‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’: Sheridan, Irish-America and the Indians

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Volume 13

Sheridan gallops to Cedar Creek, Virginia, 19 October 1864, where his Union army has been attacked by Confederates in his absence, and reverses a near disaster. (West Point Museum)

Sheridan gallops to Cedar Creek, Virginia, 19 October 1864, where his Union army has been attacked by Confederates in his absence, and reverses a near disaster. (West Point Museum)

Before John F. Kennedy, arguably no Irish-American rose as high in American esteem as Philip Henry Sheridan, who became general-in-chief of the United States Army in 1883. In 1888, on his deathbed, Sheridan became only the fourth person to be promoted to the rank of General of the Army. When it is realised that the previous three were George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, three outstanding generals (two of them presidents), the regard in which Sheridan was held becomes obvious. Time has somewhat diminished the lustre of his career. While he is still regarded as a highly effective field commander, a focus on the plight of American Indians has damaged Sheridan’s reputation. From works like Dee Brown’s Bury my heart at Wounded Knee he emerges as a racist bigot and an employer of inhumane methods of war. These books in turn have inspired a series of popular revisionist films, starting with Soldier Blue in 1970 through to Dances with Wolves in 1990. Sheridan, the United States’ leading Western commander in the 1868–86 period, bears the blame for the cruel clearances of the tribes from traditional hunting-grounds.

Hate figure

The single most deadly charge against Sheridan is not that he was directly responsible for any particular death or massacre but that he coined the phrase ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’, attributed to him in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and cited by Brown as fact. This has created the Sheridan legend, turning him into a hate-figure like Himmler or Cromwell, ideologically committed to his grim task. Like many legends, this one has taken on a life of its own and will probably always be associated with Sheridan. In 1992 the County Cavan village of Killinkere, where Sheridan’s father had once (in the words of his son) ‘tilled a leasehold’, made a public apology to an American Indian for the shame of their town. For Killinkere read Ireland, for no protest was raised in any quarter at the apology.
Sheridan does not even receive a mention in Tim Pat Coogan’s panegyric on Irish emigrants and their descendants, Wherever green is worn. This is in marked contrast to the treatment of his older contemporary, Thomas Francis Meagher, a man with better credentials as an Irish patriot but with a less impressive Civil War record. This is a pity, for any reflective examination of Sheridan’s career brings to light more complex issues and some uncomfortable nuances for those who reject him out of hand.

Three turning-points in Sheridan’s career

Sheridan (centre) and his friends Lt George Crook (left) and Lt John Nugent (right) at the West Point graduation of 1852. His career at West Point was undistinguished except for a massive accumulation of demerits, mostly awarded for fighting. (West Point Museum)

Sheridan (centre) and his friends Lt George Crook (left) and Lt John Nugent (right) at the West Point graduation of 1852. His career at West Point was undistinguished except for a massive accumulation of demerits, mostly awarded for fighting. (West Point Museum)

There were three momentous occasions on which Sheridan’s career turned. The first was the move from his Ohio home to West Point military academy in 1850. From then to the end of his life he was to be a cadet or officer in the United States army. His career at West Point was undistinguished except for a massive accumulation of demerits, mostly awarded for fighting. His pugnacity led to suspension from the Academy for a full year. The son of a Roman Catholic emigrant was still a rough diamond among the more genteel sons of businessmen and gentry who attended West Point.
Sheridan’s early military experience was on the frontier, in the desultory ‘pacification’ of Indians on the Pacific coast and in Texas. In his memoirs he unsympathetically calls them ‘savages’. However, he also records with horror the murder of an Indian family by vengeful settlers. ‘The effect of this dastardly crime has never been effaced from my memory’, he wrote in his memoirs. Then came the second momentous event in his life—the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Serving mainly in the western theatre, his aggression and energy marked him out for rapid promotion. Starting as a captain, by 1863 he was a major-general and commander of a division. Finally, at the battle of Chattanooga (November 1863) Sheridan so distinguished himself that the new commanding general of the US Army, Ulysses S. Grant, made him commander of a corps (three divisions). He was only 32 years old.
Grant brought Sheridan to the Virginia theatre, giving him independent assignments that needed to be concluded rapidly and successfully. A prime example was the subjugation of the Shenandoah Valley region in the west of the state, an area long used by the Confederates as a conduit into the North. Later, in March 1865, it was Sheridan who led the offensive that broke General Robert E. Lee’s lines in front of Richmond, the Confederate capital. It was also Sheridan who drove the pursuit mercilessly until Lee surrendered at Appomattox courthouse in April 1865. Grant’s staff officer, Horace Porter, later sketched an eyewitness portrait of Sheridan at the height of his glory:

‘All this time, Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle.’

Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in summer 1864 was commemorated in this contemporary sketchbook. (Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland)

Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in summer 1864 was commemorated in this contemporary sketchbook. (Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland)

At the close of the war, Sheridan was sent south to lead an army observing French meddling in Mexico, and also to maintain order in the defeated state of Texas. As the commander of an occupying force, Sheridan got a cool reception from Texans, leading to his (well-authenticated) saying: ‘If I owned Hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell!’ Of more significance was his refusal to send troops to fight Indians, saying that he needed all his men to defend the freed slaves against terrorist outrages from former Confederates.

Commander of the Department of the West

Later, in 1867, Sheridan became commander of the Department of the Missouri, later expanded to become the Department of the West, with headquarters in Chicago. He remained commander of the department until 1883, when he became commanding general. This department extended westward to the western borders of Montana, Utah and New Mexico, and stretched from the Canadian line to the Mexican border. It therefore included almost all the territory later known as the ‘Old West’.
The extension of the railroad had made the west accessible to millions of immigrants and eastern Americans looking for land to farm. During the war Congress had passed the Homestead Act, promising 160 acres of government land to any who resided on their claim for five years. Sheridan’s task was to defend the settlers from Indian attack, to enforce punitive ‘treaties’ and sometimes to force Indians onto reservations. When he took command, a war with the Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa was already in progress. He energetically organised a winter campaign in 1868–9 that broke the Indians’ resistance. Winter, Sheridan discovered, was when the Indians were at their weakest. It cut their mobility and made them dependent on large villages for food and fodder. Destroy these villages and the Indians (and their families) were at the mercy of the soldiers. Winter warfare became Sheridan’s favoured strategy.

‘Reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace’

Sheridan with his staff in 1865, including his favourite, George Custer (right). (National Archives, Washington DC)

Sheridan with his staff in 1865, including his favourite, George Custer (right). (National Archives, Washington DC)

Sheridan had learned much from his mentors, Grant and William T. Sherman, who had radicalised the Civil War strategy of the North after 1863. Instead of piecemeal occupation, Grant had sent large bodies of troops (cavalry and infantry) through the South, destroying all stocks of provisions and all capability to make war. After defeating the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan’s soldiers cleared the region of livestock and burned barns and crops over a wide area. He had told his men, ‘The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war’. Grant and his generals argued that their strategy was humane because it did not involve loss of civilian life and it shortened wars that might otherwise last for years. ‘Reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life’, wrote Sheridan in his memoirs.
The strategy that brought the Civil War to a close was also employed against the hostile tribes of the plains. But the circumstances were somewhat different. The plains Indians lived more precarious lives than the whites of the South. Severe disruption of food supplies, particularly during the winter months, caused distress on a scale undreamt of in the southern states. Also, except in limited areas, the American Civil War did not feature the extremes of racial or ethnic ‘distancing’ between the sides that can expose civilians to the brutality of soldiers.
The Indians could scarcely have encountered a more implacable or ruthless foe than Sheridan. At the end of the Shenandoah campaign Sheridan had encountered partisan attacks from local raiders. A biographer, Philip Hutton, admitted that partisan warfare so infuriated Sheridan that ‘he punished innocent and guilty alike’ and that the experience ‘completely brutalised him’. The Indian method of warfare had much in common with partisan warfare. War for an Indian youth was his only profession, something Sheridan was often to point out. The fact that groups of young warriors could by their custom follow any enterprising chief was little understood by the white men. Nor could the white men understand the Indians’ custom of ritually torturing prisoners, particularly the bravest ones, to see how much pain they could endure. The Indians fought the whites to be left alone, to enjoy their ancestral lands, fight their own internecine wars and plunder other tribes or the white men.

Little Big Horn

Sheridan fought four major wars against the Indians, and engaged in many small campaigns with recalcitrant braves who escaped from the reservations. In only the first campaign did he take the field in person, afterwards entrusting field command to others like Ronald McKenzie, George Crook, Nelson Miles and, the most famous of all, George Armstrong Custer, a personal friend and wartime subordinate. The worst defeat was the notorious Little Big Horn disaster of 1877, when Custer and 277 men of the 7th Cavalry were wiped out by the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. This was indirectly Sheridan’s fault because, even after the Indians had beaten back his columns in the winter of 1876–7, he little suspected the powerful confederation that awaited Custer. Custer himself also bears a large measure of blame for dividing his force and leading one third of it into a trap.
By the time he became commanding general of the US Army in 1883, Sheridan could look back on a mission accomplished. The Indians had been beaten, less through defeat on the battlefield than through continuous harrying by Sheridan’s cavalry columns. Starvation and exhaustion, particularly of the Indians’ families, were the white man’s most effective weapons.

Racist and bigot?

Fort Sanders, Wyoming, 1868 — the only known photograph that includes Sheridan (extreme right), William T. Sherman (extreme left) and Ulysses S. Grant (centre, in white hat). (National Park Service, Golden Spike National Historic Site)

Fort Sanders, Wyoming, 1868 — the only known photograph that includes Sheridan (extreme right), William T. Sherman (extreme left) and Ulysses S. Grant (centre, in white hat). (National Park Service, Golden Spike National Historic Site)

What of Sheridan the racist and bigot? Sheridan was certainly not a bigot when it came to blacks, whose contribution to the success of the Union armies in the Civil War he admired. He was a tough upholder of the rights of the freed slaves during the Reconstruction period. The bigot accusation hinges to a great extent on the notorious remark ‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead’, honed (according to Dee Browne) into an American aphorism, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’. Sheridan is alleged to have made this remark, accompanied with ‘a quizzical smile’, to an Indian chief, Tosawi or Toch-a-way, in 1869 at Fort Cobb, Oklahoma. The chief approached him with the ingratiating introduction ‘Tosawi, good Indian’. A staff officer present, Charles Nordstrom, made the incident his favourite after-dinner story. Nordstrom is the sole witness to this incident, and his account only appeared in print in 1895 in a book by one Edward Ellis. By then Sheridan had been dead for seven years but the proverb had already become common currency.
In his lifetime, Sheridan always denied that the remark was made. His brother, Michael Sheridan, repeated the denial after his death in his revision of the general’s memoirs. Michael Sheridan ascribed the saying to ‘some fool friend’ during the war against the Piegan Blackfeet Indians of Montana in 1870, adding that Sheridan’s enemies in Washington had used it to blacken the general’s reputation. Research by Wolfgang Mieder has shown that this proverb originated in the late 1860s somewhere on the frontier.
In the US Congress, on 28 May 1868, Representative James Michael Cavenaugh of Montana told the House: ‘I will say I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian except when I have seen a dead Indian.’ Cavenaugh went on to give a hair-raising account of Indian atrocities against women and children. It may be that Cavenaugh is the ‘fool friend’ mentioned by Mike Sheridan. Proverbs or bon mots often get fathered onto a famous personage rather than a more obscure originator. It is possible that Nordstrom only began telling his story subsequent to the circulation of the ‘proverb’ in the army and the press.
During the Piegan war, an attack on an Indian camp in January 1870 killed 50 women and children. This led to an outcry against the Army and the Montana settlers who had advocated the war. No doubt such an alleged saying by one of America’s most distinguished generals brought a sense of justification to Montanans. Sheridan, as he was wont to do, conducted a strong defence of his officers and men on the spot. The saying in all likelihood had its origin on the Montana frontier and pre-dated Sheridan’s alleged sally at Fort Cobb, though no doubt what he said there was blunt and offensive. But Mike Sheridan probably got it right.
Cavenaugh was also Irish-American, a political associate of Thomas Francis Meagher who served as secretary and acting governor of Montana from 1865 until his death in 1867. Meagher also had his brushes with the Indians. In 1866 he conducted his own war against the Blackfeet Indians, who had killed some settlers. Meagher publicly opposed the ‘soft’ policy of the US government towards the Indians.
Never advocated indiscriminate slaughter or genocide
It is true that Sheridan in his most warlike rages would probably have agreed with the sentiments ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’, but he never advocated indiscriminate slaughter or genocide. Rather, Sheridan represented a new school of ‘hard war’ generals, a type that would become more common in the twentieth century. Like his mentors, Grant and Sherman, he believed war to be brutal coercion, and that is the way he approached all his campaigns. To him, Indians were like children who could be first bullied and then forcibly compelled to follow the white man’s way. His chief clerk recalled that his often-repeated maxim on Indians was ‘protection for the good, punishment for the bad’. It must be added that Sheridan failed to live up to this maxim. Punishment, as with the Confederate partisans, was often visited on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Indians alike.
In the main, Sheridan’s views on Indians were those of the ordinary citizen of the United States. Meagher and most Irish-Americans of his generation shared these opinions. We find these views objectionable today, but Sheridan was not their intellectual author. Many of Sheridan’s humanitarian critics shared the prevailing consensus—Indians should give up their way of life and settle down like white people, living if necessary on government hand-outs. To Sheridan fell the unpleasant task of enforcing this desideratum, and on him fell the brunt of the criticism when things went wrong. It is true that his critics were often right in their condemnation of the excessive brutality of his troopers, but their end goal was no different. If apologies are required, Sheridan should not be singled out, and apology should also be made for Thomas Francis Meagher, and others like Major Myles Keogh of Kilkenny, killed at the Little Big Horn (see p. 66, last issue).
Sheridan did have attractive traits. He could be convivial and courteous and he took care of his men. In his later years there are signs that he softened his attitudes towards Indians in the way that old soldiers mellow towards a defeated foe. He developed an interest in Indian culture and encouraged its study. Though he lived through one of the most corrupt periods in American history, Sheridan retained an engaging honesty. In the early Civil War years he was removed from his post of quartermaster by a general for refusing to buy stolen horses from the general’s friends. Despite his friendship with the élite of Chicago society, Sheridan did not die a rich man. He was shy of women even into middle age, but his later years were brightened by marriage to a woman many years his junior. They had four children. However, the slim young cavalryman had become overweight and corpulent, and he died of heart disease in 1888 at the age of only 57.
He shares the resting-place of John F. Kennedy—Arlington Cemetery, Washington DC, part of the former estate of his old foe, Robert E. Lee. Sheridan’s statue stands in one of Washington’s main squares, Sheridan Circle, almost adjacent to the Irish embassy. Some years ago Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times suggested the renaming of the square, perhaps another attempt to expunge Sheridan from the history of Irish-America. But the attempts to do so are foolish and set a very bad precedent. Sheridan was only the luckiest and most successful of the many Irish who joined professions like the police, the fire service or the armed forces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. No doubt many Irish-Americans drew inspiration from the success of ‘one of their own’, and his success cleared a space for others to advance into. Sheridan is at the heart of the Irish experience in nineteenth-century America. Like him or loathe him, admire him or despise him, he cannot be ignored.

Toby Joyce is an engineer with a strong interest in Ireland and the USA during the American Civil War period.

Further reading:

P.A. Hutton, Phil Sheridan and his army (Nebraska, 1985).

W. Meider, The politics of proverbs (Wisconsin, 1997).

P. Sheridan and M. Sheridan, Personal memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, General, US Army, vols I and II (New York, 1904).


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