Sheridan, part II

Sheridan has stirred some interest…

First, a nod to Andy, who in his comment to my last post noted that both McCook and Sheridan mention going to Thomas in response to an order. That’s true enough, and on the face of it, should clear up everything.

Sheridan was ordered to take two brigades to Thomas immediately, and move up the third when he could. In his report, Sheridan says he was just moving when the breakthrough came.

I don’t really doubt that statement, but I find the whole situation a lot more complex and unclear than it would suggest.

Captain Beverly Williams, an ADC of McCook’s, has some specifics: He says the order to move to Thomas was received at 10:55, based on his watch when it arrived. He puts the breakthrough at between 11 and 11:10. That’s not a lot of time. (Note, other staffers place the ‘break’ at 11:30 or Noon, but they might be talking about the collapse of Sheridan’s line, not Davis’.)

Williams claims that he took the order to Sheridan, who was, in Williams’ words “endeavoring to bring up his troops.” This suggests that Sheridan’s men were already moving when Williams arrived with the Thomas order. If so, where was Sheridan going? Williams then says he accompanied Lytle (Sheridan’s lead brigade) and was with him when they discovered Hindman’s Rebels. McCook then appeared and ordered Lytle to support Davis – either just before or just after McCook ordered Laiboldt into action.

McCook’s report hits a couple of false notes which make me wonder. For example, McCook claims he was suprised when Wood moved his division. This is disingenous at best; and designed, I think, to save his butt in a court-martial. We know from other testimony that McCook was with Wood when that order arrived, told Wood to go “immediately” and so was fully aware of Wood’s departure.

Wood was only there in the first place because McCook was too slow that morning in finding men to replace Negley. There is at least an implied rebuke from Rosecrans here. It also explains how Laiboldt’s Brigade, of Sheridan, was deployed on the eastern face of (soon to be christened) Lytle Hill in column of regiment in line, awaiting further orders. McCook apparently intended Sheridan to replace Negley. When Wood came in, his line was still short a brigade, so Laiboldt was again tapped to fill in that smaller gap. Before that could happen, however, Wood borrowed Barnes’ Brigade from Van Cleve, and Laiboldt, with no where else to go, halted on the hill with the understanding that he would now support the new line. At this point, Davis also re-deployed, forming up on Wood’s right, and Laiboldt further understood he was to support Davis.

I also think Sheridan was already moving, perhaps in response to the tardy order to replace Negley, long before the order to Thomas arrived.

Here’s where the timeline gets hard to figure.

McCook leaves Wood to find a replacement. Two of Wood’s brigades depart and clear the area; Buell’s Brigade does not, and is attacked while marching north behind the Brotherton Cabin. Buell’s brigade then retreats, fighting most of the way, to Dyer Field.

In the meantime, Hindman attacks and overwhelms Davis. Hindman starts later than the rest of the Rebel attack, by at least a few minutes, and it takes at least 30 minutes to crush Davis – which means that Laiboldt doesn’t see Rebels for 30 to 45 minutes after Wood is first ordered to leave.

What did McCook do during that time? It’s closer to noon when he arrives and orders Lytle and Laiboldt into action. Does Sheridan’s move mean he’s going to Thomas or did McCook somehow supercede that instruction and intend to use Sheridan for Brotherton Field, instead? McCook went to great lengths to downplay his involvement in the fateful order to Wood, which means he might not have wanted to suggest that he was modifying Sheridan’s instructions to go to Thomas.

It is also possible that McCook thought that the gap could be filled by bringing up Laiboldt and shifting one of Davis’ Brigades (Heg’s, now commanded by Martin, and barely 600 men strong) which had been in reserve. Martin was moving up and to the left when attacked, so at least that portion of this surmise is correct, but Laiboldt was stationary for a good half-hour while the fight in Brotherton field was going on.

The regimental and brigade reports in Sheridan’s division don’t mention going to join Thomas. Instead they all mention being shifted only a few hundred yards – in a great hurry – and going into action right away, as if in response to the breakthrough. Now this might just be due to circumstances, and proof of nothing, but I do find it suggestive. Perhaps they never realized their was an order to join Thomas. Lytle, who might have known, was of course dead and could make no report.

Sheridan’s remaining two brigades moved only about 1,000 yards before becoming engulfed in the fight with Hindman. They probably had been moving less than 30 minutes – and probably started moving after McCook told Wood to follow the fateful order immediately.

It’s those roughly 30 minutes that bug me. Where is McCook? What is he thinking? Why has he not sent an order to either Laiboldt (if he intends to just use Laiboldt) or to Sheridan (if he’s going to use the whole division?) By the time he appears and orders Laiboldt to charge, he’s clearly rattled, and already aware that disaster is unfolding. Laiboldt and his officers take note of McCook’s state, and protest the order to charge; they’d rather stay on the hill and receive Hindman’s attack. Instead, of course, they have to go forward.

It’s quite possible that the timing was just perfect, and purely accidental – Sheridan was acting on the order to join Thomas at the exact minute that McCook was confirming Wood’s move, and so Sheridan’s coming up just as Laiboldt engages was coincidental. It’s also possible that Sheridan while understood he was going to join Thomas, as the breakthrough unfolded he simply pitched in where he was. That sort of detail might be too obvious to include in either a report or a memoir. All in all, however, I wish Sheridan would have given us a better window into his thinking during this crucial half-hour.


4 Responses to “Sheridan, part II”

  1. Scott Day Says:

    More great stuff Dave! I find it interesting in his Personal Memoirs, Sheridan says he is with Laiboldt sending for Lytle and Walworth when he got McCook’s order to go to Thomas. Multiple eyewitness accounts refute this and show he was with Lytle at Widow Glenn’s house when he got the order to move to Thomas. It would seem maybe Phil is trying to do a little CYA as well. Also, I think Lt. Turnbull of the 36th Illinois reports an unidentified colonel from Rosecrans staff as being with Lytle when when he begins to move. That would suggest Rosecrans had a direct hand in Sheridan’s move that could be mean that he and Lytle thought they were going to Thomas and as you said pitched into to the fight on their way. I have noted to you before that Dr. Robertson’s time line and unit placements for Sheridan on the 20th in his Blue and Gray series on the battle are a little different which shows how confusing Sheridan’s role in the battle is.

  2. Andy Papen Says:

    Dave: Again, great stuff. This is an excellent discussion…..

    I re-read Captain Williams’ testimony, which is really interesting as he’s very specific, especially as to times. In addition to the passage you quoted about Sheridan “endeavoring to bring up his troops”, Williams also confirms the fact of Sheridan being ordered to Thomas. However, it would have been nice had he stated why Sheridan was “bringing up his troops” prior to being ordered to join Thomas! Williams’ timing of the breakthrough seems accurate. Laiboldt states that his brigade was positioned on the hill at 11:30, and Colonel Conrad of the 15th Missouri says it happened at 12, but both of those times seem much too late.

    I confess that I hadn’t previously considered the possibility of Sheridan already in motion prior to being ordered to join Thomas. Not sure why, as Williams’ testimony does seem to indicate that. Wish there had been a written order for him to move to replace Negley.

    There is an interesting statement in Newlin’s History of the 73rd Illinois; granted, it was written years later. Newlin comments about the 10:30 order for Sheridan to go to Thomas, but asks why it wasn’t carried out? He answers his own question by stating “probably the order was countermanded, owing to the emergency.” This almost indicates that the order to go to Thomas wasn’t carried out, at least not yet, when the two brigades were ordered into action in response to the breakthrough. Interesting.

    A lot of the mystery does seem to come back to McCook. He does seem to drift in and out of the situation for about a half hour or so. Williams says that he ordered Lytle to support Davis; I’m assuming that he ordered this after he had ordered Laiboldt to charge and not before. Any thoughts on that?

    Sticking with McCook, and if this is taking the discussion off topic, feel free to reel me back in. When McCook, in his report, says he was “surprised” at Wood’s departure, it is indeed disingenuous; more so a damn lie. McCook was definitely in CYA mode by then. Wood clearly states that McCook was with him when he got the order, but he states that he told McCook that he would carry it out and suggested to McCook that he fill the gap. Robertson, in his Blue & Gray article, says that Wood was hesitant and that McCook ordered him to obey it. I don’t doubt Robertson at all, but what was his specific source on that version? Especially, the part about McCook ordering Wood to obey? It’s not surprising to me that McCook left this part out of his report, but it is surprising to me that Wood didn’t mention it in his report, nor in the later correspondence (October 23) that got him in dutch with Rosecrans. Since, by then, Woods was obviously taking some heat, it would have been awfully easy (and correct) for him to say that not only was he following Rosecrans’ order, he was also following McCook’s.

    Again, that is somewhat of a detour, but it ties in with McCook’s decisions greatly contributing to the disaster on the right, and Sheridan’s division in particular. I’m still not sure that he was totally aware of how badly things were going when he ordered Laiboldt to charge. If we are to believe Rosecrans, then McCook might have had at least some badly misplaced confidence if he thought Laiboldt’s bayonet charge was going to “set the matter to rights.” On the other hand, maybe Rosecrans was fully in CYA mode with that statement as well.

    Sorry for the wordiness; I sometimes have a problem with that….!

  3. Dave Powell Says:


    thanks for the comment.

    The exact nature of Wood and McCook’s discussion in Brotherton Field is another mystery. Dr. Robertson basically has McCook telling Wood to go and promising to fill the hole. I think since it was an order from Army HQ direct to Wood, he never saw McCook as intervening in the chain of command to take authority for the order; Wood would feel that carrying out the order on his own would be enough.

    Dr. Robertson’s main source for this discussion is pretty strong. It is a letter from a staff officer, Lt. G. K. Shaffer, writtten in 1883. It’s in private hands, still owned by one of Wood’s descendents, and has not really been used previously.

    I’ve seen the letter, and it leaves little to question about Wood and McCook’s discussion. Shaffer does also make the point that if it came to a court-martial, Wood would have been exonorated because of McCook insistance.

    Note that Shaffer never really says that McCook pulled rank and ordered Wood to move, only that he advised Wood to go immediately and promised to fill the gap. In fact, Shaffer says that McCook promised to “have Sheridan here before you [Wood] are out” of line.

    It’s a smoking gun letter, and might just be too pat to be believed, but Shaffer also basically said the same thing in a National tribune article.

    A second source is a letter by John Shellenberger of the 64th Ohio from 1890 – also in the Wood papers, private hands – that also agrees that McCook ordered Wood to move immediately. Shellenberger and Shaffer do not agree on some minor details, but they do corroborate each other on the basic facts. Each provides substantially different wording, but say the same thing, which suggests individual recall rather than a ‘shared memory” that we start to see in so many veterans’ accounts as time goes on.

    So all in all, I think The evidence that McCook urged – even authorized – Wood to move immediately is pretty strong.

    Why Wood never hit that point in his own defense I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t want to call out McCook, and thought that noting the Corps commander’s presence at the time was enough of a defense. Perhaps he didn’t want to appear to second-guess an order from the Army commander by going to a corps commander. protocol was often important to these men, especially regulars.

    I do know that Wood’s version has a few problems as well – he later asserted that there was no enemy activity on his front when he moved. This is not true. Even as staunch a Wood man as Emerson Opdyke told Ezra Carman that the 125th Ohio’s skirmishers were being driven in at the time of the move.

  4. Andy Papen Says:


    Thanks for the clarification; this is helpful. I knew Robertson had good sources; just didn’t know what they were. I think it’s great that the documents you reference from Wood’s papers are finally seeing the light of day. Wood certainly isn’t the villain that some accounts portray him to be but his front certainly wasn’t quiet; Opdyke’s report indicates skirmish and artillery fire as well.

    The Shaffer and Shellenberger accounts certainly shed a lot of light on McCook’s actions. He certainly wasn’t “surprised” to see Wood go. Plus, if he was planning on moving Sheridan to replace Wood, Sheridan’s mission does indeed become less certain.

    One final thought on Laiboldt. I’ve tried to make sense of McCook’s order to charge and his refusal to allow Laiboldt to deploy his brigade out of column. It might make sense if McCook was counting on the shock factor of a bayonet charge to slow or halt the breakthrough. There certainly was a time and a place for a bayonet charge in certain situations (9th Ohio the previous day), but the Tanyard wasn’t that situation. The breakthrough was just too wide, and all Laiboldt did was lose almost 40% of his men with many of them not being able to fire a shot. On the other hand, McCook may have been so rattled by then that ordering this senseless charge was all he could come up with. Either way, events had not only overtaken him, they had already left him behind. Maurice Marcoot of the 15th Missouri (Laiboldt) wrote in his memoir that, rather than charged, “it might have been better had we awaited their coming.” Yeah, probably so. I actually find McCook interesting; in over his head undoubtedly, but still a major figure in the AoC and probably worthy of a full biography. I’d read it.

    Anyway, fascinating stuff. Thanks!

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