The Legacy of Philip Henry Sheridan: Unraveling the Myth of a Controversial General


Philip Henry Sheridan, an Irish-American military commander, achieved unparalleled success in the United States Army during the late 19th century. However, his reputation has been tarnished by controversies surrounding his treatment of American Indians. This article delves into Sheridan’s career, examining the three pivotal moments that shaped it and addressing the criticism he faced. By exploring the origins of the infamous quote attributed to him, we aim to provide a balanced perspective on Sheridan’s complex legacy.

The Rise of a Military Leader

Sheridan’s career began when he entered West Point military academy in 1850, where his spirited nature often led to disciplinary issues. After serving on the frontier, participating in the pacification of Indians, Sheridan developed conflicting views of them. While he referred to them as “savages,” he also condemned the brutal actions of settlers towards Indians and recognized the horrific consequences of such crimes.

The American Civil War

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 marked a turning point for Sheridan. His aggressiveness and energy on the battlefield drew attention, and he quickly rose through the ranks. Notably, his exceptional performance at the battle of Chattanooga led to his appointment as commander of a corps at the young age of 32. Under Ulysses S. Grant’s leadership, Sheridan played a crucial role in breaking General Robert E. Lee’s lines and ultimately securing the surrender of the Confederates.

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Commander of the West

Following the war, Sheridan was assigned to observe French interference in Mexico and maintain order in Texas. During this time, he prioritized the defense of freed slaves against former Confederates rather than engaging in battles with Indians. In 1867, Sheridan became the commander of the Department of the Missouri, which later expanded to cover the entire Western region of the United States. His responsibilities included defending settlers against Indian attacks, enforcing treaties, and occasionally relocating Indians to reservations.

The Myth of “The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

Sheridan’s most damaging accusation is the phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” While this quote is often attributed to him, its true origin is unclear. Charles Nordstrom, a staff officer present during an alleged incident, shared the story many years later, long after the quote had gained notoriety. Research suggests that a politician named James Michael Cavenaugh may have uttered a similar sentiment before Sheridan’s alleged remark. Despite Sheridan’s denial of making such a statement, the proverb had already become widespread at the time. It is important to note that Sheridan did not advocate for indiscriminate slaughter or genocide but rather embodied a “hard war” approach.

Evaluating Sheridan’s Legacy

Sheridan’s views on Indians were in line with those of the general populace at the time. While modern sensibilities find these views objectionable, it is crucial to understand that Sheridan was not the sole creator of these ideas. Many of his humanitarian critics shared the belief that Indians should assimilate into white society and relied on government support when necessary. Although Sheridan’s detractors rightfully condemned the excessive brutality of his troops, their ultimate goal was similar. Sheridan possessed admirable qualities, such as his commitment to his men and his honesty, but he was not without flaws.

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Philip Henry Sheridan’s military achievements are undeniable, but his legacy is marred by controversies surrounding his treatment of American Indians. By examining the pivotal moments in his career and debunking the myth surrounding his infamous quote, we gain a more nuanced understanding of Sheridan’s complexities. It is essential to acknowledge his successes and failings while recognizing the broader historical context of his time. Sheridan, like many Irish-Americans, played a vital role in shaping the shared history of Ireland and America.

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