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Submitted by: Bob Redman AOTC.net
Sheridan's Ride at Chickamauga
Sheridan left the field, contributed nothing
to Thomas' defense of Snodgrass Hill, and later lied about
by Bob Redman,
copyright © 2 Sept. 2003
N.B.: All Official Records citations refer to the serial
number of the volume and the page number.
Mcfeely wrote in his Grant
biography (pg. 221) this about another little man on a big horse:
"Sheridan, the fiery little man in whom so many of Grant's private urges found
The commanders on the division level and above who left the field of
Chickamauga on the 20 Sept. 1863 were sidelined for the rest of the war, except
Davis and Sheridan. Davis saved
himself later that afternoon by the gesture of promptly or fairly promptly
reversing direction when so ordered, but Sheridan decided that his battle was
over and marched away, allegedly with the intention of returning via Rossville
to support Thomas's northern flank.
Numerous commentators have taken Sheridan's account of his activities that
afternoon in his report and in his "Personal Memoirs" at face value. The
following passage quoted from a recent book about Chickamauga is not footnoted,
most of it is not supported by anything in the Official Records, and is typical
of the treatment of this question by many authors:
"Phil Sheridan had kept his part of the bargain purportedly
[emphasis mine] struck by him, Negley, and Davis at the McFarland farm. A
few minutes before sunset, the head of his fifteen-hundred-man column reached
the Cloud church, having skirmished with Forrest's cavalry most of the way from
Rossville. Sheridan made contact with Dan McCook's brigade and then sent to
Thomas for orders. Granger saw in Sheridan's arrival a chance to make a stand
until the next morning, by which time Rosecrans was certain to return. With
Sheridan, McCook, Turchin, Robinson, and Willich, Thomas indeed had a strong
line posted between the La Fayette and McFarland's Gap roads. Whether it was
strong enough to resist a determined Confederate attack, even one coming just
before nightfall, is doubtful. Thomas, at least, considered his troops too
disorganized to withstand the enemy at that or any other point on the
battlefield. He told Sheridan to march back up the La Fayette road and cover the
Ringgold road from the vicinity of the McAfee church to prevent Confederate
cavalry from slipping into Rossville from the east" (Peter Cozzens, This
Terrible Sound, 1996, pp 500-501).
Cozzens' use of the word "purportedly" makes me suspect that he wrote the
passage with tongue in cheek. However, many other writers do not even hint that
there is reason to doubt Sheridan's story. Garfield's erroneous dispatch of the
20th at 3:45 PM to Rosecrans is the basis for some of these
"I arrived here ten minutes ago, via Rossville. General Thomas has Brannan's, Baird's, Reynolds', Wood's, Palmer's, and Johnson's divisions still intact after terrible fighting. Granger is here, closed up with Thomas, and is fighting terribly on the right. Sheridan is in with the bulk of his division, but in ragged shape, though plucky and fighting."
Not even Sheridan was so bold as to claim to have fought on Snodgrass
Hill, and some contemporaries tell quite a different story. Col. Thruston, chief
of staff of McCook's XX Corps (to which Davis and Sheridan belonged) had
reported to Thomas that Sheridan, Negley and Davis with about 7000 men were
still close by. Thomas sent Thruston to direct the three division commanders to
come back to "aid his right." This was not an extravagant request, as other
commanders had already done so without orders, coming from all directions by
following the noise of battle. Forcing his way along a road clogged with men and
equipment, Thruston found them at about 4 PM still at McFarland's Gap and
conveyed Thomas' order. Davis allowed his soldiers to get water, and then headed
back toward Thomas' right, taking some of Negley's troops with him, albeit
without getting very far (see map below). But Sheridan and Negley kept on toward
Rossville. As Thruston wrote in his article The Crisis at
Chickamauga in "Battles and Leaders" (Vol III, pg. 665):
"Sheridan was still without faith. He may have thought there was
danger at Rossville, or that his troops had not regained their fighting spirit.
He insisted on going to Rossville. Darkness would catch him before he reached
the field from that direction. Negley was vacilating; he finally went to
Piatt ("Life of Thomas," pg. 430-31) writes the following about this
"General Thruston, in making his statement, omitted from the writing precisely what General Sheridan did say, and this language the gallant young chief of staff omitted from a mistaken sense of propriety. The fact is, the insubordinate subordinate, in a sentence glaring with profanity, swore he would obey no such orders and take his men into a slaughter organized by fools....A braver man never trod the field of danger. His mind was clear and his nerves calm, and he knew that in that roar that rose behind him as he marched away brave men were being done to death, while heroic officers were looking eagerly to the right and left for aid in this hour of death-tainted anxiety."
Sheridan played no further role in the battle, but for some reason he got a pass while Negley lost his command, as did Rosecrans, McCook, Crittenden, and Van Cleve. It is possible that the War Department had been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of these commanders anyway, Rosecrans because of his abrasiveness and ambition, McCook for inadequacy, Crittenden for indifference, and Negley, perhaps because he hadn't attended West Point (as he later maintained), but more probably because he kept on going to Rossville. It is true that he made himself useful there by gathering and organizing stragglers, but he didn't have Sheridan's robust p.r. instincts and effrontery to fake a return to the field. Van Cleve, one of the older officers and entirely separated from his command, just got swept along to Chattanooga. Even if we were to uncritically accept Sheridan's version of events, he still disregarded Thomas' order to return to the battle and contributed little to solve the dilemma in which the Union army found itself that afternoon, without consequences for his subsequent career. Did Sherman's friendship and Halleck's protection have anything to do with it? The matter would be of little interest if this man hadn't risen later to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Army (1884-1888) and four star general (1888).
Sheridan himself must have felt the delicacy of his position since he
stuggled to justify his behavior, as the following
masterpiece of obfuscation from his battle report of 30 Sept. 1863
"After crossing the road my division was again formed on the ridge which overlooked the ground where this sanguinary contest had taken place, the enemy manifesting no disposition to continue the engagement further. I here learned positively what I had before partially seen, that the divisions still further on my left had been driven, and that I was completely cut off. I then determined to connect myself with the troops of General Thomas by moving on the arc of a circle until I struck the Dry Creek Valley road, by which I hoped to form the junction. In the mean time I was joined by a portion of the division of General Davis, under command of General Carlin, and a number of stragglers from other divisions. On reaching the Dry Creek Valley road I found that the enemy had moved parallel to me and had also arrived at the road, thus preventing my joining General Thomas by that route. I then determined to move quickly on Rossville and form a junction with him on his left flank via the La Fayette road. This was successfully accomplished about 5:30 p.m."
I state here that Sheridan was not blocked by enemy troops from returning on the Dry Valley Road, he did not arrive at or near Thomas' left at 5:30 PM, he effected no junction with Thomas south of Rossville at any time on the 20th, he did not significantly engage Forrest's or any Confederate troops south of Rossville, and he added no useful force to Thomas' left . He may well have led some troops or an escort some distance south on La Fayette Road, but there is no independent confirmation of the number of troops, how far they actually got, how long they stayed, and what they did while they were there. There is this message from Garfield to Rosecrans, sent from Rossville at 8:40 PM on the 20th, relaying second-hand information:
"Negley has stopped about 6,000 men at this place. Sheridan gathered 1,500 of his division, and reached a point 3 miles south of here at sunset. Davis is here with two brigades."
In addition, a captain Burt
(ar50_144) and Lieut. William H. Moody,
aide to General Negley (ar50_1012),
reported that Sheridan went to the support of General
However, Davis in his report does not mention being cut off by
Confederate units as he moved toward Snodgrass Hill on Dry Valley Road.
Moreover, Thruston, Garfield, Captains Guy and Barker of Thomas' staff
(ar50_253), and other officers came and went between McFarland's Gap and
Snodgrass Hill, so there could not have been enough Confederates in the
area to prevent Sheridan, supported by several thousand men, from taking the
same route. We can dismiss his time reference because it is impossible
that he, in about an hour and a half, marched his battle-wearied
troops 2 miles away from the battle through the detritus of a routed army, then
marched them 3 miles back in gathering darkness on another road he'd never seen,
and finally linked up with Thomas' far, far left, and all of that with Forrest's
permission who, in his report, claims to have occupied a portion of the same
More than 40 years after the battle some veterans from Sheridan's unit
erected a tablet (no. 528) near the Chickamauga battlefield on Lafayette Road
somewhat north of the intersection of Forrest Road with Hwy. 27 (the
yellow circle on the map below right). The tablet has been since removed,
and its whereabouts are unknown, but its text according to Jim Ogden, resident
historian at the Chickamauga Visitors' Center, is as follows:
"After the attack upon the
division by Hindman's troops on the high ground northwest of Widow Glenn's,
Sheridan withdrew his division to McFarland's Gap and proceeded to Rossville.
Thence, under instructions from General Rosecrans, he marched at 5 P.M. through
Rossville Gap to join Thomas. Reaching this point at 7 P.M. and finding
Confederate forces occupying the direct line to General Thomas' position, Lieut.
M. V. Sheridan was sent by a circuitous route to communicate with that office,
and returned with orders to General Sheridan to hold his position until the
withdrawal of the left and center had been accomplished. That movement being
completed the division joined the army at Rossville."
Sometime in the 1930's the tablet was moved a mile
north to the current junction of highways 146 and 27, probably in response to
controversy about its proper placement. In short, the charges I make here are
old, but the controversy is ignored in most recent publications. Perhaps new is
my exhaustive documentation of the falsity of Sheridan's
Regardless of the uncertainty of the tablet's placement, there is no mention in Thomas' report of Lieut. Sheridan bringing tidings from Gen. Sheridan, and the tablet does not at all agree at all with Sheridan's report. In the Official Records there is no order from Thomas to Sheridan to "hold his position until the withdrawal of the left and center had been accomplished." The only extant written order from Rosecrans to Sheridan of the afternoon of the 20th is as follows:
"Verbal message by Captain Hill received. Support General Thomas by all means. If he is obliged to fall back he must secure the Dug [Dry] Valley. Right falling back slowly, contesting the ground inch by inch."
This order confirms
Thomas' verbal order, conveyed by Thurston, to "aid his right." Thomas and
Rosecrans were worried that Longstreet might gain control of the Dry Valley Road
and thus cut off Thomas' withdrawal via McFarland's Gap. With good reason
Sheridan doesn't mention this order in his report. It doesn't support his
The red X show the
approximate point where Thruston relayed to Sheridan, Davis and Negley
Thomas' order to "aid his right." The blue dots
show Davis' route and about how far he got (about 1 1/2 miles). The red dots show the route Sheridan claimed to have
followed and the point he claimed to have reached.
Same map enlarged. The yellow line shows Sheridan's purported route
of approach on La Fayette Road. The blue line
shows that portion of the road which Dan McCook and Turchin contested
against Forrest. Sheridan could therefore not have made a "junction" as he
claimed in his report. The red line shows
McCook's and Turchin's line of withdrawal. Forrest sat on the shorter
The clinching argument is provided by the following dispatch to Rosecrans of 20 Sept. (8:40 PM) from Negley in Rossville:
"One of my staff officers has just returned from General Sheridan's command. He reached the meeting house 3 miles from this point. He reports communication with General Thomas cut off by the presence of a considerable force of the enemy. Forrest's cavalry harassed Sheridan all the way."
No junction there either. In his subsequent battle report Negley only confirmed the minimum which can be conceded to Sheridan:
"I then returned and held a consultation with Generals Davis, Sheridan, and Colonel Ducat.
It was determined as advisable to proceed to Rossville, to prevent the enemy from obtaining possession of the cross-roads, and from there General Sheridan would move to the support of General Thomas, via La Fayette road.
The column reached Rossville at dark, and the scattered troops were organized as rapidly as possible. Provisions and ammunition, of which the troops were destitute, were telegraphed for and received from Chattanooga.
At this moment I learned that General Granger had gone to the assistance of General Thomas, that he was safe, and that the troops were retiring to Rossville; also that General Sheridan had halted 3 miles from Rossville."
The "considerable force of the enemy" by which Sheridan was "cut
off" from McCook on Thomas's left, was that of Forrest, who, as I point out
below, didn't recall Sheridan's presence there. Actually, Forrest was
stretched pretty thin, so thin in fact that, earlier in the day when Granger
passed with about 4000 men, Forrest had to get out of the way. This
raises the question of the size of the force which Sheridan had with him when he
arrived wherever he arrived the evening of the 20th, because 1500 Union soldiers
marching south on La Fayette Road anywhere near Cloud Church would have
seriously threatened Forrest's flank and thus come to his attention. In any
case, Negley's dispatch of the 20th is enough to discredit the key assertion of
Sheridan's report, but there is more.
Three months after the fact, Halleck wrote a report as well, although he
hadn't been there. He wrote reports for two other battles at which he
wasn't present - Shiloh and Chattanooga, and each time he cast a
favorable light on the dubious performance of one or more of his
favorites. His main reason for writing the Chickamauga report was to show
that he had really, really tried to get reinforcements to Rosecrans, and that it
wasn't his fault that they didn't get there in time for the battle. Another
reason may well have been to protect Sheridan, because in his report Halleck
singled out for mention only three divisional commanders among many noteworthy
ones - Wood for the creation of the hole in the line, Steedman for extraordinary
personal bravery and timely intervention, and Sheridan in order to puff up his
Halleck had read the reports of the participating officers. He certainly
realized that Sheridan's choice of route could be regarded unfavorably, and that
some people were unhappy with Sheridan's conduct during the afternoon of the
20th. At the beginning of the war Halleck had saved Sheridan from court martial
for accounting irregularities, and by the time of Chickamauga, Sheridan, along
with Grant and Sherman, belonged to a group of commanders which could do no
wrong, all of whom came out of Halleck's western command. In one way or another
Halleck had saved and then furthered the careers of all three of them.
Tellingly, in his report Halleck even improved on Sheridan's fabrication,
leaving the impression that Sheridan actually fought alongside Thomas, as the
following exquisitely worded passage from the report shows:
"Pouring in through this break in our line, the enemy cut off our right and right center, and attacked Sheridan's division, which was advancing to the support of our left. After gallant but fruitless efforts against this rebel torrent, he was compelled to give way, but afterward rallied a considerable portion of his force, and, by a circuitous route, joined General Thomas, who now had to breast the tide of battle against the whole rebel army."
One of Sheridan's more modern defenders, Richard O'Connor, cited this same
passage, whereby he truncated the quote, putting a period after the word
"Thomas" where there was none, and left out the rest of the sentence
("Sheridan the Inevitable," 1953, pg. 121). O'Connor maintained
that Sheridan's movement, as described in his report, was justified by
military necessity and later approved of by higher authority. In order to
help make this case O'Connor knowingly misquoted a source and
cleaned up Halleck's studied ambiguity.
Toward the end of his life, Sheridan further embellished his story, as the
following passage on pg. 153 in his "Personal Memoirs" (Da Capo edition)
"The head of my column passed through Rossville, appearing upon Thomas' left about 6 o'clock in the evening, penetrated without any opposition the right of the enemy's line, and captured several of his field-hospitals. As soon as I got on the field I informed Thomas of the presence of my command, and asked for orders. He replied that his lines were disorganized, and that it would be futile to attack; that all I could do was to hold on, and aid in covering his withdrawal to Rossville."
The construction "appearing upon Thomas' left about 6 o'clock in the
evening" is so vague as to defy confirmation or refutation. Then Sheridan piled
it on by asserting that he thereby actually met Thomas in
"I accompanied him back to Rossville, and when we reached the skirt of the little hamlet General Thomas halted and we dismounted...his quiet unobtrusive demeanor communicating a gloomy rather than a hopeful view of the situation....he had just stopped for the purpose of offering me a drink, as he knew I must be very tired."
Such a meeting could not have occurred, at least not when and where Sheridan placed it, considering that Thomas had withdrawn via McFarland's Gap Road and could not have been anywhere on La Fayette Road south of Rossville. According to McKinney (pg. 493, note 34), "[Sheridan] threw the truth out the window" when he wrote the following passage (pg. 156 of his Memoirs):"I have always thought that, had General Thomas held on and attacked the Confederate right and rear from where I made the junction with him on the Lafyette road, the field of Chickamauga would have been relinquished to us, but it was fated to be otherwise."
He thus adds a subtle reproof bordering on slander to his fabrication.
Further doubt is cast on Sheridan's various accounts of his activities of that
afternoon and evening by the fact that Thomas left him entirely out of his
report. Thomas praised every higher-level officer who in some way helped him
fight on Snodgrass hill or Kelly Field, or withdraw from them, but he was silent
about both Sheridan and Davis. He therefore did not regard Davis' movement or
Sheridan's alleged round-about movement back to the battlefield as having
contributed to strengthening his position. Davis had the decency to play down
the incident in his report, but Sheridan did not.
Rosecrans, in his report, offered only this guarded
"General Garfield dispatched me, from Rossville, that the left and center still held its ground. General Granger had gone to its support. General Sheridan had rallied his division, and was advancing toward the same point, and General Davis was going up the Dry Valley road to our right."
No junction there either. He could not bring himself to write that
Sheridan actually reached Thomas's position. Moreover, on 15 Oct.,
Rosecrans overlooked Sheridan entirely when he sent out recommendations for
promotion for Richard Johnson, Baird, Davis, and even Wood (ar53_386). I
quote the dispatch concerning Davis:
"I beg leave to make special mention of Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis,
who commanded the First Division of the Twentieth Army Corps at the battle of
Chickamauga. On this, as on every other battle-field, he was cool, courageous,
and prompt in action. After going opportunely into action on the 19th, and
fighting obstinately against superior numbers, he led the two small brigades
again into battle on the 20th, and when, overpowered, his troops gave way, he
rallied them at the first favorable point, and moved up to succor his brethren,
who were fighting with General Thomas, although too late to get into action. For
his meritorious services on this, as well as on former occasions, I respectfully
recommend his promotion to a major-general of volunteers."
Kudos like this were prized by commanders, and Rosecrans would have
mentioned someone as prominent as Sheridan if he thought he merited any praise.
The omission was therefore probably deliberate.
Col. Daniel McCook, who had arrived with Granger, was in fact posted on
Thomas' far left near Cloud's hospital on the other side of the road from Cloud
Church, which makes him a credible witness. In his report he doesn't once
mention Sheridan who, according to the unit tablet and the above map which is
based on it, would have been about a quarter a mile away from him. However, he
does describe the fight between himself and forces under Forrest and Liddell for
control of the road:
"On the morning of the 20th instant, I received orders from General Steedman to join him at McAfee's Church. I lay near this point until I was ordered to march for the battle-field. As I arrived opposite Cloud's Hospital the enemy began shelling my column on the Chattanooga road. To avoid being delayed from arriving on the field, I turned the head of my column to the right to go around some open fields which the enemy commanded by their artillery. While passing around these fields I was ordered by Major Fullerton, of your staff, to form line of battle behind them and cover the Chattanooga road. About 6 o'clock the enemy opened upon me with artillery and some musketry. I soon silenced their batteries. At 10 p.m., by order of General Thomas, I withdrew from the field to Rossville, and was the last brigade to leave the field."
Turchin, on Dan McCook's immediate right, also fought in that area, and he
doesn't report any contact with Sheridan (ar50_475), nor does his
commander Reynolds in his report (ar50_442). Forrest spent the entire day
on Bragg's right flank, which makes him also a credible witness. He mentioned
Granger's approach with the reserves in his report, but made no reference to
Sheridan whatsoever, as the following excerpt from it demonstrates:
"On Sunday morning, the 20th, I received orders to move up and keep in line with General Breckinridge's division, which I did, dismounting all of General Armstrong's division, except the First Tennessee Regiment and McDonald's battalion, holding General Pegram's division in reserve on my right. The two commands of General Armstrong's division which were mounted took possession of the La Fayette road, capturing the enemy's hospitals and quite a number of prisoners. They were compelled to fall back, as the enemy's reserves, under General Granger, advanced on that road. Colonel Dibrell fought on foot with the infantry during the day. As General Granger approached, by shelling his command and maneuvering my troops, he was detained nearly two hours, and prevented from joining the main force until late in the evening, and then at double-quick, under a heavy fire from Freeman's battery and a section of Napoleon guns borrowed from General Breckinridge.
After Granger's column had vacated the road in front of me, I moved my
dismounted men rapidly forward and took possession of the road from the Federal
hospital to the woods on the left, through which infantry was advancing and
fighting. My artillery was ordered forward, but before it could reach the road
and be placed in position a charge was made by the enemy, the infantry line
retreating in confusion and leaving me without support, but held the ground long
enough to get my artillery back to the position from which we had shelled
Granger's column, and opened upon the advancing column with fourteen pieces of
artillery, driving them back, and terminating on the right flank the battle of
Chickamauga. This fire was at short range, in open ground, and was to the enemy
very destructive, killing 2 colonels and many other officers and
The witness for Sheriden who provided the most detail was Lieut. Col.
Arthur C. Ducat, Assistant Inspector-General, who stated the following in his
"I dispatched Captain Hill to Chattanooga, to inform the general commanding of the state of affairs, and proceeded, with the other officers, and Colonel McKibbin, with General Sheridan, to the wooden church south of Rossville, on General Thomas' left and very close to the enemy's lines. I left General Sheridan after 8 p.m., with the understanding that General Thomas was withdrawing to Rossville, and that General Sheridan would do so quietly. I joined the general commanding at 10 p.m., at Chattanooga, and reported."
Sheridan didn't get much help from his subordinates' reports either. Col. Silas Miller, commanding the First Brigade, wrote:
"The command was rallied in a disorganized condition, being united with portions of other brigades and divisions on the ridge in rear of our position. A large force having been rallied, it was moved by a mountain road toward the center, to a point on the Chattanooga and La Fayette road, 3 miles from Rossville, when it was reformed and took up position. By your order it soon removed, this brigade in advance, passing via Rossville on the Ringgold road 3 miles to ------- Church, arriving about dusk. Here the column halted until about 9 o'clock, when, by your order, it returned to Rossville."
"... in accordance with orders received from Col. S. Miller, I moved my regiment with the rest of the brigade down the Chattanooga and La Fayette road, and thence up the Chattanooga and Ringgold road about 5 miles, where we halted for a short time, and then marched back to Rossville, where we bivouacked for the night."
Five miles would have had him calling at Polk's headquarters, and he mentioned no junction with Thomas. Another of Miller's regimental commanders, Maj. Seymour Chase , had only this to report on his activities on the 20th:
"On account of the command not devolving upon me until the retreat began, I cannot speak with accuracy of the orders received or whether they were implicitly followed ."
Miller's, von Baumbach's, and Chase's comments are not a ringing endorsement of Sheridan's report. Col. Bernard Laiboldt, commanding Sheridan's Second Brigade, ignored the incident entirely in his report (ar50_590) . However, the report of Col. Joseph Conrad, one of Laiboldt's regimental commanders, gives us an indication of what Col. Laiboldt chose to pass over :
"Our division marched that night to Rossville, about 10 miles from the battle-field, where we arrived about 11 o'clock and encamped there.
From this it would appear that, on the evening of the 20th, Col. Conrad not only did not march south on La Fayette Road with his regiment and brigade, he wasn't aware that anyone from Sheridan's division did. Nathan H. Walworth, commanding Sheridan's Third Brigade, wrote the following which demonstrates that he also did not march south on La Fayette Road:
"In pursuance of orders from General Sheridan, I then ordered the brigade to march by the left flank to rejoin the center of the army, which we were compelled to do, by way of Rossville, as the enemy held the other road."
One wonders where the "center of the army" was supposed to be. The matter is clarified by the report of Capt. Mark Prescott of the First Illinois Light Artillery:
"I reported as soon as possible with the remainder of my battery to General Sheridan, who ordered me to fall into the column then marching in the direction of Chattanooga. I camped that night with the Third Brigade [Walworth's brigade], Third Division [Sheridan's division], in camp near Chattanooga."
On the following day, Dana reported to Stanton from Chattanooga the following terse and sober assessment:
"Van Cleve had this morning 1,200 men in the ranks, but this number will probably be doubled by evening in stragglers. Neither he, Sheridan, nor Davis fought with Thomas. "
Gen. William B. Hazen was a near witness to these events. In his memoirs he outlined the controversy concerning Davis' and Sheridan's departure from the battlefield, quoting from Thruston's, Negley's, Sheridan's and Davis' reports. He also noted that Thomas in his report "nowhere mentions the return to the battlefield of any troops." Hazen's solution was to withhold judgment in the following carefully worded summation:
"There are so many discrepencies in these statements, that the real facts cannot be determined from them. General Davis says that he started to return to General Thomas by the direct route, say two miles away, - when Thruston says it was about 5 o'clock, - but did not reach him until Thomas was withdrawing. He parted at that time from General Sheridan, who says he went by way of Rossville and the Lafayette road, which is about 6 miles, and reached General Thomas and reported to him on the battlefield. A board of officers was recently convened to settle these points; but unfortunately the two officers most interested in the question were made members of the board, and no satisfactory conclusion was reached" (A Narrative of Military Service, 1885, pg. 144).
In the meantime, generations of historians have analyzed these events, and we can build on their efforts. In addition, thanks to the recently appeared Guild Press CD-ROM which permits a sophisticated search of the entire Official Records, we have today much greater access to military correspondance and reports than Hazen and even historians of the past had. It is now possible to at least determine what did not happen. On this basis I propose a compelling and even indulgent recreation of Sheridan's activities on the afternoon of the 20th:
At some time during the retreat, Sheridan looked around and realized that the career prospects of the company he was keeping were poor. He then decided he would have to do something to distinguish himself if he were to keep his command. He sent 2 brigades under Laiboldt and Walworth, along with his artillery, on to Chattanooga, and moved the remaining brigade under Col. Miller just far enough south on La Fayette Road to get away from Dana's watchful eye and acid pen in Rossville. He then took a group of officers, including Miller and von Baumbach, along with a cavalry escort, and trotted them down the road until they approached Thomas' far left flank. Even if we grant that they got somewhere near Thomas' left by 7 PM, as the tablet states, Thomas himself was still 2 miles away and getting ready to leave. Sheridan may actually have gotten close enough to see the tail end of the fight between Thomas' rear guard and the pursuing Confederates, but with his small group, Sheridan could do nothing to help. So he turned around "quietly" and rode back to Rossville, feeling much better than earlier that afternoon when he fretted over his coming reassignment to the quartermaster corps. Otherwise we have to postulate that Sheridan actually got to Cloud Church with 1500 men in time to actively cover the withdrawal from Kelly Field (it was contested) and save some lives, but didn't intervene. We don't want to entertain that possibility, do we?
It could be said in favor of Sheridan, that he had grounds to be frustrated with Rosecrans and McCook. He had been on the Alpine wild goose chase, had been the victim of McCook's and Rosecrans' confusion on the 20th, had lost the brigade commander Lytle, and certainly had not forgotten Rosecrans' and McCook's debacle at Murfreesboro. However, he had no reason to be frustrated with Thomas. When he turned away from Thomas and moved toward Rossville, he knew that fellow soldiers behind him were still fighting and needed his help . General Henry Boynton, who was there on Snodgrass Hill, spoke for many other veterans of the battle of Chickamauga when he wrote:
"When Steedman's coming with four thousand men [Granger's reserve] had so changed the current of the battle, what if the seven thousand men under Sheridan and Negley about McFarland's and Rossville, much nearer than Steedman was, had been brought up? How the officers who were there could stay themselves, or manage to keep their men, is a mystery sickening to think about " (Piatt and Boynton, p. 414).
To Boynton it was immaterial what direction Sheridan took after he reached Rossville, how many troops he had with him, and how far he got, unclear as all of this was. All that mattered was that the commanders of a fighting force within reach had betrayed those who fought at Snodgrass Hill. Steedman at McCaffee's Church reacted to the sound of the battle and put his column in motion at about 11 AM. Despite skirmishing with Forrest, the head of it reached Thomas at 1 PM, thus covering 5 miles in 2 hours. I mention this in order to put Sheridan's, Negley's, and even Davis' behavior in perspective. Surely the reader can understand Boynton's sentiments.
Although some commentators like to speculate that Rosecrans and Thomas could have counter-attacked a weakened Bragg on the 21st, most write of Thomas' precarious situation at the end of that day. However, it is apparently not widely understood just how precarious it was. There was namely, as the following map shows, a gap between Kelly Field on the right, and Snodgrass Hill on the left. The space was wooded, and Thomas had posted there only a brigade under Willich (circled in red) in the hopes that the trees would mask the weakness.
Snodgrass Hill and, to the left, Horseshoe Ridge.
Thomas' HQ was at the star. Separated by a stretch of woods was the
fortified position of Kelly Field. Willich had
only a brigade with which to make noise if the Confederates moved in force
in his direction. |
Willich was even temporarily drawn away to aid Baird (see Johnson's report, ar50_535), during which time the gap was empty. In short, Thomas was bluffing the entire afternoon of the 20th, or, to put it more kindly, was forced to speculate on Confederate errors. We get an idea of one of these errors from Humphreys, the Confederate brigade commander adjacent to Willich, who stated the following in his report:
"I immediately informed General Longstreet of the enemy's position and strength, and received orders from him to hold my position without advancing, while he sent a division to attack him on the right and left. The attack on my left was first made with doubtful success; the attack on my right was successful, driving the enemy from his position in great confusion. It was now dark and no farther pursuit was made."
In fact, Bragg had relinquished control, Polk (facing Kelly Field)
was passive for most of the afternoon, and Longstreet carried out one
frontal attack after another against Snodgrass Hill until very late in the day.
Longstreet himself counted 25 of them. Humphreys does not state what he related
to Longstreet, nor does Longstreet mention Humphreys' intelligence in his own
report, but Humphreys had five hours to reconnoitre his right flank. If he did
discover Willich's weakness and reported it, then Longstreet did not react
quickly enough. Of Polk's division commanders, Stewart was the closest to the
gap, but he was receiving conflicting orders from Bragg, Longstreet, and Buckner
(ar51_364), and his report doesn't mention any attempt to reconnoitre his
left flank. In any case, if one of the many Confederate divisions in that area
had brushed Willich aside at any time that afternoon, or if Preston had been
informed of the gap when he was brought in, Thomas would have been quickly
driven from the field in disorder, and that would have been that. Those 7000 men
under Davis, Negley and Sheridan would have done nicely to help Thomas fill that
gap and reinforce a flank, and from about 2 to 4 PM that afternoon, they were
only a couple of miles away. With that gap filled, Thomas would have had a
choice to withdraw or not to withdraw. At the very least, with those additional
men Thomas could have better protected the withdrawal from Kelly Field and saved
some lives. Sheridan, occasionally a man of energy, could have gotten them to
Thomas. You be the judge.
At Perrysville, Sheridan disobeyed orders from his corps commander Charles Gilbert to not bring on a general engagement. True, Gilbert was technically still a captain but was passing himself off as a major general. At Murfreesboro Sheridan, after stout early resistance, quit and went to the rear, ignoring Rosecrans' order to get ammunition and return to the battle, while Palmer, who at one point was also desperately short of ammunition, whose division suffered higher losses than did Sheridan's (25.4% vs. 20.72% <ar29_200>), fought on. At Chickamauga he left the field with a division and didn't return, although ordered to help Thomas, fighting for his life at Horseshoe Ridge only a couple of miles away. Instead he feinted at a return, and then spent the rest of his life arguing that, yes, he had returned, sort of (Halleck thought he did great). At Chattanooga Sheridan got a late start in the charge up the ridge and was beaten to the top by at least 15 minutes. In order to polish his profile, he then ordered a wasteful pursuit in the woods in the the dark, ran into a trap, and got some men killed unnecessarily (Grant praised his initiative). We don't learn much about the trap in his report, but we do learn he thought he was one of the first to reach the crest. After the war it would turn out that he had his own way of winning the hearts and minds of Southerners in New Orleans (kind of surprising even Grant), and of dealing with Indian overpopulation in the West (Schofield and Sherman stood squarely behind him).
For a penetrating and lawyerly analysis of Sheridan's performance in the East under Grant, read Eric J. Wittenberg's 1996 book "Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan."
In Sheridan's memory I have composed the following ditty, still awaiting a composer. Yeah, I know, kind of derivative.
Sheridan's Ride at Chickamauga
Here is the steed that saved the day,
By carrying Sheridan into the fray,
From Rossville five perilous miles away,
South, south , south long La Fayette Way,
To smite the throngs of the boys in gray,
Forward, onward, come what may,
A Union disaster for to stay,
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