Monday, October 19, 2009

Quote of the Day (Thomas Buchanan Read, Celebrating “Sheridan’s Ride”)

“The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?--a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, 'mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril's play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’”—Thomas Buchanan Read, “Sheridan’s Ride” (1865)

Nowadays, I’ll wager, if students are asked to recall a quote associated with General Philip Sheridan, they’ll likely come up with his infamous (and possibly apocryphal) “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

But earlier in the last century, schoolchildren all across the land would commit to memory “Sheridan’s Ride,” Thomas Buchanan Read’s narrative poem of “Little Phil’s” dash from Winchester to Cedar Creek to rally shocked, demoralized and beaten Union troops in the climactic engagement of his “Valley Campaign” against Jubal Early.

I’m not against schoolchildren knowing about the “good Indian” quote, mind you—incomplete history might as well be false history. But they should also learn about the charisma that inspired Sheridan’s troops. That is what was celebrated in Read’s poem and remembered in the postwar era by many Northerners when they thought of making the general, like U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Winfield Scott Hancock, a Presidential candidate.

(Whether the general was actually eligible for the office is an open question. Over the years, Sheridan’s mother changed her story several times about where he’d been born—first Ohio, then Albany, then on a ship bound for America from Ireland. The possibility also exists that he was born in County Cavan in the Emerald Isle itself. He would have been ineligible for President in the latter eventuality. Aside from any aspirations for higher office, virulent anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feelings during the 1840s and 1850s, as Sheridan came to manhood, might have accounted for Mrs. Sheridan’s ambiguity on the subject.)

In August 1864, General Grant gave Sheridan the task of dealing with the Shenandoah Valley, the “bread basket of Virginia.” From the beginning of the war, Confederate commanders—notable Stonewall Jackson, John Breckinridge and Jubal Early—had ranged up and down the valley, reinforcing Robert E. Lee at will and sustaining the Southern war effort.

As he settled in for the long, drawn-out siege at Petersburg, Grant wanted as few distractions from that effort as possible, and Sheridan had carte blanche to burn anything of value in the valley. This he accomplished with a will—and what’s more, in a series of engagements in September and October, most notably at Winchester, Sheridan systematically reduced Early in force.

The Battle of Cedar Creek, which occurred on this date in 1864, pretty much finished off Lee’s hope of keeping the Shenandoah Valley in Confederate hands.

Ironically, Early thought he had a chance to reverse his fortunes by surprising the Union forces just before dawn on October 19. At first, the plan worked. But “Ol’ Jube’s” satisfaction with the outcome to date (no use sending more troops after the Federals, he told Gen. John B. Gordon: “They will all go, directly”) proved his undoing.

Sheridan was in Winchester, 15 miles away from Cedar Creek, having breakfast when he heard the low sounds of guns. As he crossed Mill Creek, he became fully aware of “the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army.” Spurring on his horse Rienzi, he encountered one group of stragglers after another, persuading them to turn back: “We are going to get a twist on those fellows! We are going to lick them out of their boots!”

And so he did. But it’s important here to lay out what happened next. If this had been, say, Sheridan’s Indian Wars subordinate George Custer leading the troops, he would have fallen immediately on the enemy, and to hell with the consequences.

But, as Shelby Foote pointed out in The Civil War, Sheridan waited, until 4 pm, when he had massed his troops and could face Early on equal terms. The former stock clerk and quartermaster mastered detail—and won the day. The Union troops gained back all they had lost, and then some.

The toast of the Confederacy only three months before for his maneuver toward Washington, Early now found himself blamed for the fiasco in the valley, then removed from this command. On the other hand, victory sealed Sheridan’s reputation as the third-greatest Northern commander of the war, just after Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, and he eventually succeeded them as head of the army.

A painter and poet, Thomas Buchanan Read is barely remembered today, but during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, he attracted much attention with his patriotic verse, which he read in Union camps and at soldiers’ benefits.

The latter genre seems all but extinct now, but it made an enormous contribution during the Civil War, in the form of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Fritchie,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It reminded a profoundly war-weary public that liberty was worth fighting for—even worth rallying for at the last extremity, as Phil Sheridan had done that memorable day at Cedar Creek.

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