little philOver the weekend ol’ Robbo finished reading the Memoirs of “Little Phil” Sheridan.

I won’t bore you with a detailed review.  Sheridan writes about what he sees and not much beyond, starting very briefly with his childhood and his time at the Point before quickly moving on to his early military service in the Pacific Northwest.  He (understandably) spends the bulk of his work recounting his Civil War record, which was superb.   His account of the Valley Campaign of 1864 is probably the best tactical description I’ve read yet, and he ought to know.

The latter part of his memoir is taken up with his time on the Mexican frontier (I had no idea he was involved in running guns to the Juaristas), his efforts to administer Reconstruction equitably in the face of that scoundrel Andrew Johnson, his campaigns against hostile Plains Indians and his observations of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, during which he spent his time palling around with Bismark.

The overall tone of the memoir causes me to change my opinion of Sheridan considerably.  I had previously thought of him, when compared to men like Grant and Sherman, as something of a loose cannon, a hot-headed berzerker who had no compunction about slaughter for its own sake.   Well, I know one must keep in mind the self-serving factor when reading autobiography, but there are some things it’s very difficult to fake, and the fact of the matter is that Sheridan seems to me much more like Grant and Sherman than I had originally credited him with being.   Certainly he believed in biffing his opponents to Kingdom-come on the battlefield and in the breadbasket, but like the others he also understood this as the fastest method by which to bring the conflict to an end, thereby saving more lives and property in the long run.   There’s certainly no hint of a gratuitous enjoyment of violence for its own sake, but instead a very professional understanding of what needed to be done.

There’s no question Sheridan was a quick-tempered man.  (He was Irish, after all, and a poor immigrant’s son to boot.)  He had no patience whatever for military cowardice, incompetence or sloth.  (His devotion to the well-being of his own men is a consistent theme throughout the book.)  He had very definite opinions about other commanders and politicians and was not afraid to state them.   But he had a humane, common-sense side, too.  His tussle with President Johnson, for instance, was spurred by his independent efforts to stop the prejudicial and sometimes deadly treatment of blacks in Louisiana and Texas by unrepentant rebels after the war, for which effort he got himself removed from command of that district.   As for his treatment of the Indians, it doesn’t seem to me that his attitudes were really outside of the mainstream of frontier opinion at the time.  (He apparently never said that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.)  Again, when on the attack against an identified enemy of the government, he was ruthless.  But again, there is no evidence of a gratuitous enjoyment of bad treatment of friendly or helpless Indian populations.

One small detail that arrested my attention:  Sheridan mentions that after the battle of Stone’s River, Tennessee in early 1863, as the Union army moved south he had occasion to visit a “mountain-top university” somewhere in the south-central part of the state.  He doesn’t name the school, but I have to believe it’s Sewanee.   (How many mountain-top universities could there be in south-central Tennessee, after all?)  I mention this only because I visited the place myself some years ago and was impressed by the sense of being up in the clouds.

All in all, I think I’d come back to this book only for specific highlights – the above-mentioned Valley Campaign, for example, or Sheridan’s account of Yellow Tavern or Five Forks- rayther than reading it right the way through again as I reread Grant’s memoirs from time to time.   Little Phil’s style is generally dry and crisp to the point of aridity – a protracted military report, if you will – and has very little of the more reflective quality of the latter work.   However, I think the first reading was well worth it.

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