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Monday, April 16, 2012

The war's most over-rated cavalryman

Time for Part 2 of the AMU Cav Ops class final exam:

Whom do you consider the war’s most overrated cavalryman?

JEB Stuart has been skewered both by his contemporaries and historians ever since for supposedly leaving Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia blind during the invasion of Pennsylvania, leaving A.P. Hill to stumble unexpectedly into the entire Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Yet Phil Sheridan was guilty of even worse in taking the entire cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac on the Yellow Tavern raid, leaving his army without its “eyes” for much of the Spotsylvania action and allowing Meade and Grant to almost wander into a trap at the North Anna River. But, with a few exceptions (foremost among them Eric Wittenberg, and to a lesser extent Gordon Rhea), historians have not only ignored Sheridan’s blunder here, but on the contrary have praised his actions during this time period – a period of a few weeks when his insubordinate attitude toward his immediate superior should have at least resulted in his court-martial, on a personal level, and on the much larger operational level, could have resulted in the destruction of the Army of the Potomac (indeed it was only the illness of Lee and two of his corps commanders – Hill and Ewell – that allowed Grant to escape the North Anna).

Phil Sheridan is by far the most over-rated cavalryman of the entire Civil War. The man was a complete and utter failure as a cavalryman. He owed his rapid rise up the command ladder to his abilities as a staff officer, which caught the notice of Henry Halleck. Later, his actions as a field commander – a position which he gained almost solely via Halleck’s intervention – Sheridan caught the eye of William Rosecrans, William Sherman and eventually U.S. Grant. Although Rosecrans would lose favor with the Administration, he had substantial clout before his fall from grace, and of course Grant and Sherman were others whose stars were rapidly on the ascent. Prior to his appointment to supplant Alfred Pleasanton as Meade’s cavalry chief, his time in the mounted arm was almost nil. His earlier commission to command the 2nd Michigan Cavalry was purely a political move by Halleck, Sherman and others to give Sheridan a field command – he had no Michigan ties, and he had no cavalry service.

His accomplishments as an infantry commander were not all that impressive either. He stumbled into battle at Perryville (Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin served in his division in the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland), he was routed at Murfreesboro, he was caught up in the rout at Chickamauga and left the field before deciding that it was in his best interest to return to join Thomas, and technically his success at Chattanooga was against orders.

Brought east to Virginia, Sheridan balked almost right off the bat at being used in the traditional role of cavalry. His explosive reaction to Meade using his horsemen for screening movements, guarding supply lines, and other roles which were to be performed by cavalry, shows truly how little Sheridan understood or appreciated how cavalry fit into the overall picture. Sheridan wanted it to be an offensive arm, as Stuart often used his cavalry. The only difference was that Sheridan wanted to be exclusively an offensive weapon, completely abandoning any use in screening movements, finding the enemy, etc. Stuart knew how to balance the two, or at least knew better than did Sheridan. This of course begs the question, if Sheridan did not see screening, guarding supply lines, intel gathering, etc. as the job of his cavalry, then whose job was it exactly? And Sheridan had not exactly earned himself the right to expect anything from Meade – his troopers had failed to seize the crossroads at Spotsylvania to begin with.

Rightfully Meade wanted Sheridan ousted, but had enough sense to know that as a favorite of Grant’s, it was going to be a sticky subject, one which he certainly could not do without Grant’s approval. But in presenting his case to Grant, it would appear that Meade simply didn’t know when to stop – when he mentioned Sheridan’s boasting of being able to “whip” Stuart, Grant wanted it done. In essence, Sheridan was being rewarded for insubordination. Thus Sheridan took off from Spotsylvania with all his mounted forces, leaving Grant and Meade blind in enemy country – shades of what Stuart is so often accused of in June of 1863.

When brought to battle at Yellow Tavern, Stuart was mortally wounded – mission accomplished for Sheridan, who made Stuart the man, the mission. But in analysis of the battle and the raid as a whole, Sheridan played little role tactically. Indeed it is Custer who is the senior officer most mentioned in regard to directing the fighting. And the battle was so one-sided; it was all but inevitable that Stuart would be defeated. What is amazing is the fact that it took Sheridan so long to do it – he had two full divisions on the field to Stuart’s two brigades. Whomever it was that made the tactical decisions in blue that day, be it Sheridan, Merritt, Custer, or whoever, seemed absolutely oblivious to the idea of a flanking attack. The Federals had troops and to spare – Stuart and Fitz Lee being positioned where they were in all honesty should have been pressed heavily on their left flank and pushed into the Chickahominy bottomland at Half Sink to the north and northeast, and captured. The fact that Fitz escaped with much of the two brigades says little to credit Sheridan’s battlefield decisions at Yellow Tavern.

Indeed, the fact that it was Sheridan’s command, not Stuart’s/Fitz Lee’s that was nearly trapped against the Chickahominy and annihilated again speaks volumes as to Sheridan’s generalship. After finally getting Stuart out of his way at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan decided to press on and try the Richmond defenses along the Brook Turnpike. Given the depleted forces therein, Sheridan had a good chance at getting into the city, at least temporarily. As it was, troops had to be rushed from Beauregard’s army at Bermuda Hundred to meet the threat. Fitz Lee’s two brigades, which had rallied from the Yellow Tavern defeat (and by all rights should not have even existed anymore) kept Sheridan pinned in between the Chickahominy and the Richmond defenses, while Stuart’s third brigade, under James Gordon, harassed Sheridan’s flank and rear. Yet again, Sheridan greatly held the upper hand both in terms of numbers and armament over not just the Confederate cavalry but the several brigades sent by Beauregard combined. Meadow Bridge, just like Yellow Tavern the day before, should not have been a close fight. And the closeness of the fight is not Sheridan’s troops having a hard time breaking through fortifications prepared several years before, but rather him being on the defensive, really fighting for his own survival.

Viewed as a whole, apart from the death of Stuart, Sheridan’s Yellow Tavern raid achieved very little, and that at the cost of his cavalry being out of action for a time afterward, refitting down the Peninsula with some of Butler’s forces. At least when Stuart arrived at Gettysburg he had brought with him 100+ fully-loaded supply wagons, and had yet again ridden around the Army of the Potomac, and had done so with relatively minor casualties. While Sheridan was absent, Grant stumbled into Lee’s North Anna River trap and had no tangible results to boast of upon his return, other than the death of Stuart. In addition Sheridan’s losses were horrible, percentage-wise – much higher than the Federal cavalry was used to, or should have even sustained on this operation. The death of Stuart was such an accomplishment in Northern eyes that it has clouded the overall mission – a mission which was in fact, mostly a failure.

His subsequent performance at Trevilians Station was anything but impressive as well. In fact, he failed to achieve his objective, which was to link up with David Hunter’s forces from the Shenandoah Valley. His victory at Yellow Tavern had been due to overwhelming numbers more than anything else. At Trevilians, the numbers were much less in his favor and he was up against an opponent in Wade Hampton more suited to the style of “cavalry” fighting that Sheridan employed than was Stuart. And as at Meadow Bridge, we find part of Sheridan’s command – this time, Custer – yet again fighting for survival. But, unlike before, sufficient cavalry would be left with the army, in the form of James Wilson’s division. And although outnumbering the Confederates about 3-2, Sheridan’s forces suffered more losses than did Hampton. Something was clearly wrong with the way Sheridan fought battles.

Once he was sent to the Valley, Sheridan ceased to be a cavalry commander. Yet he managed to rid his army of perhaps one of the best cavalry officers he had in William Averell and alienated his West Point classmate and one-time close friend George Crook – who was the real brains of the Army of the Shenandoah – by claiming that the battle plans at both Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill were his [Sheridan’s] own, when they were in fact designed by Crook. Sheridan was, for whatever reason, apparently very averse to flanking movements (a major flaw in a supposed “great” cavalryman). After taking the Valley command from Hunter, he refused to bring Jubal Early to battle. The rashness, the impetuousness that Grant admired in Sheridan was gone, replaced by timidity (yet still present was the aversion to following orders – as Grant ordered him to meet Early in combat). When he finally did set after Early at Winchester in September, he got his infantry stuck in a gorge which served as a funnel, and then once he did get all three infantry corps out of the Berryville “canyon,” was set to hurl Crook’s VIII Corps in a frontal assault until Crook talked him out of it. To Sheridan’s credit, he did not attempt to take Fisher’s Hill by frontal assault but again listened to Crook’s plan for a flanking move along Little North Mountain. (Of course, according to Sheridan these ideas did not originate with Crook but rather were a product of Sheridan’s own tactical genius.)

Growing out of his dislike of traditional intelligence-gathering, much of Sheridan’s knowledge of Confederate dispositions in the Shenandoah came not from the “regular” cavalry methods, but instead from the not-universally-accepted method of dressing his scouts in Confederate uniform – in essence spies. And too many of his command decisions in the Valley were personal, rather than military – his decision to burn Dayton and the surrounding area in response to the killing of Lt. John Meigs is a prime example.

The Valley Campaign is unquestionably Sheridan’s greatest victory, but to what extent was it truly “Sheridan’s” victory? The amount of praise he gets for turning the tide of battle at Cedar Creek borders on sickening; Jubal Early allowed the Federal army to rally and escape complete destruction – this was not Phil Sheridan’s doing. Sheridan’s contribution was the decision to counterattack rather than withdraw to Winchester. The army’s salvation was not attributable to Sheridan at Cedar Creek. After all three Federal victories in the Shenandoah – Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek – Sheridan allowed Early to escape. He had more than enough cavalry to pursue Early to the death after each and every one of these battles, but it was not done. And his inability to deal with Rosser prior to Tom’s Brook again illustrates his inability to understand the role of cavalry – Rosser’s force was so inferior – numerically as well in terms of armament and overall quality of the troops as a whole – that he should have been able to make them less of a threat. The continued successes of John Mosby, John McNeill, Harry Gilmor, and others show that the Confederate horse could never have been totally eradicated, but Rosser could have and should have been shut down long before Tom’s Brook.

Once on the Petersburg front in 1865, Sheridan repeated his Meadow Bridge and Trevilians problems again – fighting for his life at Dinwiddie Courthouse against George Pickett, when Pickett was supposed to be the one against the ropes. His use of cavalry subsequently at Five Forks showed little imagination. Pickett’s force was so small, having the entire V Corps on a flanking movement was overkill, while his troopers fought dismounted in their front. Pickett’s entire command could have been corralled at Five Forks had the cavalry been used not as the holding force but been sent to gain the Confederate rear.

Sheridan’s role in the Appomattox Campaign is one of the bright spots of his career. He forced a portion of Lee’s army to turn and fight at Sayler’s Creek, capturing about 1/3 of Lee’s force. And again it was Sheridan’s horsemen who blocked Lee’s path at Appomattox.

One of Sheridan’s major shortcomings as a cavalry commander was his apparent inability to grasp the limits of the animals. On the Trevilians raid in particular, numerous horses gave out due to the pace he set and had to be destroyed. Later other horses, which were not “broken down,” but merely in need of rest and/or food, were killed rather than rested – particularly true on the Wilson-Kautz Raid (although admittedly not directly Sheridan’s fault). The man simply never seemed to understand the horse – a MAJOR flaw in a cavalryman.

And Sheridan was blessed with one of the things a military commander most hopes for – able subordinates. Wesley Merritt, David Gregg, James Wilson, George Custer – all were above average cavalry commanders. Although some – most notably Custer – at times were as rash as Sheridan himself could be, they all were excellent fighters. In fact, many of “Sheridan’s victories” are more attributable to the fights put up by these and other officers and their men, than to any great generalship on the part of the “great” Phil Sheridan.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.