'Terrible Swift Sword': Philip H. Sheridan's never-ending battles
Joseph Wheelan's "Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan" tells the story of the brilliant Union general who began his military career in the Washington Territory, was the scourge of the Confederacy and went back West after the Civil War.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Terrible Swift Sword:
The Life of General
Philip H. Sheridan'
by Joseph Wheelan
Da Capo Press, 388 pp., $26
If the title of this book seems familiar, perhaps it's because the late historian Bruce Catton first used it in his great Centennial History of the Civil War a half-century ago (and Catton borrowed it from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"). But the title so perfectly fits Philip Sheridan, the subject of this biography, that author Joseph Wheelan may be forgiven for using it again.
Wheelan describes how the young Sheridan, fresh from West Point, joined the 1856 campaign against Native Americans in Washington Territory, then spent four years in Oregon near the town that now bears his name. When the Civil War began he joined the conflict and won rapid promotion for infantry service in several battles.
But it was as a cavalry leader — the "terrible swift sword" — that Sheridan excelled. His men killed the legendary rebel cavalryman Jeb Stuart at the battle of Yellow Tavern, and Sheridan made a famous ride at Cedar Creek to rally his troops to victory — an act later enshrined in the poem "Sheridan's Ride," by Thomas Buchanan Read.
Sheridan also led the assault that finally broke rebel lines at Petersburg, then doggedly pursued Robert E. Lee's retreating army to Appomattox. Lee's surrender disappointed him; Sheridan wanted to keep fighting. He got his chance later as a relentless foe of the Plains Indians, and today is probably remembered mostly for the infamous quote, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." That's not exactly what he said, according to Wheelan, but it wasn't far off.
Sheridan subsequently had second thoughts about his role in the tribes' conquest. "We have occupied his [the Indians'] country, taken away from him his lovely domain, destroyed his herds of game, penned him up on reservations, and reduced him to poverty," he wrote. "For humanity's sake, then, let us give him enough to eat, and integrity in the agents over him."
The little general — he was about 5 feet, 5 inches tall — also fought political battles, including a successful campaign to protect Yellowstone Park from commercial development. Eventually he succeeded William T. Sherman as commander of the U.S. Army, and shortly before his death Congress awarded him four-star rank.
Sheridan is a tough biographical subject because his personal papers were lost in the 1871 Chicago fire, but Wheelan, a former Associated Press editor, makes up for much of the deficit with exhaustive research. Though several episodes of Sheridan's life are inexplicably related out of chronological order, Wheelan's book is otherwise competently written, well detailed and thoroughly readable.
Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond's new book, "In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the
78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment" will be published in September by Globe Pequot Press.