil” did not cut an impressive physical figure. No more than five feet, five inches tall, he possessed inordinately long arms and short legs. A fellow officer opined that he “certainly would not impress one by his looks any more than Grant does. He is short, thickset, and common Irish-looking. Met in the Bowery, one would certainly set him down as a b’hoy.” Abraham Lincoln described Sheridan, with only slight exaggeration, 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 scratch them without stooping.”
The most striking feature of the bantam-sized general was his restless energy, what one soldier described as “nervous animation.” Under Sheridan’s bold leadership during the Overland campaign, the self-confidence and efficiency of the Cavalry Corps increased steadily until it came to regard itself as invincible. Previously cautious and unsure of themselves, the blue-clad horsemen under Sheridan became hell-for-leather cavalrymen, inflicting crippling losses on the enemy cavalry and even killing the iconic Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern, Virginia, in May 1864.
Give the Enemy No Rest
By the war’s fourth summer, the military situation in Virginia was one of stalemate. In an effort to break the logjam and loosen Grant’s death grip on Petersburg, General Robert E. Lee made a bold gamble. Refashioning a strategy he had used successfully in the spring of 1862 (with the invaluable assistance of the late Lt. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson) Lee sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s II Corps to sweep Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley and menace Washington, D.C. After brushing off ineffective resistance, Early drove down the valley unopposed, crossed the Potomac into Maryland, and threw a scare into Lincoln and the Union capital.
Initially, Grant showed little interest in Early’s raid, but he soon realized that as long as the Confederacy maintained an active presence in the valley, Washington itself would never be safe. Accordingly, he organized the Middle Military Division to deal with the difficulty, creating the Army of the Shenandoah. On August 6, Sheridan took command of the new force.
The 40,000-man Army of the Shenandoah was an amalgamation of three infantry corps, a cavalry corps and a dozen field batteries. The foundation of the army was the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The largest corps, it comprised three divisions with a solid reputation for reliability and steadfastness. The VI Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, was the mirror image of his sturdy veterans. The two divisions of the XIX Corps, fresh from the Department of the Gulf, were far behind the VI Corps in discipline and efficiency. Many of the troops had seen only garrison duty, and all had been badly handled in the recent ill-fated Red River campaign. The oldest of the corps commanders, 52-year-old Maj. Gen. William Emory, led the XIX Corps.
The third infantry command was euphemistically called the Army of West Virginia, but was designated as the VIII Corps for the upcoming campaign. The troops had been whipped by Early at the Second Battle of Kernstown two months earlier and were eager for revenge. Sheridan’s old West Point classmate and close friend. Maj. Gen. George Crook, commanded the VIII Corps. Rather than appointing a chief of artillery, Sheridan kept the batteries with the infantry corps. Six were attached to Wright’s command, and three each supported Emory and Crook.
Sheridan’s orders called for him to defeat Early’s army, close off the natural warpath into the North, and eliminate the Shenandoah Valley as a vital productive region to the Confederacy. Grant told him bluntly: “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them, recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. Give the enemy no rest. Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all description so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”
Lee, determined to up the ante, sent Early another two divisions of cavalry and infantry, as well as a battalion of artillery. Grant instructed Sheridan to remain on the defensive. For the ever aggressive Sheridan, this had the effect of putting a choke collar on a pit bull. But there was a political element to Grant‘s thinking. In his memoirs he explained: “I had reason to believe that the administration was a little afraid to have a decisive battle fought at this time, for fear it might go against us, and have a bad effect on the November elections.”
Sheridan shifted his position from Cedar Creek to Halltown, resting his flanks on Opequon Creek and the Shenandoah River and offering the Confederates no opportunity for a surprise attack. Early, for his part, conducted a vigorous feeling-out process, probing Sheridan’s defenses at various points but failing to uncover any significant weaknesses. “My only resource was to use my forces so as to display them at different points with great rapidity,” Early said later, “and thereby keep up the impression that they were much larger than they really were.”
As August gave way to September, it became clear that the shadow boxing could not last for much longer. Lee was the first to yield in the war of nerves. Grant’s unrelenting pressure on the Confederate lines compelled the Confederate commander to recall his recent reinforcements, leaving Early only Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. With the help of an alert Union spy, Winchester schoolteacher Rebecca Wright, Sheridan soon learned of the weakening of Early’s army. Inexplicably, Early now became dangerously overconfident. “The events of the last month,” he wrote, “have satisfied me that the commander opposed to me was without enterprise, and possessed an excessive caution which amounted to timidity.” It was a serious error of judgment, and one that induced Early to rashly divide his force. On the 17th, he accompanied the infantry divisions of Maj. Gens. John Gordon and Robert Rodes to Martinsburg to break up nonexistent Union railroad crews. It was, one Confederate scoffed, a “wild goose chase.”