In the fall of 1861, Sheridan was ordered to travel to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri, for assignment to the 13th U.S. Infantry. He departed from his command of Fort Yamhill, Oregon, by way of San Francisco, across the Isthmus of Panama, and through New York City to home in Somerset for a brief leave.
On the way to his new post, he made a courtesy call to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck in St. Louis, who commandeered his services to audit the financial records of his immediate predecessor, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, whose administration of the Department of the Missouri was tainted by charges of wasteful expenditures and fraud that left the status of $12 million in doubt.
Sheridan sorted out the mess, impressing Halleck in the process. Much to Sheridan’s dismay, Halleck’s vision for Sheridan consisted of a continuing role as a staff officer. Nevertheless, Sheridan performed the task assigned to him and entrenched himself as an excellent staff officer in Halleck’s view.In December, Sheridan was appointed chief commissary officer of the Army of Southwest Missouri, but convinced the department commander, Halleck, to give him the position of quartermaster general as well. In January 1862, he reported for duty to Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis and served under him at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Sheridan soon discovered that officers were engaged in profiteering. They stole horses from civilians and demanded payment from Sheridan. He refused to pay for the stolen property and confiscated the horses for the use of Curtis’s army. When Curtis ordered him to pay the officers, Sheridan brusquely retorted, “No authority can compel me to jayhawk or steal.” Curtis had Sheridan arrested for insubordination but Halleck’s influence appears to have ended any formal proceedings.
Sheridan performed aptly in his role under Curtis and, now returned to Halleck’s headquarters, he accompanied the army on the Siege of Corinth and served as an assistant to the department’s topographical engineer, but also made the acquaintance of Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman, who offered him the colonelcy of an Ohio infantry regiment. This appointment fell through, but Sheridan was subsequently aided by friends (including future Secretary of War Russell A. Alger), who petitioned Michigan Governor Austin Blair on his behalf. Sheridan was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry on May 27, 1862, despite having no experience in the mounted arm.
A month later, Sheridan commanded his first forces in combat, leading a small brigade that included his regiment. At the Battle of Booneville, Mississippi, July 1, 1862, he held back several regiments of Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers’s Confederate cavalry, deflected a large flanking attack with a noisy diversion, and reported critical intelligence about enemy dispositions. His actions so impressed the division commanders, including Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, that they recommended Sheridan’s promotion to brigadier general.
They wrote to Halleck, “Brigadiers scarce; good ones scarce. … The undersigned respectfully beg that you will obtain the promotion of Sheridan. He is worth his weight in gold.”
The promotion was approved in September, but dated effective July 1 as a reward for his actions at Booneville. It was just after Booneville that one of his fellow officers gave him the horse that he named Rienzi (after the skirmish of Rienzi, Mississippi), which he would ride throughout the war.
Sheridan was assigned to command the 11th Division, III Corps, in Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. On October 8, 1862, Sheridan led his division in the Battle of Perryville. Under orders from Buell and his corps commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Gilbert, Sheridan sent Col. Daniel McCook’s brigade to secure a water supply for the army. McCook drove off the Confederates and secured water for the parched Union troops at Doctor’s Creek. Gilbert ordered McCook not to advance any further and then rode to consult with Buell. Along the way, Gilbert ordered his cavalry to attack the Confederates in Dan McCook’s front. Sheridan heard the gunfire and came to the front with another brigade. Although the cavalry failed to secure the heights in front of McCook, Sheridan’s reinforcements drove off the Southerners. Gilbert returned and ordered Sheridan to return to McCook’s original position. Sheridan’s aggressiveness convinced the opposing Confederates under Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, that they should remain on the defensive. His troops repulsed Confederate attacks later that day, but did not participate in the heaviest fighting of the day, which occurred on the Union left.
On December 31, 1862, the first day of the Battle of Stones River, Sheridan anticipated a Confederate assault and positioned his division in preparation for it. His division held back the Confederate onslaught on his front until their ammunition ran out and they were forced to withdraw. This action was instrumental in giving the Union army time to rally at a strong defensive position. For his actions, he was promoted to major general on April 10, 1863 (with date of rank December 31, 1862). In six months, he had risen from captain to major general.
The Army of the Cumberland recovered from the shock of Stones River and prepared for its summer offensive against Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Sheridan’s division participated in the advance against Bragg in Rosecrans’s brilliant Tullahoma Campaign, and was the lead division to enter the town of Tullahoma. On the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, September 20, 1863, Rosecrans was shifting Sheridan’s division behind the Union battle line when Bragg launched an attack into a gap in the Union line. Sheridan’s division made a gallant stand on Lytle Hill against an attack by the Confederate corps of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, but was swamped by retreating Union soldiers. The Confederates drove Sheridan’s division from the field in confusion. He gathered as many men as he could and withdrew toward Chattanooga, rallying troops along the way. Learning of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps stand on Snodgrass Hill, Sheridan ordered his division back to the fighting, but they took a circuitous route and did not participate in the fighting as some histories claim. His return to the battlefield ensured that he did not suffer the fate of Rosecrans who rode off to Chattanooga leaving the army to its fate, and was soon relieved of command.
During the Battle of Chattanooga, at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, Sheridan’s division and others in George Thomas’s army broke through the Confederate lines in a wild charge that exceeded the orders and expectations of Thomas and Ulysses S. Grant. Just before his men stepped off, Sheridan told them, “Remember Chickamauga,” and many shouted its name as they advanced as ordered to a line of rifle pits in their front. Faced with enemy fire from above, however, they continued up the ridge. Sheridan spotted a group of Confederate officers outlined against the crest of the ridge and shouted, “Here’s at you!” An exploding shell sprayed him with dirt and he responded, “That’s damn ungenerous! I shall take those guns for that!” The Union charge broke through the Confederate lines on the ridge and Bragg’s army fell into retreat. Sheridan impulsively ordered his men to pursue Bragg to the Confederate supply depot at Chickamauga Station, but called them back when he realized that his was the only command so far forward.
“To Sheridan’s prompt movement, the Army of the Cumberland and the nation are indebted for the bulk of the capture of prisoners, artillery, and small arms that day. Except for his prompt pursuit, so much in this way would not have been accomplished.” – Gen. Grant
Throughout the war, the Confederacy sent armies out of Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania and threaten Washington, D.C. Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, following the same pattern in the Valley Campaigns of 1864, and hoping to distract Grant from the Siege of Petersburg, attacked Union forces near Washington and raided several towns in Pennsylvania. Grant, reacting to the political commotion caused by the invasion, organized the Middle Military Division, whose field troops were known as the Army of the Shenandoah. He considered various candidates for command, including George Meade, William B. Franklin, and David Hunter, with the latter two intended for the military division while Sheridan would command the army. All of these choices were rejected by either Grant or the War Department and, over the objection of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who believed him to be too young for such a high post, Sheridan took command in both roles at Harpers Ferry on August 7, 1864. His mission was not only to defeat Early’s army and to close off the Northern invasion route, but to deny the Shenandoah Valley as a productive agricultural region to the Confederacy.
Grant told Sheridan, “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. … Give the enemy no rest … Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”Sheridan got off to a slow start, needing time to organize and to react to reinforcements reaching Early; Grant ordered him not to launch an offensive “with the advantage against you.” And yet Grant expressed frustration with Sheridan’s lack of progress. The armies remained unengaged for over a month, causing political consternation in the North as the 1864 election drew near. The two generals conferred on September 16 at Charles Town and agreed that Sheridan would begin his attacks within four days.
On September 19, Sheridan beat Early’s much smaller army at Third Winchester and followed up on September 22 with a victory at Fisher’s Hill. As Early attempted to regroup, Sheridan began the punitive operations of his mission, sending his cavalry as far south as Waynesboro to seize or destroy livestock and provisions, and to burn barns, mills, factories, and railroads. Sheridan’s men did their work relentlessly and thoroughly, rendering over 400 mi.² uninhabitable. The destruction presaged the scorched earth tactics of Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia—deny an army a base from which to operate and bring the effects of war home to the population supporting it. The residents referred to this widespread destruction as “The Burning.” The Confederates were not idle during this period and Sheridan’s men were plagued by guerrilla raids by partisan ranger Col. John S. Mosby.
Although Sheridan assumed that Jubal Early was effectively out of action and he considered withdrawing his army to rejoin Grant at Petersburg, Early received reinforcements and, on October 19 at Cedar Creek, launched a well-executed surprise attack while Sheridan was absent from his army, ten miles away at Winchester. Hearing the distant sounds of artillery, he rode aggressively to his command. He reached the battlefield about 10:30 a.m. and began to rally his men. Fortunately for Sheridan, Early’s men were too occupied to take notice; they were hungry and exhausted and fell out to pillage the Union camps. Sheridan’s actions are generally credited with saving the day (although Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, commanding Sheridan’s VI Corps, had already rallied his men and stopped their retreat). Early had been dealt his most significant defeat, rendering his army almost incapable of future offensive action.
Sheridan received a personal letter of thanks from Abraham Lincoln and a promotion to major general in the regular army as of November 8, 1864, making him the fourth ranking general in the Army, after Grant, Sherman, and Meade. Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton after he ordered a 100-gun salute to celebrate Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek, “Turning what bid fair to be a disaster into glorious victory stamps Sheridan, what I have always thought him, one of the ablest of generals.” A famous poem, Sheridan’s Ride, was written by Thomas Buchanan Read to commemorate the general’s return to the battle. Sheridan reveled in the fame that Read’s poem brought him, renaming his horse Rienzi to “Winchester,” based on the poem’s refrain, “Winchester, twenty miles away.” The poem was widely used in Republican campaign efforts and some have credited Abraham Lincoln’s margin of victory to it.
Sheridan spent the next several months occupied with light skirmishing and fighting guerrillas. Although Grant continued his exhortations for Sheridan to move south and break the Virginia Central Railroad supplying Petersburg, Sheridan resisted. Wright’s VI Corps returned to join Grant in November. Sheridan’s remaining men, primarily cavalry and artillery, finally moved out of their winter quarters on February 27, 1865, and headed east. The orders from Gen. Grant were largely discretionary: they were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, then either join William T. Sherman in North Carolina or return to Winchester.