On This Day – 6.3.1831 – Birth of General Philip Sheridan


Was the man who is supposed to have uttered the decidedly non PC comment ‘the only good Indian I ever saw was a dead Indian’ born in Killinkere, Co.Cavan, in mid-Atlantic on the emigrant boat to the Americas, or in the USA itself. No one knows exactly, but no one totally trusts Phillip Sheridan’s own version, which is that he was a 100% American, born in Albany, New York.

Sheridan while an immensely successful general was a man of small stature. Because he never exceeded five feet five inches in height he was known all his life as ‘Little Phil’, despite his military stature. Abraham Lincoln, who towered over Sheridan, once described him as “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

Sheridan first made a name for himself at Westpoint Military Academy where he was suspended for a year for fighting with a classmate whom he had threatened to run through with a bayonet. This type of behaviour was not encouraged by the authorities despite the fact that he was training for an occupation in which he would be required to kill people.

His reputation was greatly enhanced in the American civil war where before his first major promotion – to Brigadier General – he was described by his divisional commander as being ‘worth his weight in gold’ as a cavalry officer. Later his pursuit of Robert E.Lee’s army in the final campaign of the conflict, forced the southern commander to seek surrender terms and end the war.

Two years later Sheridan headed west to begin the work for which he would become famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view, defending the area between the Mississippi river and the Rocky Mountains from Native American nations like the Lakota and Cheyenne who had lived on the Great Plains for centuries before the arrival of the white man. His methods were utterly ruthless. Intent on corralling the Plains tribes in Federal reservations he encouraged white hunters to wipe out their main food supply, the buffalo.

He was also General George Armstrong Custer’s boss – not that Custer was much of a one for following orders if they got in the way of glorious triumphs like the murder of a peaceful Lakota settlement on the Washita River in 1968, a massacre that took place on Sheridan’s watch. Given Custer’s periodic unruliness Sheridan might not have been all that traumatised when his egotistical subordinate came to a bad end at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne in 1876 at the Little Big Horn.

Sheridan’s reward for his ruthless suppression of the various Indian insurgencies in the 1860s and 1870s was command of the entire US Army when he succeeded the legendary William Tecumseh Sherman in 1883

By the way – he may never actually have said ‘the only good Indian I ever saw was a dead Indian’. As a young man he is even reported to have had a child by a Native American woman with whom he had a lengthy relationship. But he probably did say something approximating the most memorable statement attributed to him. However, he always denied having uttered that telling phrase.

Philip Sheridan was born, in Cavan, on a trans-Atlantic passage to America, or in Albany, New York 184 years ago on this day