Monday, June 17, 2013

Sheridan and his Lieutenants

In the mail today I received David Coffey's Sheridan's Lieutenants, Phil Sheridan, His Generals, and the Final Year of the Civil War, published 2005. On the back cover was a comment by Eric J. Wittenberg: "Professor David Coffey has written a concise, interesting, and fast-paced study of the evolution and accomplishments of the Union cavalry in the East that is useful to any student of the last year of the Civil War in Virginia."

I thought, "oh no! If Wittenberg liked this book than I'm sure not to," but then I found the following in Coffey's "Bibliographical Essay": ". . . For a more negative treatment of Sheridan, see Eric J. Wittenberg's study, Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan (Washington, DC: Brassy's, 2002). Wittenberg has done extensive work on Sheridan and his campaigns during the last year of the Civil War. While he makes some excellent observations, with many of which I agree, he rather ignores the essential truth of Sheridan's success and importance within the context of his time, which, as unpleasant as it may be to admit, was enormous."

I felt much better after reading that although I paused some time over "as unpleasant as it may be to admit." Without doubt Wittenberg would have found it unpleasant to admit such a thing, but does that also represent Coffey's view? I'm inclined to think not. Consider the following from Coffey's preface:

". . . High attrition throughout the war ensured that there would be plenty of opportunities to find new leaders.

"None of this fully explains the rise of Ulysses S. Grant, and with him those of William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan -- the great triumvirate of Union victory. Some men are simply good at war; others thrive in combination with dynamic collaborators, military and political. These men bore out these truths. And no one could have imagined it. The Civil War gave Grant a last opportunity to salvage his life, and he made the most of it with a series of Western Theater victories that kept the Federal war effort viable while it foundered in the East. But Lincoln deserves credit for fueling the Grant war machine with the two most significant, if not decisive, moves of the war. The first was to retain Grant after his embarrassing loss-turned-victory at Shiloh, when the president responded to calls for Grant's head, 'I can't spare this man; he fights.' The second great move on Lincoln's part was to bring Grant, fresh off a stunning victory at Chattanooga, to Washington, where he received promotion to the newly authorized rank of lieutenant general and overall command of the armies of the United States.

"Grant made the third and fourth most important personnel dispositions of the war when he pegged his loyal friend Sherman to command in the West and summoned little Philip Sheridan to lead the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Grant made other momentous decisions during the final year of the war, but once he turned loose Sherman and Sheridan the war assumed a new attitude, and the Federal armies both East and West applied the irresistible force the Union needed to finish the Confederacy."

COMMENT: It is interesting to think of Sherman and Sheridan in the "same breath." Sherman was never able to guess what his opponent was going to do and only through his reliance upon his own lieutenants was that defect overcome. Lee by contrast was a superb guesser. Grant was not as good but better than Sherman or Sheridan -- and maybe Sheridan was a bit better than Sherman. In the midst of battle, however, both Sherman and Sheridan were able to overcome their lack of being able to anticipate their enemies.

Sheridan was the sort of general Grant admired. Grant liked Sheridan's fire and his willingness to lead his troops into battle. He probably liked Sherman personally better than any other general. Maybe a good comparison would be to see Sheridan like Lee's Jackson and Sherman like Lee's Longstreet . . . Perhaps Sheridan and Jackson had similar "fire," and perhaps Longstreet and Sherman favored the same sort of defensive maneuvering. But, I hasten to add, Sheridan and Sherman were nothing like Jackson and Longstreet personally. That is, the profane Sheridan was nothing like the hyper-religious Jackson. And Sherman who hated politics even more than he hated reporters was the antithesis of the ambitious Longstreet.

And then to compare Sherman to Sheridan in terms of their legacies, Sherman was much the greater, still being studied at war colleges. Sheridan didn't possess that sort of genius, but he was superb in any sort of battle, able to think on his feet and inspire his men to . . . not super-human effort, perhaps, but one thinks of great battles where a superb leader led his men to a momentous victory. Could even Grant or Lee have done that? We don't know because their aids kept pulling them back from harms way. Could Sherman have done that? Perhaps, but he wasn't inclined to subject his men to that sort of fighting.

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