Where’s Sheridan?

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…


16 Responses to “Where’s Sheridan?”

  1. James F. Epperson Says:

    IIRC, didn’t McCook contribute to the mauling oh Sheridan’s division by ordering one brigade (Laiboldt?) tha attack the breakthrough w/o taking time to change formation into line?

    Like you, I think Eric’s animus towards Sheridan is poorly placed and, frankly, poorly argued.

  2. Andy Papen Says:

    Great post, Dave. I’ve long been fascinated by the actions of Sheridan’s division at Chickamauga, and I agree that there are a lot of questions with speculative answers.

    I think it’s clear that Sheridan (with Lytle and Walworth) was on his way to Thomas. McCook’s report references Garfield’s 10:30 order to him (McCook) that directs him to send Sheridan with two brigades to support Thomas, and send the third brigade when the lines have been drawn in sufficiently (I think a reference to Garfield’s 10:10 order to compact the right). The order to Wood to move was written about 10:45, and Sheridan may well have already been in motion.

    McCook seems not to have been entirely sure of his role on the 20th. Granted, he may well have been given an impossible job in that he was supposed to cover the Dry Valley Road but also maintain at least some contact with Negley’s (and later Wood’s ) right. That’s a tall order with Davis’ two tiny brigades plus Sheridan. Rosecrans made a couple of “corrections” to McCook’s deployments earlier in the morning. Laiboldt appears to have been part of McCook’s solution to fill the whole left by Negley’s departure, but one very small brigade wasn’t going to fill the space intended for an entire division. After Wood’s movement and the Confederate breakthrough, McCook (according to Rosecrans’ testimony at the McCook court of inquiry) told Rosecrans that he had ordered in Laiboldt which “would soon set the matter to rights.” Not likely. McCook obviously had no clue of what was coming through the woods at him!

    The breakthrough came shortly after that last written order to McCook to move Sheridan to the left. Since the situation became very fluid after that, I doubt that any written orders were given to either McCook or Sheridan from Rosecrans’ headquarters. That 10:30 order is pretty critical, methinks.

    I haven’t read Eric Wittenberg’s book on Sheridan, but I probably should. It’s heavily weighted towards his actions in the East as commander of the AoP cavalry corps, and I just don’t have much interest in that. I think Sheridan was a competent infantry division commander, but September 20, 1863 certainly wasn’t one of his better days.

    Sorry for the long post, but this is one of my favorite Chickamauga topics…..

  3. James F. Epperson Says:

    Given the placement of troops, the ferocity of the breakthrough, and McCook’s idiocy, I’m not sure any commander could have done much with the situation Sheridan found himself in.

  4. Andy Papen Says:

    Totally agree. I think the division put up quite a fight considering the circumstances.

  5. Rick Moody Says:

    I think we give far too much credit to the commanding general for the actions of his subordinates. There are way to many variables out of his control. Its your ability to adapt to changing situations that makes you a competent general. Successful people adapt and keep moving.

  6. Dave Powell Says:

    Wow. Sheridan makes with the posts!

    to respond:

    1) Jim, I actually think Eric argues forcefully against Sheridan, and scores some points. I don’t think he scores all his points, and I hold a better opinion of Phil than he does, but I don’t think his book is badly argued. It’s just adversarial, like a brief. If I were the jury, I’d vote for a lesser charge.:)

    2) Andy, great response, thanks. I want to hijack some of that for my next post. I will discuss Laiboldt there.

    3) Rick, The commanding general always gets the ultimate credit or blame. That said, I agree that adapting to changed circumstances is important, and it’s also why Generals can exercise their own initiative in most systems. In this case, I think Rosecrans gets the bulk of the blame for disrupting his command arrangements and overreacting to Thomas’ requests.

    Dave Powell

    • Scott Day Says:

      Great stuff Dave! The thing that I always come back to is that say what you like about Sheridan but he did reconstitute at least a part of his force and arrived back on the field via Rossville. The way he did that is definitely open for criticism but unlike Negley, McCook and Crittenden who left and did not come back, Sheridan saved his reputation and career in my opinion by showing back up. I am certainly no fan of Phil, he is a hard man to like, but one thing he could do was fight and thanks to his commanders on the 20th he was put in a terrible position at Chickamauga and his division including General Lytle paid the price with their lives. Which commander exactly is most responsible is tough to figure out. The whole right wing was so badly managed that day from Rosecrans on down. I think Andy’s comment about McCook is dead on in that the officer most responsible for the right wing was in the dark about what was expected of him, of course McCook was in the dark about a lot of things! I hope you will post more on this most interesting topic.

  7. James F. Epperson Says:

    There is no question Eric argues forcefully and scores some points. But it is a lawyer’s brief, and there are several places where his desire to make his case causes him to, IMO, go out of bounds.

  8. Greg Biggs Says:


    A great blog! Keep up the good work.

    With regard to the flags of Kershaw’s Brigade, these were indeed the ANV models as made by the Richmond Depot. All of the troops of Longstreet’s Corps had them in the Second (orange border) and Third (white border) Bunting issues.

    Their red fields stood in stark contrast to the blue flags flown by Hardee’s Corps (broken into a couple components for Chickamauga) and Polk’s. Two or three versions of the Hardee flag were in use by this time and both versions of the Polk Corps flag were also used.

    Add into this mix a few flags from the old Army of Kentucky (blue field, solid white saltire and white border) flown by units of John McCown’s old division (like McNair’s Brigade) and you have an army with mostly blue battle flags on the field.

    Some First Nationals were still in use as well along with some presentation colors, like those of the 28th Alabama which were captured at Orchard Knob in November, 1863.

    The only other red flags on the field were those units of Bragg’s old corps which used 12 star (6 pointed) red flags with saltires (like the ANV) made in New Orleans in Feb.-March, 1862.

    The late Howard Madaus wrote an essay on the CS flags of Chickamauga which we will publish on the Flags of the Confederacy web site soon – http://www.confederate-flags.org.

    Chickamauga, like Shiloh, were the two Western battles with the greatest diversity in CS flags patterns. While the ANV standardized their flags starting from late November, 1861 (although it took time to fully permeate the command), the western Confederates, coming from several separate armies and commands which created their own distinctive flags, did not take this route and it would not be until late 1863 and into 1864 where saltire battle flags started to dominate the other patterns.

    I have also done extensive research, with Lee White and Jim Ogden, for CS flags taken at Missionary Ridge. We will publish that on the flags web site as well as a reference source.

    Greg Biggs

  9. Dave Powell Says:


    I look forward to seeing the flags of Chickamauga. That’s the kind of stuff that fascinates me.


  10. Ned Says:


    You wrote: “Wood is effectively dispatched to his sector when ordered to close up on Reynolds – not an official transfer, but it might as well be. ”

    When Wood went looking for Reynolds he found Thomas. Thomas overrode Rosecrans order to Wood and replaced it with his own, bringing Wood under his sphere of control.

    • Dave Powell Says:


      This is correct. Thomas intended to use Wood to further strengthen his left at the north end of Kelly Field, which is how Barnes’ Brigade finishes the battle there, while Harker ends up on Snodgrass.

      To further complicate matters, Barnes was only loaned to Wood in the first place – he was one of Van Cleve’s Brigades, sent to Wood when Wood found out his two brigades could not cover the frontage vacated by Negley’s three. When Wood was subsequently ordered away, Barnes did not revert to Van Cleve, but stayed with his new division, and hence was first on the scene to be dispatched by Thomas.

      Is it any wonder that everyone was confused?

  11. Greg Biggs Says:

    The comments about Rosecrans and Thomas overriding chains of command are interesting – and they set up exactly what Sherman will do for his army group in the Atlanta Campaign of 1864.

    He has a Chief of Cavalry (Elliott) but issues orders directly to his division commanders. He wants Grenville Dodge to take 16th Corps out past Decatur, GA and tear up the GA RR because Dodge was a railroad builder and should know how to tear them up – but issues those orders to Dodge and not to his army commander, James McPherson – to do so. McPherson overrides those orders after his personal recon of his front on the east side of Atlanta incurring a bit of Sherman’s wrath. McPherson was proven right a day later when Hardee’s Corps came charging out of the woods and struck not an open Federal left flank but Dodge’s Corps in a refused line of battle. And McPherson was killed.

    With regards to CS flags at Chickamauga, since this battle had the greatest panoply of CS flags of the war on the field, I often wonder what the Federals thought when they saw all of them (such as they could) and if they ever wondered what army they were fighting, especially when they faced ANV battle flags for the first time in the war.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Union reports at the time are full of comments about how they fought the “whole” of the Confederacy. They routinely estimated Bragg’s army at 100,000 plus, largely based on the fact that they knew they were facing Rebels from as far away as Virginia and Mississippi. The flags were certainly a big part of that, as well as contributing to tactical confusion like that faced by Wood and Harker when they confronted Robertson’s Texans (with ANV flags) on the 20th. They also misunderstood D. H. Hill, who arrived to take over Hardee’s Corps, as A. P. Hill, bringing with him his entire corps from the ANV, so that many Yanks assumed that they were facing two corps from Lee, instead of just Longstreet and two divisions. But it shouldn’t be any wonder that they felt so proud of their fight, despite the outcome, based on how many Rebels they _thought_ they were facing.

      • Greg Biggs Says:


        Great points! As whacked out as Bragg’s “reorganization” of the AOT into five corps (I think that’s right) and with eastern generals being there the Union intel must have been fun to read and indeed it should have given the perception that they were facing a whole lot of guys from all over the place.

        And they indeed were but just not in the 100,000 range.

        I forgot the couple brigades like Gist’s who were using Charleston Depot battle flags that had come from SC to Mississippi in the spring of 1863 and then were sent to north Georgia once the Vicksburg issue was over.

  12. Greg Biggs Says:

    Dave’s recent post about brigades ending up here and there from the same division brings me again to Sherman in 1864. This time it is divisions ending up here and there from the same corps or even army. There’s some interesting Union writings on this from officers about how upset they got as Sherman bounced his army all over the place on the field taking this one form there and inserting it into that one over here.

    To me that makes the confusion level much higher and gives big headaches to higher command structures like corps and even armies in this case. Who worked for whom? And for how long?

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