Army of the Cumberland and George
Thomas Source Page
Sheridan's Ride at Chickamauga
Sheridan left the field,
contributed nothing to Thomas' defense of Snodgrass
later lied about it.
by Bob Redman, copyright
© 2 Sept. 2003
N.B.: All Official Records citations refer to
the serial number of the volume and the page number.
Mcfeely wrote in
his Grant biography (pg. 221) this about another little man on a big
horse: "Sheridan, the fiery little man
in whom so many of
private urges found expression...."
The commanders on the division level and above who left the
field of Chickamauga on the 20 Sept. 1863 were sidelined for the rest
of the war, except Davis and
Sheridan. Davis saved himself later that
afternoon by the gesture of promptly or fairly promptly reversing
direction when so ordered, but Sheridan decided that his battle was
over and marched away, allegedly
with the intention of returning via Rossville to support Thomas's
Numerous commentators have taken Sheridan's account of his
activities that afternoon in his report and in his "Personal Memoirs"
at face value. The following passage quoted from a recent book about
Chickamauga is not footnoted, most of
it is not supported by anything in the Official Records, and is typical
the treatment of this question by many authors:
"Phil Sheridan had kept his part of the bargain purportedly
mine] struck by him, Negley, and Davis at the McFarland farm. A few
before sunset, the head of his fifteen-hundred-man column reached the
church, having skirmished with Forrest's cavalry most of the way from
Sheridan made contact with Dan McCook's brigade and then sent to Thomas
orders. Granger saw in Sheridan's arrival a chance to make a stand
the next morning, by which time Rosecrans was certain to return. With
McCook, Turchin, Robinson, and Willich, Thomas indeed had a strong line
between the La Fayette and McFarland's Gap roads. Whether it was strong
to resist a determined Confederate attack, even one coming just before
nightfall, is doubtful. Thomas, at least, considered his troops too
disorganized to withstand the enemy at that or any other point on the
battlefield. He told Sheridan to march back up the La Fayette road and
cover the Ringgold road from the vicinity of the McAfee church to
prevent Confederate cavalry from
slipping into Rossville from the east" (Peter Cozzens, This
Terrible Sound, 1996, pp 500-501).
Cozzens' use of the word "purportedly" makes me suspect that he
the passage with tongue in cheek. However, many other writers do not
hint that there is reason to doubt Sheridan's story. Garfield's
dispatch of the 20th at 3:45 PM to Rosecrans is the basis for some of
"I arrived here ten minutes ago, via Rossville. General Thomas has Brannan's, Baird's, Reynolds', Wood's, Palmer's, and Johnson's divisions still intact after terrible fighting. Granger is here, closed up with Thomas, and is fighting terribly on the right. Sheridan is in with the bulk of his division, but in ragged shape, though plucky and fighting."
Not even Sheridan was so bold as to claim to have fought on
Snodgrass Hill, and some contemporaries tell quite a different story.
Col. Thruston, chief of staff of McCook's XX Corps (to which Davis and
Sheridan belonged) had reported to Thomas that Sheridan, Negley and
Davis with about 7000 men
were still close by. Thomas sent Thruston to direct the three division
to come back to "aid his right." This was not an extravagant request,
other commanders had already done so without orders, coming from all
by following the noise of battle. Forcing his way along a road clogged
men and equipment, Thruston found them at about 4 PM still at
McFarland's Gap and conveyed Thomas' order. Davis allowed his soldiers
to get water,
and then headed back toward Thomas' right, taking some of Negley's
with him, albeit without getting very far (see map below). But Sheridan
and Negley kept on
toward Rossville. As Thruston wrote in his article The Crisis at Chickamauga
in "Battles and Leaders" (Vol III, pg. 665):
"Sheridan was still without faith. He may have thought there
at Rossville, or that his troops had not regained their fighting
He insisted on going to Rossville. Darkness would catch him before he
the field from that direction. Negley was vacilating; he finally went
Piatt ("Life of Thomas," pg. 430-31) writes the following about
"General Thruston, in making his statement, omitted from the writing precisely what General Sheridan did say, and this language the gallant young chief of staff omitted from a mistaken sense of propriety. The fact is, the insubordinate subordinate, in a sentence glaring with profanity, swore he would obey no such orders and take his men into a slaughter organized by fools....A braver man never trod the field of danger. His mind was clear and his nerves calm, and he knew that in that roar that rose behind him as he marched away brave men were being done to death, while heroic officers were looking eagerly to the right and left for aid in this hour of death-tainted anxiety."
Sheridan played no further role in the battle, but for some reason he got a pass while Negley lost his command, as did Rosecrans, McCook, Crittenden, and Van Cleve. It is possible that the War Department had been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of these commanders anyway, Rosecrans because of his abrasiveness and ambition, McCook for inadequacy, Crittenden for indifference, and Negley, perhaps because he hadn't attended West Point (as he later maintained), but more probably because he kept on going to Rossville. It is true that he made himself useful there by gathering and organizing stragglers, but he didn't have Sheridan's robust p.r. instincts and effrontery to fake a return to the field. Van Cleve, one of the older officers and entirely separated from his command, just got swept along to Chattanooga. Even if we were to uncritically accept Sheridan's version of events, he still disregarded Thomas' order to return to the battle and contributed little to solve the dilemma in which the Union army found itself that afternoon, without consequences for his subsequent career. Did Sherman's friendship and Halleck's protection have anything to do with it? The matter would be of little interest if this man hadn't risen later to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Army (1884-1888) and four star general (1888).
Sheridan himself must have felt the delicacy of his position
since he stuggled to justify his behavior, as the following
masterpiece of obfuscation from his battle report of 30 Sept. 1863
"Negley has stopped about 6,000 men at this place. Sheridan gathered 1,500 of his division, and reached a point 3 miles south of here at sunset. Davis is here with two brigades."
In addition, a captain Burt (ar50_144)
and Lieut. William H. Moody, aide to General Negley (ar50_1012),
reported that Sheridan went to the support of General Thomas.
However, Davis in his report does not mention being cut
off by Confederate
units as he moved toward Snodgrass Hill on Dry Valley Road. Moreover, Thruston,
Garfield, Captains Guy and Barker of Thomas' staff (ar50_253), and other
officers came and went between McFarland's Gap and Snodgrass Hill, so
there could not have been enough Confederates in the area to prevent
supported by several thousand men, from taking the same route. We
can dismiss his time reference because it is impossible that he, in
about an hour and a half, marched his battle-wearied
troops 2 miles away from the battle through the detritus of a routed
then marched them 3 miles back in gathering darkness on another road
never seen, and finally linked up with Thomas' far, far left, and all
that with Forrest's permission who, in his report, claims to have
a portion of the same road.
More than 40 years after the battle some veterans from Sheridan's
erected a tablet (no. 528) near the Chickamauga battlefield on
Road somewhat north of the intersection of Forrest Road with Hwy. 27
circle on the map below right).
The tablet has been since removed, and its whereabouts are unknown, but
text according to Jim Ogden, resident historian at the Chickamauga
Center, is as follows:
"After the attack
upon the division by Hindman's troops on the high ground northwest of
Glenn's, Sheridan withdrew his division to McFarland's Gap and
to Rossville. Thence, under instructions from General Rosecrans, he
at 5 P.M. through Rossville Gap to join Thomas. Reaching this point at
P.M. and finding Confederate forces occupying the direct line to
Thomas' position, Lieut. M. V. Sheridan was sent by a circuitous route
communicate with that office, and returned with orders to General
to hold his position until the withdrawal of the left and center had
accomplished. That movement being completed the division joined the
Sometime in the 1930's the tablet was moved
a mile north to the current junction of highways 146 and 27, probably
to controversy about its proper placement. In short, the charges I make
here are old,
but the controversy is ignored in most recent publications. Perhaps
new is my exhaustive documentation of the falsity of Sheridan's report.
Regardless of the uncertainty of the tablet's placement, there is no mention in Thomas' report of Lieut. Sheridan bringing tidings from Gen. Sheridan, and the tablet does not at all agree at all with Sheridan's report. In the Official Records there is no order from Thomas to Sheridan to "hold his position until the withdrawal of the left and center had been accomplished." The only extant written order from Rosecrans to Sheridan of the afternoon of the 20th is as follows:
"Verbal message by Captain Hill received. Support General Thomas by all means. If he is obliged to fall back he must secure the Dug [Dry] Valley. Right falling back slowly, contesting the ground inch by inch."
This order confirms
Thomas' verbal order, conveyed by Thurston, to "aid his right." Thomas
Rosecrans were worried that Longstreet might gain control of the Dry
Road and thus cut off Thomas' withdrawal via McFarland's Gap. With good
Sheridan doesn't mention this order in his report. It doesn't support
|The red X
show the approximate point where Thruston relayed to Sheridan, Davis
and Negley Thomas' order to "aid his right." The blue
dots show Davis' route and about how far he got (about 1 1/2
miles). The red dots show the route
Sheridan claimed to have followed and the point he claimed to have
||Same map enlarged. The yellow line shows
Sheridan's purported route of approach on La Fayette Road. The blue line shows that portion
of the road which Dan McCook and Turchin contested against Forrest.
could therefore not have made a "junction" as he claimed in his report.
The red line shows McCook's and Turchin's
line of withdrawal. Forrest sat on the shorter route.
The "considerable force of the enemy" by which Sheridan
"cut off" from McCook on Thomas's left, was that of Forrest, who, as I
out below, didn't recall Sheridan's presence there. Actually,
was stretched pretty thin, so thin in fact that, earlier in the day
Granger passed with about 4000 men, Forrest had to get out of the
raises the question of the size of the force which Sheridan had with
when he arrived wherever he arrived the evening of the 20th, because
Union soldiers marching south on La Fayette Road anywhere near Cloud
would have seriously threatened Forrest's flank and thus come to his
any case, Negley's dispatch of the 20th is enough to discredit the key
of Sheridan's report, but there is more.
Three months after the fact,
Halleck wrote a report as well, although he hadn't been there. He
wrote reports for two other battles at which
he wasn't present - Shiloh and Chattanooga, and each time he cast
light on the dubious performance of one or more of his favorites.
His main reason for writing the Chickamauga report was to show that he
had really, really tried to get reinforcements to Rosecrans, and that
it wasn't his fault that they didn't get there in time for the battle.
Another reason may well have been to protect Sheridan, because in his
report Halleck singled out for mention only three divisional commanders
among many noteworthy ones - Wood for the creation of the hole in the
line, Steedman for extraordinary personal bravery and
timely intervention, and Sheridan in order to puff up his contribution.
Halleck had read the reports of the participating officers. He
certainly realized that Sheridan's choice of route could be regarded
and that some people were unhappy with Sheridan's conduct during the
afternoon of the 20th. At the beginning of the war Halleck had saved
Sheridan from court
martial for accounting irregularities, and by the time of Chickamauga,
along with Grant and Sherman, belonged to a group of commanders which
do no wrong, all of whom came out of Halleck's western command. In one
or another Halleck had saved and then furthered the careers of all
of them. Tellingly, in his report Halleck even improved on Sheridan's
leaving the impression that Sheridan actually fought alongside Thomas,
the following exquisitely worded passage from the report shows:
"Pouring in through this break in our line, the enemy cut off our right and right center, and attacked Sheridan's division, which was advancing to the support of our left. After gallant but fruitless efforts against this rebel torrent, he was compelled to give way, but afterward rallied a considerable portion of his force, and, by a circuitous route, joined General Thomas, who now had to breast the tide of battle against the whole rebel army."
One of Sheridan's more modern defenders, Richard O'Connor, cited
this same passage,
whereby he truncated the quote, putting a period after the word
there was none, and left out the rest of the sentence ("Sheridan
the Inevitable," 1953, pg. 121). O'Connor maintained that
Sheridan's movement, as described in his report, was justified by
necessity and later approved of by higher authority. In order
to help make this case O'Connor knowingly misquoted a
source and cleaned up Halleck's studied ambiguity.
Toward the end of his life, Sheridan further embellished his
story, as the
following passage on pg. 153 in his "Personal Memoirs" (Da Capo
"The head of my column passed through Rossville, appearing upon Thomas' left about 6 o'clock in the evening, penetrated without any opposition the right of the enemy's line, and captured several of his field-hospitals. As soon as I got on the field I informed Thomas of the presence of my command, and asked for orders. He replied that his lines were disorganized, and that it would be futile to attack; that all I could do was to hold on, and aid in covering his withdrawal to Rossville."
The construction "appearing upon Thomas' left about 6 o'clock in
evening" is so vague as to defy confirmation or refutation. Then
piled it on by asserting that he thereby actually met Thomas in person:
"I accompanied him back to Rossville, and when we reached the skirt of the little hamlet General Thomas halted and we dismounted...his quiet unobtrusive demeanor communicating a gloomy rather than a hopeful view of the situation....he had just stopped for the purpose of offering me a drink, as he knew I must be very tired."
Such a meeting could not have occurred, at least not when and where Sheridan placed it, considering that Thomas had withdrawn via McFarland's Gap Road and could not have been anywhere on La Fayette Road south of Rossville. According to McKinney (pg. 493, note 34), "[Sheridan] threw the truth out the window" when he wrote the following passage (pg. 156 of his Memoirs):"I have always thought that, had General Thomas held on and attacked the Confederate right and rear from where I made the junction with him on the Lafyette road, the field of Chickamauga would have been relinquished to us, but it was fated to be otherwise."
He thus adds a subtle reproof bordering on slander to his
Further doubt is cast on Sheridan's various accounts of his activities
that afternoon and evening by the fact that Thomas left him entirely
of his report. Thomas praised every higher-level officer who in some
helped him fight on Snodgrass hill or Kelly Field, or withdraw from
but he was silent about both Sheridan and Davis. He therefore did not
Davis' movement or Sheridan's alleged round-about movement back to the
battlefield as having contributed to strengthening his position. Davis
had the decency
to play down the incident in his report, but Sheridan did not.
Rosecrans, in his report, offered only this guarded
"General Garfield dispatched me, from Rossville, that the left and center still held its ground. General Granger had gone to its support. General Sheridan had rallied his division, and was advancing toward the same point, and General Davis was going up the Dry Valley road to our right."
No junction there either. He could not bring himself to write
that Sheridan actually reached Thomas's position.
Moreover, on 15 Oct., Rosecrans overlooked Sheridan entirely when he
out recommendations for promotion for Richard Johnson, Baird, Davis,
even Wood (ar53_386). I quote the dispatch concerning Davis:
"I beg leave to make special mention of Brig. Gen. Jefferson
Davis, who commanded the First Division of the Twentieth Army Corps at
battle of Chickamauga. On this, as on every other battle-field, he was
courageous, and prompt in action. After going opportunely into action
the 19th, and fighting obstinately against superior numbers, he led the
small brigades again into battle on the 20th, and when, overpowered,
troops gave way, he rallied them at the first favorable point, and
up to succor his brethren, who were fighting with General Thomas,
too late to get into action. For his meritorious services on this, as
as on former occasions, I respectfully recommend his promotion to a
Kudos like this were prized by commanders, and Rosecrans would
mentioned someone as prominent as Sheridan if he thought he merited any
praise. The omission was therefore probably deliberate.
Col. Daniel McCook, who had arrived with Granger, was in fact
on Thomas' far left near Cloud's hospital on the other side of the road
Cloud Church, which makes him a credible witness. In his report he
once mention Sheridan who, according to the unit tablet and the above
which is based on it, would have been about a quarter a mile away from
However, he does describe the fight between himself and forces under
Forrest and Liddell for control
of the road:
"On the morning of the 20th instant, I received orders from General Steedman to join him at McAfee's Church. I lay near this point until I was ordered to march for the battle-field. As I arrived opposite Cloud's Hospital the enemy began shelling my column on the Chattanooga road. To avoid being delayed from arriving on the field, I turned the head of my column to the right to go around some open fields which the enemy commanded by their artillery. While passing around these fields I was ordered by Major Fullerton, of your staff, to form line of battle behind them and cover the Chattanooga road. About 6 o'clock the enemy opened upon me with artillery and some musketry. I soon silenced their batteries. At 10 p.m., by order of General Thomas, I withdrew from the field to Rossville, and was the last brigade to leave the field."
Turchin, on Dan McCook's immediate right, also fought in that
area, and he doesn't report any contact with Sheridan (ar50_475),
nor does his commander Reynolds in his report (ar50_442).
Forrest spent the entire
day on Bragg's right flank, which makes him also a credible witness. He
Granger's approach with the reserves in his report, but made no
reference to Sheridan whatsoever,
as the following excerpt from it demonstrates:
"On Sunday morning, the 20th, I received orders to move up and keep in line with General Breckinridge's division, which I did, dismounting all of General Armstrong's division, except the First Tennessee Regiment and McDonald's battalion, holding General Pegram's division in reserve on my right. The two commands of General Armstrong's division which were mounted took possession of the La Fayette road, capturing the enemy's hospitals and quite a number of prisoners. They were compelled to fall back, as the enemy's reserves, under General Granger, advanced on that road. Colonel Dibrell fought on foot with the infantry during the day. As General Granger approached, by shelling his command and maneuvering my troops, he was detained nearly two hours, and prevented from joining the main force until late in the evening, and then at double-quick, under a heavy fire from Freeman's battery and a section of Napoleon guns borrowed from General Breckinridge.
After Granger's column had vacated the road in front of me, I moved my
men rapidly forward and took possession of the road from the Federal
to the woods on the left, through which infantry was advancing and
My artillery was ordered forward, but before it could reach the road
be placed in position a charge was made by the enemy, the infantry line
in confusion and leaving me without support, but held the ground long
to get my artillery back to the position from which we had shelled
column, and opened upon the advancing column with fourteen pieces of
driving them back, and terminating on the right flank the battle of
This fire was at short range, in open ground, and was to the enemy very
killing 2 colonels and many other officers and privates."
The witness for Sheriden who provided the most detail was Lieut.
Col. Arthur C. Ducat,
Assistant Inspector-General, who stated the following in his report:
"I dispatched Captain Hill to Chattanooga, to inform the general commanding of the state of affairs, and proceeded, with the other officers, and Colonel McKibbin, with General Sheridan, to the wooden church south of Rossville, on General Thomas' left and very close to the enemy's lines. I left General Sheridan after 8 p.m., with the understanding that General Thomas was withdrawing to Rossville, and that General Sheridan would do so quietly. I joined the general commanding at 10 p.m., at Chattanooga, and reported."
"The command was rallied in a disorganized condition, being united with portions of other brigades and divisions on the ridge in rear of our position. A large force having been rallied, it was moved by a mountain road toward the center, to a point on the Chattanooga and La Fayette road, 3 miles from Rossville, when it was reformed and took up position. By your order it soon removed, this brigade in advance, passing via Rossville on the Ringgold road 3 miles to ------- Church, arriving about dusk. Here the column halted until about 9 o'clock, when, by your order, it returned to Rossville."
"I reported as soon as possible with the remainder of my battery to General Sheridan, who ordered me to fall into the column then marching in the direction of Chattanooga. I camped that night with the Third Brigade [Walworth's brigade], Third Division [Sheridan's division], in camp near Chattanooga."
Hill and, to the left, Horseshoe Ridge. Thomas' HQ was at the star.
by a stretch of woods was the fortified position of Kelly Field. Willich
had only a brigade with which to make noise if the Confederates moved
force in his direction.
In fact, Bragg had relinquished control, Polk (facing
Kelly Field) was
passive for most of the afternoon, and Longstreet carried out
one frontal attack after another against
Snodgrass Hill until very late in the day. Longstreet himself counted
of them. Humphreys does not state what he related to Longstreet, nor
Longstreet mention Humphreys' intelligence in his own report, but
had five hours to reconnoitre his right flank. If he did discover
Willich's weakness and reported it, then Longstreet did not react
quickly enough. Of
Polk's division commanders, Stewart was the closest to the gap, but he
receiving conflicting orders from Bragg, Longstreet, and Buckner
(ar51_364), and his report doesn't mention any attempt to
reconnoitre his left flank. In
any case, if one of the many Confederate divisions in that area had
Willich aside at any time that afternoon, or if Preston had been
of the gap when he was brought in, Thomas would have been quickly
from the field in disorder, and that would have been that. Those 7000
under Davis, Negley and Sheridan would have done nicely to help Thomas
that gap and reinforce a flank, and from about 2 to 4 PM that
they were only a couple of miles away. With that gap filled, Thomas
have had a choice to withdraw or not to withdraw. At the very
least, with those additional
men Thomas could have better protected the withdrawal from Kelly Field
and saved some lives.
Sheridan, occasionally a man of energy, could have gotten them to
be the judge.