General Sheridan (Great Commanders), by Henry E. Davies
This is the first book that I can remember reading about General Sheridan, and upon reading this book it is little surprise why this is the case. Among the generals who were most vital in leading the Union to victory (Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and a few others among them), Sheridan’s life outside of the military is the least interesting. Indeed, this book points out that Sheridan’s entire adult life was spent involved in the military, and that makes for a biography which certainly has focus but which also equally certainly has limited appeal to those who are interested in Sheridan as a military leader. And even this presents a bit of a struggle because for a substantial part of the Civil War Sheridan was not even a famous military leader himself, starting out as a lowly logistics officer in the Trans-Mississippi front trying to get Curtis food and supplies and not being highly appreciated for his efforts and only becoming a notable leader starting around Perryville and most notably at Chickamauga and afterwards, at which point his place in the Union pantheon of successful leaders was secure, and which accounts for the fact that a book like this was written about him in the first place.
This book is fourteen chapters and a bit more than 300 pages long. The author begins with a discussion of Sheridan’s early life, time at West Point, and service in the army in Texas and Oregon (1). After that there is a discussion of his staff duty and how he eventually rose to a colonel of cavalry and a brigadier general (2). His service in the Army of the Ohio at Perryville and Stones River is praised (3) before the author discusses his ambivalent role at Chickamauga (4) and his far more heroic role in Chattanooga and the relief of Knoxville (5). At this point of the book we are less than 100 pages in and the Civil War is almost done, but all the same a great deal of detail is spent talking about the last year of the Civil War where Sheridan played his most conspicuous part in leading the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac as well as the Army of the Shenandoah, a task which takes the next six chapters of the book, which talk about his leadership up to Cold Harbor (6), the Trevilian expedition (7), his leadership up to the Battle of Winchester (8), his leadership at Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek (9), winter quarters and victory at Waynesborough (9), and his victory and Five Forks and the successful pursuit of Lee afterward (10). At this point the author discusses Sheridan as the military governor of Texas and Louisiana (11), his leadership in the Indian Wars, as a military observer during the Franco-Prussian War, and his leadership of the army (12), and finally some personal qualities (13) as well as an index.
In reading this book I was struck by the way that Sheridan had a strong gift in both alienating some people but also hitting it off with others. His irascible temper led him to nearly be expelled from West Point after getting in a fight with a superior officer, something I can see being possible, but at the same time he was able to hit it off with Grant in particular and find himself a secure place as a leader of men which ensured a lengthy and successful postwar career as a Reconstruction leader in Texas and Louisiana and, eventually, as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army after Sherman’s retirement, at least for a few years before his own death. The author’s note that Sheridan married late and had some young children when he died rather young is a poignant reminder that fame does not mean a long life for someone, even one who is fortunate enough to avoid death in war to receive the full honor of positions that come to those who are great commanders in history. And there is no question that Sheridan benefited from being at the right place at the right time in his career.