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Thursday, May 31, 2012


He was once described by Abraham Lincoln as “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” He was the son of Irish immigrants and at full maturity was only 5’5’’ tall. Many liked to call him “Little Phil.” But this man rose to tremendous power and fame in the American west.
Philip Henry Sheridan was born in Albany, New York, and grew up in Ohio. He had a compulsive desire for approval and a psychological need to dominate others. While attending West Point, Little Phil was a first rate disciplinary problem; threatening and fighting with fellow cadets.
He graduated from West Point in 1853 and served throughout the far west until the outbreak of the Civil War. During the first two years of the war, he rose from Captain to Major General. Sheridan displayed strong battlefield daring and magnetism. But he was frequently insubordinate toward commanding officers that he didn’t respect, such as George Meade, and loyal to those he did, including Grant and Sherman (who frequently had to cover for him for his actions). Sheridan had a terrible temper and was prone to outbursts of profanity. He had little regard for the feelings of others, and delivered insults to his subordinates in front of their troops.
While his war record is well documented and widely lauded, his life after the Civil War is less known, and darker.
In 1866, Sheridan assumed command of the Fifth Military District encompassing Texas and Louisiana. He had served in the Army in these areas before the war and did not have a high opinion of them. He once was quoted as saying, “If I owned Hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
General Sheridan used the Federal Reconstruction Acts to exert his influence in the region. He had the procedural authority to remove legally-elected office holders who were either Democrats or former Confederates, and he used this power with impunity. Phil Sheridan removed many key civilian officials and replaced them with his own political appointees. Among the discharged public officials were the Governors of Louisiana and Texas.
He set down rules that restricted voter registration, severely limiting the participation of former Confederates. He also manipulated how juries were selected which discriminated against his former foes and people who did not share his politics. Eventually, President Andrew Johnson had had enough of Sheridan and removed him calling him “an absolute tyrant, cruel and unjust”
In 1869, however, his power was expanded by new President Ulysses Grant. For four years a general state of war had existed between the Indians and the white population moving west. Grant chose Sheridan to head the Department of the Missouri which had the task of resolving hostilities and returning the Native American tribes to their reservations on the Great Plains across a million square mile area. Now the most powerful man between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, Philip Sheridan, with his Napoleonic personality, ruled the plains as if it were his own country.
To subdue the Indians, Sheridan returned to the strategies he used against the South in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign during the Civil War. He ordered numerous tribes to be attacked while in their winter encampments. His troops would remove all the food and supplies, and kill any Indians who got in the way.
He carried out many of his tactics through his subordinate and close friend, George A. Custer. To Custer, and other former Union Army officers seeking to make a name for themselves, he was a mentor. To the Confederate soldiers now returned to their homes, he was a policeman. To the Indian Nations, he was death on horseback.
Part of his plan to force the plains Indians into capitulation was to exterminate the herds of buffalo which supported the Indian way of life. He once said, “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians.” In 1874 alone, Sheridan sanctioned the killing of more than four million buffalo.
Sheridan’s scorched earth policies continued until all Indians Nations were returned to their reservations, or put out of existence. He conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Great Sioux War. These ranged from Wyoming to Texas over a nine year period. He was credited with the statement, “The only good Indians I’ve seen were dead.” As his reward for pacifying the Indians, Sheridan was named Commanding General of the United States Army in 1883.
Philip H. Sheridan’s military reputation is legendary but his record of human rights abuse, lack of fairness, and cruelty cannot be ignored. He died of a heart attack at age 57, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

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