Born: March 6, 1831, New York
Died: August 5, 1888
Philip Henry Sheridan was born in Albany, New York March 6, 1831. At the age of 17, was admitted to West Point and graduated in 1854.
As a young lieutenant he served in Texas and the Pacific Northwest but his career rapidly accelerated during the Civil War where he eventually reached the rank of major general. He earned a reputation as a tenacious and courageous leader. But he was also ruthless, viewing war as “power unrestrained by constitution or compact.” In his view, the key to victory was destruction of the enemy’s homeland, “for the loss of property weighs heavy with the most of mankind.”
Following the Civil War Sheridan was sent west. President Ulysses S. Grant wanted him to pacify the Plains Indians, primarily as a result of the mishandling of the white/Indian conflict by such notables as Major John Chivington and General Winfield Scott Hancock. Relying on his Civil War experience, he instituted a winter campaign, attacking the tribes in their winter encampments. The most well-known of these attacks was on the village of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle on the Washita River in Oklahoma in 1868. Sheridan’s ultimate goal was to make the Indians give up their traditional way of life and settle on reservations. His tactic, though bordering on the barbaric, worked.
He continued with this policy after he was promoted to command the Division of the Missouri (all land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains), succeeding General William Tecumseh Sherman. With his new position came a refinement of his tactics to include large campaigns such as that to the Little Big Horn. He was eventually successful in his order to subjugate the plains tribes and he became known as a premier Indian fighter.
Sheridan has been accused of being unnecessarily cruel, bent on exterminating the Indian. Although he did regard the Indians as “savages” whose one profession was “that of arms,” he felt that it would take more than just confining them to reservations to settle the west. It would also be necessary to “exercise some strong authority over him.” Although not as sympathetic to the Indians' plight as some other army officers, he did say that, “We took away their country and their means of support…and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less?” He did agree, however, with most soldiers when he blamed the government for the failure of the reservation system. He said it was up to Congress, “to furnish the poor people from whom this country has been taken with sufficient food to enable them to live without suffering the pangs of hunger.” This is hardly the attitude one would expect from someone who was purported to say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” a statement he denies ever having made and for which there is no written documentation. He was above all else, a soldier and in response to some of his critics he stated, “My duties are to protect these people. I have nothing to do with Indians but in this connection…The wife of a man at the center of wealth and civilization and refinement is not more dear to him than is the wife of the pioneer of the frontier. I have no hesitation in making my choice. I am going to stand by the people over whom I am placed and give them what protection I can.”
Philip Sheridan died on August 5, 1888, still serving his country as commanding general of the army.
Entry: Sheridan, Philip
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 2011
Date Modified: March 2013
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