Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan

by Brett Schulte on March 13, 2008 · 0 comments

Eric J. Wittenberg. Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc.; First Edition (2002). 250 pp., 22 maps, notes, index.. ISBN: 1-57488-385-2 $24.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Often described as a “lawyer’s brief” by the author and others, Eric Wittenberg’s Little Phil is not a flattering portrait of Union Major General Philip Henry Sheridan. Wittenberg is well aware he is working against over a century of overwhelmingly positive attention given to Sheridan, and his work is carefully researched and documented as a result. In Little Phil then, Eric Wittenberg sets out to catalog the character flaws and other weaknesses he believes Sheridan possessed, weaknesses which have been previously overlooked or ignored outright. This is an admittedly controversial topic, given Sheridan’s decades-long status of “Union hero”.

The author begins with a brief biography of Sheridan, from his birth in Ireland to his Civil War years and beyond. He then proceeds to discuss three main issues, all of which overlap to some extent. The first is Sheridan’s performance as a Civil War commander in three major campaigns (the Virginia Overland Campaign of 1864, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, and the Appomattox Campaign). The second major discussion centers on the general’s character flaws in that role . The last discussion revolves around Sheridan’s tendency to cavalierly ruin lives and take credit for others’ work.

According to the author, Sheridan performed poorly in the Overland Campaign of 1864. His tendency to leave the Army of the Potomac on raids deep into the enemy’s rear accomplished little and left Meade and Grant to grope blindly through bloodbaths at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Sheridan was unable to defeat his primary opponent Wade Hampton even once, and in fact was driven from the field at Trevilian Station. Wittenberg points out Sheridan’s complete disobedience of and generally poor behavior towards General Meade during the campaign, made worse by Sheridan’s hypocritical demands of unquestioning obedience from his own men.

Sheridan followed up a poor performance in the Overland Campaign with a poor performance in the Valley, claims Wittenberg. He points out the 3:1 superiority with which Sheridan operated against Confederate commander Jubal Early. According to the author, Sheridan displayed poor tactical skill throughout, and only numerical superiority combined with the abilities of his subordinates carried him through to the historical result. Sheridan botched the attack at Third Winchester, took credit for George Crook’s flank attack plan at Fisher’s Hill, and was away from his men when Early launched a surprise attack at Cedar Creek, says the author.

In a rare instance of praise, Wittenberg applauds Sheridan’s abilities during the Appomattox Campaign. Sheridan drove his cavalry relentlessly over the first week of April 1865 and eventually caught up to Lee and caused his surrender.

In addition to his less than stellar performance in several major campaigns, Wittenberg takes issue with several of Sheridan’s character flaws. First and foremost, he believes Sheridan was very close to being a pathological liar. In fact, one entire chapter of the book focuses on nothing but this aspect of Sheridan’s personality, from his lies about where he was born to his tendency to take credit for others’ accomplishments. Sheridan’s tendency to brag as well as his tendency to disobey direct orders from his superiors, even Grant, are also explored.

Sheridan’s character flaws led him to damage or even destroy three military careers, according to Wittenberg. First was William Averell, a commander of one of Sheridan’s cavalry divisions. Averell was relieved by Sheridan after Fisher’s Hill for failure to pursue the beaten Confederates. Wittenberg contends Averell did all he could do that day and that the dismissal was unjustified. Despite being relieved, Averell received a promotion to brevet Major General before the end of the war. George Crook, Sheridan’s lifelong friend up until the end of the Civil War, also felt his sting. Evidence suggests Crook was fully responsible for planning the devastating flank attack launched against Early’s Confederate army at Fisher’s Creek, yet Sheridan took credit for the attack and the corresponding victory. The dismissal of G. K. Warren, the last case discussed, in many ways seems to be Sheridan’s worst act. In what is still a controversial incident to this day, Sheridan relieved Warren at the height of victory at Five Forks, for what were later determined to be wholly unfair reasons. To make matters worse, Sheridan never offered an apology or even admitted any wrongdoing in the affair. Before a court of inquiry cleared Warren of any wrongdoing years later, the general passed away, buried in civilian clothing.

Wittenberg concludes by emphasizing Sheridan’s character flaws, reviewing Sheridan’s oftentimes poor performance commanding large bodies of men, and pointing out the level of patronage Sheridan received from high ranking Union commanders such as Grant, Sherman, and Rosecrans. He believes Sheridan does not deserve near the credit he has gotten over the years.

This book was very well researched, a trait the author is now known for. In all honesty, this was a bare minimum requirement. Trying to reverse widely held opinion of a man after many years is a daunting task, and anything less than an exhaustive bibliography would be dismissed quickly. The author argues his case convincingly and repeatedly, but this is a controversial subject. In trying to reverse decades of thought, I believe Wittenberg was only moderately successful. The truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere in between the popular view and that of the author. Sheridan’s flaws were to me a bit overemphasized, and this is going to cause less buy-in from readers in my humble opinion. One thing which bothered me was the large number of positive quotes from the men who served under Sheridan, even in a book roundly criticizing his performance. I agree that Sheridan had some flaws, especially his tendency to act rashly and to not rectify mistakes made, but I do not agree that these made him a poor commander. With all of this said, challenging widely held beliefs, when done correctly, can only add positively to the discussion of the Civil War. Wittenberg’s Little Phil is a well-reasoned, thoroughly researched argument against what many hold to be fact. In writing this book, Wittenberg successfully causes readers to reassess what they know about the commonly held beliefs on Phil Sheridan, just as the title suggests. Although readers may not agree with all of the findings in Little Phil, they will definitely be forced to think about what they have just read. This was a solid and enjoyable read and is a highly recommended book, including and especially for fans of the Union leader.

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