Sheridan had a fierce temper, and it nearly cost him his career. At West Point he got into a fight with fellow-cadet (and fellow future-general) William Terrill. He wasn’t expelled, but he had to serve an extra year before graduating in 1853. He went to the infantry and had the normal – i.e. slow – promotions.
He was a First Lieutenant in 1861 and was jumped only as far as Captain. That took him onto the staff, as a quartermaster and commissary officer in southwest Missouri. His potential was spotted by Gordon Granger, possibly Granger’s greatest service to the Union. Sheridan was given command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry (May 1862) and within a week was commanding a cavalry brigade. By the end of September 1862 it was an infantry division. He led them at Perryville and Murfreesboro, then at Chickamauga. He couldn’t prevent his troops rout there, but later in the year brightened his reputation by breaking through the ‘impregnable’ Confederate line on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga. He probably didn’t expect his men could achieve so much, and he certainly didn’t exploit far.
When Grant was promoted to general-in-chief he sent for Sheridan, who took over the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. With JEB Stuart’s men wearing out, horses becoming scarce, and breechloading repeaters raising Union firepower, Sheridan still couldn’t break his opponent through the 1864 campaign. Stuart was killed, but that wasn’t enough. Sheridan was frustrated that he hadn’t done more, and it didn’t improve his relations with his colleagues. He argued with most of the Army of the Potomac and Grant was wise to move Sheridan to the Shenandoah. The immediate cause was Jubal Early’s raid on Washington, which came within a whisker of embarrassing success.
Grant was determined to neutralize the Shenandoah. Sheridan beat Early successively at the third battle of Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek. Clearing the Valley earned him the Thanks of Congress – who could finally debate in security, without any chance of Confederates interrupting. Sheridan also brought the heavy hand of war to the east, executing a limited version of Sherman’s March. He boasted that a crow would have to bring provisions to the Shenandoah, a region that had been a large flour exporter.
In the spring of 1865 Sheridan smashed Early’s remaining forces (March), then brought his men to join Grant at Petersburg. Grant put him in charge of the flanking force that won the battle of Five Forks, breaking the Confederate defenses at Petersburg. His line shattered, Lee had to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. Sheridan moved faster than Lee’s under-supplied, worn out Army of Northern Virginia. He could move faster, and got to the right places, forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Sheridan was denied a place in the victory parade in Washington, despite his pleas. He loved parades and spectacles, but instead was sent off to New Orleans as a step towards Texas. His mission to Texas was not only re-imposing the U.S. government, but sending a signal to the French-backed Mexican government. He stayed in Texas as Military Governor of Texas and Louisiana, but for only six months because he was so strict (or harsh). He rose to be General-in-Chief in 1884, after observing the Franco-Prussian War and offering advice on cavalry operations.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 1999.