Phil Sheridan’s Philosophy of War

August 16, 1864 (Tuesday)

“In compliance with instructions of the lieutenant-general commanding,” wrote Philip Sheridan of Grant’s orders for the cavalry, “you will make the necessary arrangements and give the necessary orders for the destruction of the wheat and hay south of a line from Millwood to Winchester and Petticoat Gap. You will seize all mules, horses, and cattle that may be useful to our army. Loyal citizens can bring in their claims against the Government for this necessary destruction. No houses will be burned, and officers in charge of this delicate, but necessary, duty must inform the people that the object is to make this Valley untenable for the raiding parties of the rebel army.”

Phil Sheridan
Phil Sheridan

Sheridan believed his Army of the Shenandoah to be in danger. Not only were the Confederates under Jubal Early before him near Strasburg, but thousands more had recently come in on his left near Front Royal. Though he might have wanted to retired only to Winchester, he had decided the day previous that Halltown, near Harper’s Ferry – forty-five minutes norteast – was the closest place to build a good defense.

But he would not be retreating without something to show for his troubles. The Shenandoah Valley would be stripped bare of crops and horses. This idea originated with Grant, but Sheridan enthusiastically agreed. In his mind, Grant “had rightly concluded that it was time to bring the war home to a people engaged in raising crops from a prolific soil to feed the country’s enemies, and devoting to the Confederacy its best youth.”

On this date, Grant reitereated his orders, broadending it to include Loudon County, where sat Leesburg. He asked if Sheridan could spare a cavalry division “to destroy and carry off the crops, animals, negroes, and all men under fifty years of age capable of bearing arms. In this way you wil get many of [John Singleton] Mosby’s men. All male citizens under fifty can fairly be held as prisoners of war, not as citizen prisoners. If not already soldiers, they will be made so the moment the rebel army gets hold of them.”

The logic on this wasn’t exactly sound, but many of Mosby’s Rangers came from Loudon County, and when they were raiding Union supply lines, they were living in their homes as normal citizens.

Writing in his memoirs, Sheridan took the time to explain his philosophy on war:

“I endorsed the programme in all its parts, for the stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent section. In war a territory like this is a factor of great importance, and whichever adversary controls it permanently reaps all the advantages of its prosperity.

“Hence, as I have said, I endorsed Grant’s programme, for I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

“Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavy with the most of mankind; heavier often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle.

“Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life, as the selfishness of man has demonstrated in more than one great conflict.”

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As Sheridan was making his way back to Winchester, he heard cannonading from the direction of Front Royal. The previous day, he had dispatched Wesley Merritt’s division to hold back the Confederates he believed were trying to fall upon his left.

Merritt’s skirmishers were driven back before the Rebel cavalry attacked with infantry as support. But the first attack did little, and the Federals hurled the assailants back. But when a brigade of Confederate infantry appeared on their left, Merritt’s men drew out to meet them.

“The enemy advanced boldly, wading the river, and were allowed to approach within short carbine range,” wrote Merritt in his report of the affair, “when a murderous volley was poured into their solid ranks, while the whole command charged. The enemy were thrown into the wildest confusion.” Two flags were captured and hundreds of Rebels were taken prisoner. From this, the Confederates could not recover, and the battled devolved into an artillery duel.

The next day, the cavalry would retire to the north, “destroying the grain and forage, and driving off the cattle in the Valley from Cedar Creek to Berryville. So too would Sheridan’s infantry edge their way from Cedar Creek to Winchester to Berryville, and eventually to Halltown. The Confederates would soon follow.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p43-44, 438-439, 816; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. []
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Phil Sheridan’s Philosophy of War by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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