Philip Henry Sheridan was born in 1831 to Irish immigrants who settled in Ohio. The place of his birth is in question, for while he claimed Albany, New York as his birth place, historians place a distinct possibility on his birth actually taking place while the family was still en route from Ireland. He was a not a tall man, only 5’5”, and he was often referred to as “Little” Phil. Abraham Lincoln once described Sheridan 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.”
Sheridan set his sights on a military career after reading stories of the Mexican War; consequently, he obtained an appointment to West Point from a family friend. His schooling was interrupted for a year after being suspended for threatening a fellow cadet, indicative of his aggressive and quick temper. When he returned, his disposition was no better, and he was only seven demerits away from permanent dismissal when he graduated in 1853. Sheridan graduated towards the bottom of his class, which marked him for infantry, and spent the next twelve uneventful years on the frontier in Texas, California and the Pacific Northwest.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Sheridan, a Northerner, naturally went to fight for the Union. He initially performed administrative assignments, but did so effectively and was rewarded with his own command. Several minor raids and encounters with the Confederate Army allowed him to differentiate himself from the average soldier, and he was promoted to brigadier general in June of 1862, and to major general later that same year.
In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant made Sheridan his new cavalry commander and charged him with clearing the Confederate Army out of the Shenandoah Valley and to “eat out Virginia clean and clear…So that crows flying over it will have to carry their own provender.” Sheridan became known for his strategic demolition of the valley and subsequent attacks on Confederate supply lines, but his actions in the Shenandoah Valley also drew sharp criticism.
Once the Confederate troops were run out of the valley, Sheridan and his man destroyed crops, captured some livestock but killed much more, and burned barns, decimating critical food supplies the Confederates would need for the fast-approaching winter months. While this was strategically sound, Sheridan and his forces also targeted civilians, burning homes, leaving women and children with nothing if they were not killed during demolition. Sheridan provided a number of notable victories during the Civil War, including rallying his retreating troops to defeat General Jubal A. Early, and the capture of almost a fourth of General Lee’s Army as they retreated from Gettysburg, and cornering Lee himself in the Appomattox Courthouse. After the war, he readily acknowledged his actions were punishable war crimes; however, success was the star and brutal tactics were never questioned.
Sheridan was appointed to oversee post-war Reconstruction in Louisiana and Texas, but quickly earned a reputation for being severe and was reassigned to direct campaigns in the mid-west against Native Americans from 1868-1869. During this time, Sheridan became an activist in preserving the area which later became known as Yellowstone National Park. Sheridan was also assigned as an observer of the Prussian Army in the Franco Prussian War, and became Sheridan General-in-Chief of the US Army in November of 1883. Sheridan, whose health rapidly declined following several major heart attacks in his mid-fifties, was promoted to a full general in June of 1888, and he died on August 5 of that same year.
General Philip H. Sheridan was known as a ruthless man, and you get a sense for his character through some of his quotes recorded in history:
#8 “Reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life.”
This was Sheridan’s justification for taking his orders to clear out the Shenandoah Valley to the extreme. To him, the end did justify the means.
#7 “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
Supposedly, Sheridan denied ever saying this, but there are eye witnesses who said otherwise. It was no secret that Sheridan hated the Indians, and few that knew him doubted the statement’s origin. His original statement soon transformed into the more well-known “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” exemplary of the military’s attitude toward the Native Americans at the time.
#6 “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell”
Another quote for which Sheridan is famous. He back-pedaled 14 years later in a speech at the Tremont Hotel in Galveston before an adoring audience, offering this explanation for his comment—how truthful it is we shall never know: “Speaking so kindly of Texas … and I speak from my heart …. probably I ought to explain a remark I once made about it. I had just returned to San Antonio from a hard trip to Chihuahua on some Mexican business when I received an order to proceed at once to New Orleans. I hired relays and coaches so that I only had to hitch on the wagon and go speedily to get the boat from Galveston. I traveled night and day and, needless to say, it was rather warm. I arrived here covered with dust, my eyes and ears and throat filled with it. I went to a little hotel in that condition and had just gone up to the register when one of those confounded newspaper men rushed up to me and said, “General, how do you like Texas?” I was mad and said, ‘If I owned Texas and all hell, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.’ Needless to say, that did not represent my true opinion of this magnificent state.”
#5 “These men [the buffalo hunters] have done more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. Send them powder and lead if you will, but for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”
Sheridan once again advocates striking the Native Americans where it hurts—their means for survival. He was not a man of compromise; if you did not like it or it was in your way, get rid of it.
#4 “Rule #29: Always make your opponent think you know more than you really know.”
Sheridan was a smart man, and this translated well onto the battlefield. He was an expert at psychological warfare, inherent in his sometimes cruel tactics.
#3 “If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.”
Phil Sheridan was also adept at justifying his brutal campaigns, deftly absolving himself of any wrongdoing.
#2 “If I could get into line duty I believe I could do something.”
Sheridan’s initial duties during war service was supply duty, which frustrated him. He once made this comment to another officer, and when he finally got his chance, he lived up to his words.
#1 “…I am…ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.”
Sheridan made this statement to General Grant’s staff upon returning from a trip to Washington and encountering his men retreating from a surprise attack from General Early. He seemed to be happiest when he was creating chaos and destruction.
In spite of Sheridan’s infamous war strategy, his significant contributions to the Union’s victory during the Civil War have been honored in a number of ways in the United States. A few examples include the naming of Fort Sheridan, Illinois after the general and his troops, the naming of the M551 Sheridan tank, and several states naming counties and cities after him, such as Sheridan County in Wyoming and Montana, and Sheridan, Wyoming. If you have any other favorite quotes by General Philip Sheridan, or would like to share more of his colorful history, please chime in in the comments.