The son of Irish immigrants, future commander Philip H. Sheridan was raised in frontier Ohio, where his father had migrated in search of work on the canals and railroads. He was educated in the village school of Somerset, Ohio, and worked as a store clerk there before accepting a West Point cadetship in 1848. The fiery, volatile Sheridan soon landed in difficulties at the military academy. Suspended for a year for threatening an older cadet with a bayonet, he returned, managing to stay just on the right side of the academy law to graduate an undistinguished 34th of 49 in the Class of 1853.
He served in Texas and fought Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest during the later 1850s, but nothing in his prewar army career suggested he would become one of the great American field commanders. The outbreak of the Civil War found him in Missouri as quartermaster and commissary for Gen. Samuel Curtis's Army of the Southwest. A sloppy bookkeeper, careless of the rules, he did not survive in the job long and barely escaped court martial. He joined Henry Halleck's staff as a doer of odd jobs, at one point taking on a roving assignment buying remounts for the Missouri command.
In May 1862, Sheridan wangled a commission as colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. Within two months, he had risen to command of a brigade. He seemed born for the wild excitement of battle. His aggressive handling of cavalry won him promotion and an infantry command. In October he led a division at the battle of Perryville, Kentucky. His stubborn refusal to give ground at Stone's River, Sheridan promotion to major general. He saw action at Chickamauga in September 1863. In November, under Ulysses S. Grant, he led the impulsive charge up Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga that ended in a complete Confederate rout.
Sheridan came east with Grant in March 1864, to take charge of the 10,000 man Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. His first independent cavalry operation, the Richmond Raid of May 9-24, 1864, proved an unqualified success. On May 11, his troopers defeated the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern; Stuart was mortally wounded in the battle. Sheridan went on to ride completely around Lee's army, wrecking railroad track, destroying supplies, and spreading alarm in the Southern capital.
Sheridan's greatest success came in the Shenandoah Valley in the late summer and autumn of 1864. Grant ordered him to destroy a small Confederate army under Jubal Early, then devastate the Shenandoah, the eastern Confederacy's granary, "so that crows flying over it will have to carry their provender with them." Sheridan defeated Early at Winchester on September 19 and at Fisher's Hill on September 22, but Early regrouped. On October 19, the Confederates surprised Sheridan's command at Cedar Hill, while Sheridan himself was away in Washington. Making his famous ride from Winchester, Sheridan reached the battlefield just in time to rally his forces and turn an embarrassing defeat into a smashing victory. He turned to the business of destruction. "The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war," he told his officers. In a post-campaign report to Grant, he claimed to have burned 2,000 barns and 700 mills.
Grant gave Sheridan a starring role in the last campaign of March-April 1865. His rout of the Confederates at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, flanked Lee out of the Petersburg defenses and forced him into ragged westward retreat. Sheridan, with cavalry and infantry, pursued without letup. He smashed part of Lee's army at Sayler's Creek on April 6, and trapped the remnants at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Lee surrendered to Grant that afternoon. Sheridan is said to have made off with the most sought-after souvenir of that historic day: the desk where Lee signed the fateful document by which the Army of Northern Virginia passed into history.
Barely five feet tall, squat and solidly built, with close-cropped hair that had the look of being painted onto his scalp, Sheridan possessed a fighter's instincts and a natural air of authority on the battlefield. His soldiers called him "Little Phil" and responded enthusiastically to his pugnacious example. "Smash 'em up, smash 'em up!" he used to call out madly in the midst of a battle. The journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader, who knew Grant well, always claimed the commanding general held Sheridan above all others, even Sherman, in esteem.
In May 1865, Sheridan took charge of a 50,000-strong U.S. army on the Rio Grande in Texas, a show of force meant to overawe the French in Mexico. He later served as postwar governor of Texas and Louisiana, where he enforced Reconstruction policies so aggressively that President Johnson arranged his recall.
As a senior commander in the postwar army, Sheridan organized a series of punitive expeditions against the Plains Natives in the 1870s. The infamous dictum that "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is one version of a phrase allegedly used by Sheridan in 1870: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." He led the Marias River massacre in Montana, in which 173 Piegans were brutally slaughtered, a third of them women and children.
In 1884 Sheridan became second in succession to Grant as army commander-in-chief. His Personal Memoirs were published in 1888, only a few days before he died in Nonquitt (near Bedford), Massachusetts.