Book Review: Terrible Swift Sword
by Joseph Wheelan
DaCapo Press, 2012
At the beginning of his engagingly-written new biography of American Civil War general Phil Sheridan, historian Joseph Wheelan mentions one of the book’s origin-points: “When I finally got around to reading [Sheridan's] Personal Memoirs, I realized that Sheridan would make a fine subject for a book.” The realization is entirely true: through a combination of ardent place-seeking and some genuine military skill (and physical daring, although in Civil War generals on both sides that was a trait so common as almost not to warrant mentioning, although there were a couple of prominent exceptions), Sheridan rose quickly to the Holy Ghost spot in the Trinity of Union generals, ranking just below Grant and Sherman. Along the way, he had the political skill to argue with his superiors only when they were in the wrong, the military skill of convincingly promising more than he could deliver, and the survival skill of almost always delivering something.
His signature brand of intense physical charisma turned a Union defeat at Cedar Creek in October 1864 into a Union victory in the span of an hour (“We’ll whip ‘em like hell before night! We’ll raise ‘em out of their boots before the day is over!”). As Wheelan puts it, “Never before had Sheridan’s personal magnetism exerted as powerful an influence as it did on this day.” The cheesy commemorative poem, “Sheridan’s Ride,” was an instant success, and the whole thing helped to clinch President Lincoln’s re-election. The Civil War section of Wheelan’s book makes for some predictably exciting reading.
The prequel is a bit unnerving, since for his accounts of Sheridan’s early days growing up in Ohio, surveying (and Indian-fighting) in the gorgeous Oregon Territory, and making trouble at the United States Military Academy, Wheelan is content to rely on those Personal Memoirs of Sheridan himself for great swaths of the narrative, often to such an extent that the reader begins to wonder if Wheelan fully understands all the reasons why he shouldn’t do this. Sidnayoh, for instance, the Willamette Valley Indian woman who was Sheridan’s live-in mistress during his stay in Oregon, gets no mention in those Memoirs and only one brief mention in Wheelan’s book – an allusion to their “romance” that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 19th Century memoir and betrays a disturbing lack of modern-historian’s curiosity as to other factors that might have been at play. The endnote source citations for page after page of these early-days anecdotes are Sheridan himself – which tends to ignore the famous saying about the thing old generals do best.
And if the prequel to Sheridan’s brightest Civil War hours is unnerving, the sequel – the utterly scabrous third act of the general’s public life – is downright alarming. After the war, Sheridan was appointed to the West, where from 1868 to 1869 and then from 1874 to 1875 he conducted the protracted series of tricks, massacres, and pogroms that broke the power of the continent’s indigenous Indian civilizations beyond hope of recall.
These Indians had been repeatedly promised sovereignty and self-sufficiency by a United States government intent on penning them into reservations and selling their former ranges to settlers and developers. Forbidden from the nomadic hunting existence they’d known since the last ice age, many of these tribes were forced to live on government-issued shipments of food of wretched quality and constantly decreasing amount. Faced with starvation, many groups – sometimes large and well-armed – surge out of their reservations and conducted angry raids throughout the adjoining countryside. It’s an altogether shameful period in United States history, and Phil Sheridan was its main architect. Any 21st Century biography, freed from the ‘only good Indian is a dead Indian’ (a saying often – and falsely – attributed to Sheridan) jingoism, should related this segment of the general’s life with a chastened tone of awakened moral culpability. It shouldn’t read, as Wheelan too often does, as a collection of dispatches from Sheridan himself, full of mentions of Indian “hostiles” and “ringleaders” who went about “troublemaking” and “terrorizing.”
Sheridan and his subordinate generals (the most famous of whom was George Armstrong Custer) set about making war on these “troublemakers” with an enthusiasm that exceeded both the letter and the spirit of their orders, killing not only those warriors still strong enough to fight them but also dozens and scores and hundreds of women and children and elders, in village after village and encampment after encampment that presented no threat of any kind. “Sheridan’s campaigns” Wheelan triumphantly narrates, “had crushed the Southern Plains and made the region safe for settlers.” And: “With the Southern Plains quiet, Sheridan could now concentrate on pacifying the turbulent Northern Plains.”
Infamously, in this lopsided war between white land-grabbers and native inhabitants, there was one entirely innocent victim: the American buffalo. Since so many native tribes depended on the formerly enormous herds for sustenance, Sheridan focussed his attentions where they would do the most harm, as Wheelan explains:
Sheridan, Sherman, and Grant, and pragmatic, hard-eyed army officers like them had understood for years that the solution to the Plains Indian “problem” was extermination of the buffalo. Sheridan’s and Sherman’s prosecution of “total war” during the Civil War had taught them that destroying an enemy’s means of resupply and crushing his people’s fighting spirit were as important as defeating him militarily.
It’s hard to think of charitable readings for those scare-quotes on problem and total war – both seem eager to soften the edges of things that any kind of historical honesty should want to keep sharp and jagged – but in any case, genocide as a means of race-subjugation was prosecuted with all the wanton vigor of resurgent expansionism, and both aims were soon achieved: by end of the 19th Century, both the wild buffalo and the free American Indian were eliminated from the West. This was dark and bloody business, and it was long over by the time Wheelan started his book, but Sheridan’s hands were black with the blood of it all, and to put it mildly, Terrible Swift Sword isn’t nearly often enough ashamed of that fact. These days readers expect every man to be the hero of his own biography – an understandable enough human urge, but the truth is usually its first casualty.
At the end of his subject’s life, Wheelan writes, “Philip Sheridan, the consummate warrior who had never lost a battle, became an avuncular figure around Washington, D.C.” He tends to be an avuncular figure in this book as well, this diminutive fighter who lost, in fact, his expected share of battles during the Civil War and was a consummate warrior usually against badly outnumbered and starving opposing forces. Most of the facts of his remarkable life are presented with verve and clarity in Terrible Swift Sword – the reader must go carefully, but then, readers should always do that – but it seems clear that Wheelan’s more congenial task is still before him: a lovingly annotated new popular edition of those Personal Memoirs. DaCapo Press did a typically lovely job producing this book – they should consider producing that one too.