General Philip Sheridan is best known as the third member of the triumvirate of Union generals (the others being Grant and Sherman) that led the Union Army to victory over the Confederate Army. Joseph Wheelan brings Sheridan back-to-life in his book entitled Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan.
Sheridan started the war in obscurity as a lieutenant, but quickly rose in the ranks partly through his own actions and partly because of good fortune. Wheelan adroitly chronicles Sheridan’s rise in the western armies and then his success in the eastern armies – primarily as part of the Army of the Potomac and an independent command of the Union cavalry. The book is particularly strong regarding Sheridan’s actions during the Battle of Cedar Creek, where he turned a Union loss into a spectacular victory over Jubal Early’s Confederate forces.
Wheelan’s narrative on Sheridan’s Civil War exploits is interesting. However, I think he excels in describing Sheridan’s commands after the Civil War – including commands in Reconstruction New Orleans and in the West against the American Indians. Throughout the book, Wheelan highlights Sheridan’s “take charge” attitude no matter the consequences. For example, when New Orleans officials during Reconstruction (including many former Confederate officers) massacred whites and blacks at a convention to write a new state constitution, Sheridan took matters into his own hands and arrested all of the officials over the objections of President Andrew Johnson.
Wheelan pays particular attention to Sheridan’s (he shared these beliefs with Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln) total war beliefs. The Union leadership was willing to take the Civil War to Southern civilians in order to shorten the war. Sheridan also applied this same approach when attacking the American Indians in their winter quarters (they were too hard to fight during the warmer months due to their mobility). Although he was not criticized for this approach in the Civil War, many eastern newspapers criticized his “draconian” efforts to subdue the Plains Indians. As Wheelan proves, Sheridan was never able to understand the change in public opinion from the Civil War to the post-Civil War era.
Wheelan touches on the total war concept when he discusses Sheridan’s trip to Europe to observe the Franco-Prussian War. While the Germans were having problems with French irregular forces during that War, Wheelan writes that Sheridan shared his total war views with the German command. Wheelan then explains (a bit of a stretch in my opinion) that Sheridan’s ideas were brought to full fruition by the Germans in World Wars I and II. In Wheelan’s defense, he does not blame Sheridan as the source of the German atrocities during these wars, but he does suggest that he was the one who planted the seed.
Wheelan writes in excellent prose. The book is a relative quick read at 314 pages with many black and white photographs. It is a great concise history of one of the most skilled and controversial generals in American history.