Coffey, David. Sheridan’s Lieutenants: Phil Sheridan, His Generals, and the Final Year of the Civil War. American Crisis Series, series ed. Steven E.Woodworth. Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
General Philip H. Sheridan remains a controversial figure in American military history. George Crook, a controversial figure in his own right, whose military career crossed paths with Sheridan’s several times, said of the latter on his death, “The adulations heaped upon him by a grateful nation for his supposed genius turned his head, which, added to his natural disposition, caused him to bloat his little carcass with debauchery and dissipation, which carried him off prematurely.” Crook believed Sheridan stole credit for two great victories in the Shenandoah Valley properly belonging to Crook, which ruined their a prewar friendship. In this episode, one finds the essence of Phil Sheridan: a talent for war, and a talent for angering others.
Two recent books have assessed Sheridan’s Civil War career. In Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of General Philip H. Sheridan (Washington: Brassey’s, 2002), Eric Wittenberg argues Sheridan was not the third greatest Union commander of the Civil War, behind Grant and Sherman. Sheridan blundered in the Overland Campaign, succeeded in the Shenandoah Valley despite his poor generalship, took credit for subordinates’ victories, explained away defeats, and destroyed the careers of subordinates with whom he disagreed. Wittenberg attributes Sheridan’s ascendancy in the pantheon of Northern military heroes to Sheridan’s patron, Ulysses S. Grant.
Unlike Little Phil, David Coffey’s Sheridan’s Lieutenants creates a complimentary portrait of Sheridan more in line with conventional wisdom. In this slim volume, Coffey argues that Sheridan and his lieutenants “directed the most potent fighting force during the war’s final year and went on to influence the army into the twentieth century” (xvi).
Coffey’s analysis of Sheridan rests on five battles. At Yellow Tavern (11 May 1864) and Trevilian Station (11 June), Sheridan used the troopers of the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, en masse for the first time. The Yellow Tavern raid had few permanent effects, and Sheridan lost the battle at Trevilian Station, but the cavalry’s performance in the Overland Campaign showed Sheridan the mettle of his subordinates. At Opequan or Third Winchester (19 September), the massed troopers of Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah broke the infantry of Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley, “the first fully realized employment of mounted cavalry as a major strike force” during the war. At Cedar Creek (19 October), Sheridan’s arrival during a panicked Union retreat literally turned things around, as he rallied his troopers and defeated Early by nightfall. Five Forks, during the Appomattox Campaign (1 April 1865), combined the skill of Opequan and the personal magic of Cedar Creek: Sheridan “knew what he had to do to achieve victory and practically willed it to happen.”
Sheridan’s lieutenants included George Crook, George A. Custer, Wesley Merritt, and Ranald S. Mackenzie. While Crook eventually fell out of favor with Sheridan, undoubtedly Little Phil saved his harshest words for those outside the circle. Sheridan inherited James H. Wilson as a division commander. Sheridan did not like him and had Wilson transferred west, where he served W. T. Sherman ably. Sheridan fired William Averell as a division commander during the Shenandoah campaign although Coffey suggests Averell paid for his own mistakes and those of Sheridan’s then cavalry chief, Alfred T. A. Torbert. Infamously, Sheridan relieved Gouverneur K. Warren as V Corps commander at Five Forks, because the cavalryman found the hero of Gettysburg to be too slow. Sheridan also squabbled with his superiors, including Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Major General George G. Meade.
In an epilogue, Coffey traces the postwar careers of Sheridan, Custer, Crook, Mackenzie, and Merritt. Coffey argues that “Sheridan’s employment of cavalry as a main battle component anticipated armored warfare in the twentieth century.” His lieutenants served as important commanders during the Indian Wars and, especially in the case of Wesley Merritt, perpetuated Sheridan’s influence in the army past the latter’s death in 1888.
Sheridan’s Lieutenants is a synthetic military biography of Sheridan and his service during the last year of the Civil War. Coffey integrates the lieutenants by briefly describing their lives and service when each is first mentioned. For battle accounts, the book relies heavily on the Official Records. The work also makes good use of memoirs, mostly Union. The only Confederate memoir cited in the notes is John Brown Gordon’s, but Coffey mentions also E. Porter Alexander and James Longstreet in the bibliographic essay. Sheridan’s own memoirs prove valuable, although Coffey criticizes Sheridan where the record contradicts the general. The bibliographical essay indicates an awareness of the vast historiography, and is a good place to start for those interested in further reading. The book is end-noted.
Coffey accurately captures Sheridan’s skill on the battlefield and his charisma, two qualities that even Wittenberg agreed Sheridan had in spades. Much as President Lincoln kept faith with Grant because the latter was a fighter, Grant gave Sheridan the opportunity to develop the operational art despite middling success in the Overland Campaign. In the course of a few months in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan fused together the troops of four different departments into a cohesive unit and brought Union success to an area that, a few months earlier, Early used as a gateway to the outer defenses of Washington. Success in the Shenandoah allowed Sheridan the chance to use combined arms successfully during the Appomattox Campaign. Coffey makes palpable Sheridan’s battlefield presence, which apparently won over skeptical troops at the battle of Five Forks.
Coffey does not ignore Sheridan’s personal flaws. The author notes most authorities believe Crook, indeed, deserved credit for the flank attacks at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill that helped cement Sheridan’s standing. For a general whose aggressiveness has passed down to present-day as legendary, Sheridan lost much of his ardor for fighting in the Valley after Cedar Creek. This continued despite constant urgings from Grant, in light of which Sheridan’s passivity can be seen as insubordination. In commenting on the Five Forks affair, Coffey points out that Sheridan, once disappointed by a subordinate, tended to lose faith in him forever.
Coffey comes off as a bit of an apologist for Sheridan’s sackings of subordinates, suggesting in the cases of both Averell and Warren that the men had disappointed Sheridan and others before and that things simply came to a head in the heat of battle. In the case of Warren, at least, the debate between Sheridan’s supporters and detractors continues today. More troubling for the historian are Coffey’s claims for Sheridan’s lasting influence. What influence Sheridan’s Civil War experience had on the Indian Wars, given their small-unit and infantry-heavy nature, must be on the spiritual level, not the operational. Linking Sheridan to the development of armored tactics is similarly overreaching.
As for Sheridan’s lieutenants, they all were prominent Indian fighters. But Crook’s successes in the Southwest came from his unorthodox tactics, and he proved less effective fighting the Sioux. Custer’s aggressiveness got him in trouble in the 1860s, and got him killed a decade later. Mackenzie proved a skilled professional, but insanity prematurely snuffed out his career while Sheridan was still commanding in the West. Wesley Merritt enjoyed a long career, retiring after the Spanish-American War. Given the excruciatingly slow rate of promotion in the postwar army, however, Merritt’s perseverance is as much testament to an iron constitution and a determination to remain in service, as to anything he might have learned at Sheridan’s elbow.
Nevertheless, Sheridan’s Lieutenants is an excellent account of Sheridan’s command of the operational art in conventional warfare, and his ability to get the most out of his officers and men. Coffey demonstrates that, warts and all, Sheridan deserves his stature as one of the great Union generals. This book is recommended for use in undergraduate classrooms, as well as for the interested but relatively uninformed general reader.