Sorry to have let the Blog lie fallow for so long, but June was a busy month. between travel and work, there is little time left to post.
However, there is a topic I’ve been thinking about recently. Over the years, the subject of Phil Sheridan has come up more than once in conjunction with Chickamauga. Sheridan is a contentious figure in Civil War lore, especially regarding his performance in Virginia in 1864-65. Since his division was routed off the field on September 20th, 1863, questions have inevitably been raised about his role at Chickamauga, as well.
I can’t say either that I am a particular fan or detractor. I know people who hate Little Phil, including my good friend Eric Wittenberg, who wrote quite the brief about the man some years ago. (Amazon has it here: http://www.amazon.com/Little-Phil-Reassessment-Leadership-Sheridan/dp/1574883852) In general, while I agree that Phil was a bit hard to like, I think he stacks up better as a soldier then Eric does. but then, I am dealing with him as an infantry division commander, not a cavalryman or army commander.
Sheridan’s role in the battle of Chickamauga is also a bit hard to interpret. His is the second to last division onto the field on the 19th (only Negley’s comes into action later) and then it only dribbles on, by brigade. One brigade – Bradley’s – gets mauled in Viniard Field on the 19th, while a second, under Laiboldt, sees only minor action that day. The third, under Lytle, spent their day guarding the crossing at Lee & Gordon’s Mills, seeing no action and coming onto the field after dark.
On the night of September 19-20, however, Rosecrans decided not to defend the Viniard Field the next day, and pulled most of McCook’s and Crittenden’s men – at least those not with Thomas – back about 1000 yards to the range of hills west of the Widow Glenn house. After a great deal of troop shuffling, the Union flank ultimately ended in the woods between Viniard and Brotherton Fields, west of the Lafayette Road. McCook was given some rather vaguely defined authority over that portion of the line in Brotherton Field and just to the south. Initially this included only Negley’s 2nd Division, XIV Corps, but later came to include Wood’s 1/XXI and Davis’ 2/XX divisions – but not Negley, who had by then departed to go to Thomas.
Davis, of course, had only two brigades and both were woefully cut up after the action on the 19th – he likely had fewer than 1,500 men left in his whole command. Wood, also with two brigades, was augmented by another from Van Cleve, and assigned Negley’s old sector. Of course, this is exactly where the infamous gap in the line develops that so visits disaster on the Army of the Cumberland.
I’m not going to talk about Wood, Rosecrans, “the fateful order of the day” or even much about McCook – I touch on these events only to supply context to Sheridan’s men.
Sheridan’s three brigades spent their morning on September 20th in reserve west of the Widow Glenn’s, out of line and awaiting orders. At the time of the Breakthrough and collapse of the Union line, one of Sheridan’s brigades – Laibolt – was standing in column of regiment on the eastern slope of what is now Lytle Hill, while the other two brigades were marching up the Dry Valley Road.
What were they doing there? This is where things get murky. When Wood got his order to move to support Reynolds, we now know that McCook was also present, and told Wood to move at once, promising to replace him immediately. It’s possible that McCook meant for Sheridan’s men to do that, which would explain their movement at the time.
However, never underestimate the power of George Henry Thomas. At Chickamauga, he is the black hole of troops. At one point or another, it seems like virtually every regiment in the Federal army is heading his way, drawn as if by gravitational pull. There is some evidence that Sheridan’s men were not hurrying to Brotherton Field at McCook’s direction, but instead starting a move to join Thomas.
Some time after the breakthrough, Thomas accompanied Wood’s men back south as they tried to salvage the situation in Dyer Field. The time was about 12:30 p.m., probably an hour or so after Bushrod Johnson’s Rebels smashed through the gap in Brotherton Field to wreak such havoc among the Union right flank. Thomas and Wood are watching an unknown Brigade approach. These strangers look much different than the average Confederate in Bragg’s army: they have new blue uniform coats, strange flags, and in general appear much more uniform than your typical western Rebel.
In fact, they are Kershaw’s South Carolinians, decked out in new British-made steel gray coats that look dark blue, even black, in the field. The flags are standard Confederate battleflags, so familiar to us today, but at the time Bragg’s men carried either Hardee or Polk pattern flags that looked nothing like the battleflag.
In short, Thomas half-thought the approaching line might be Federals. In fact, he sent an aide to check. The aide rode up to the new arrivals, who promptly fired upon him, but even this did not fully decide the question.
Why was Thomas so uncertain? A clue is contained in the instructions he gave to the aide, Captain Kellogg: Kellogg was to “hurry up Sheridan’s Division” who, Thomas reported, had been promised to him just a short while before.
I find this to be a remarkable statement. On the morning of September 20th, Thomas already commanded five of the armies ten regular infantry divisions: Reynolds, Brannan, and Baird from his own corps, as well as Johnson of McCook’s and Palmer of Crittenden’s. Then Negley is sent to him, and some time later, Wood is effectively dispatched to his sector when ordered to close up on Reynolds – not an official transfer, but it might as well be. Now Sheridan is also headed his way?
This leaves McCook to command Davis’ fragment, while Crittenden has Van Cleve – and, as the morning unfolds, even Van Cleve is parcelled out to the line, leaving Crittenden with no one to command.
If Sheridan was already heading to Thomas, what troops did McCook expect he could call on to replace Wood? Sheridan doesn’t help us, in either his OR report or his memoirs; he fails to tell us what his last orders were before disaster struck. No written orders from Rosecrans survive in the OR, either, so it is likely that any instructions sent to Sheridan were verbal.
Of course, Sheridan’s men never reached Thomas. They came to grief on and around Lytle Hill, were broken and then rallied on the hills to the west. Eventually they made their way to Rossville, and then (perhaps) beyond it.
This isn’t the last time that Thomas mentions Sheridan on the 20th, however. As late as 3:45 p.m., after James Garfield joined Thomas on Snodgrass Hill, Garfield reported that the bulk of the army was in fact still fighting, adding the detail (incorrectly, as it turned out) that “Sheridan is in with the bulk of his division, but in ragged shape.”
Why this last message? Just before Garfield arrived, Lt. Col. Gates P. Thruston of McCook’s staff had also reached Thomas, reporting that Davis and Sheridan were reforming, so Thomas sent Thruston back to bring up Sheridan to extend the line on Horseshoe Ridge. That move never happened, but Thomas was expecting it to, and so informed Garfield.
Sheridan’s orders on the 20th are one of the bigger mysteries of the battle, and one I’ve still not resolved in my mind. My own conversations with the park guys, and with Scott Day of Birmingham (who also has a fascination with Sheridan’s role in the battle) still have not fully resolved the issue, and in the absence of new information we can only speculate.
There are other questions about Sheridan, of course, as well as a couple of anecdotes well worth repeating, so I am not entirely done with the short, bullet-headed Irishman. But that’s for another day…