Sheridan, Hell and Texas

Earlier this week I referred in this thread to General Sheridan’s quip about Hell and Texas.  Here is the background story on Sheridan’s comparison of the Hot Place and the Hot State.

Phil Sheridan could be a nasty piece of work on duty.  A bantam Irish Catholic born in Albany, New York on March 6, 1831, to Irish immigrants, Sheridan carved a career in the Army by sheer hard work and a ferocious will to win.  He had a hard streak of ruthlessness that Confederates, Indians and the many officers he sacked for incompetence could attest to.    His quote, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” after he ordered the burning of crops in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 to deny them to Confederate troops indicated just how hard a man he could be when waging war.

Off duty he was completely different.  He had the traditional Irish gift of gab and in social settings was charming and friendly.

After the Civil War he commanded an army of 50,000 troops in Texas to send a none-too-subtle hint to the French who had used the opportunity of the Civil War to conquer Mexico that it was time for them to leave.  The French did, with the Austrian Archduke Maximillian they had installed as Emperor of Mexico dying bravely before a Mexican firing squad.  During his stay in Texas Sheridan made his famous quip about Texas.  It was swiftly reported in the newspapers:

14 April 1866, Wisconsin State Register, pg. 2, col. 3:
GEN. SHERIDAN, after his recent Mexican tour, states his opinion succinctly and forcibly, as follows: “If I owned h-ll and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place!”

“19 April 1866, The Independent, pg. 4:
But these states are not yet reduced to civil behavior. As an illustration, Gen. Sheridan sends word up from New Orleans, saying, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” This is the opinion of a department commander.”

“15 May 1866, Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman (Boise, ID), pg. 7?, col. 3:
GEN. SHERIDAN does not have a very exalted opinion of Texas as a place of resident. Said he lately, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place.” In former times, before Texas was “re-annexed,” Texas and the other place were made to stand as opposites. Thus, when Col. Crockett was beaten in his Congressional district, he said to those who defeated him, “You may go to hell, and I’ll go to Tex!” which he did, and found a grave.”

In later years Sheridan would often tell the tale at social gatherings.

“19 December 1883, Washington Post, pg. 2:
General Sheridan as a Story Teller.

“I saw an item in THE POST, several days ago,” said an Army officer yesterday, “concerning Gen. Sheridan’s desire to avoid notoriety, and also that only a few anecdotes could be related of his public life. The story was correct but not complete. The General frequently relates a story himself which I consider the most amusing concerning his military career. He told it the other evening at a private social gathering, about as follows: “In all my life, gentlemen, I will never forget my first visit to the State of Texas. I had been bumped over its sterile plains for a week in an ambulance. I was tired, dusty and worn out. When I reached my destination I found some people there who wanted me to talk and be received and all that sort of thing, before I had a chance to get the sand out of my eyes and ears. One fellow was persistent. He asked me with pure American curiosity what I though of Texas. In a moment of worry and annoyance I said if I owned hell and Texas, I would live in the former and rent out the latter. The fellow who asked me the question proved to be a reporter. The next day, what I had said was in print and I never could stop it.’ You may naturally believe,” added the officer to THE POST, “that the General’s story created considerable amusement. The General is a remarkably fine story teller.”

Here is an explanation and an apology for the remark that Sheridan made at a banquet for former President Grant in Galveston, Texas on March 24, 1880.  Sheridan never did have a high opinion for the ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate, so I think his version is probably accurate.

Sheridan married at 44.  His wife, Irene Rucker, was 22.  They had three daughters and one son.  In 1888 Sheridan began to have a series of heart attacks that culminated in his death on August 5, 1888.  Congress just before his death raised him to the rank of four star general.  His wife was only 35 at the time of his death and a great beauty.  She declined all offers of marriage stating “I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living.”  She died at 83 in 1936.

30 Responses to Sheridan, Hell and Texas

  1. Jay Anderson says:

    He had a hard streak of ruthlessness … His quote, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” after he ordered the burning of crops in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 to deny them to Confederate troops indicated just how hard a man he could be when waging war.

    In other words, Sheridan, like the rest of the “total warfare” marauders on Grant’s staff, was a war criminal. Maybe he’s “enjoying” the abode he so famously chose after all.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Well here we go on another refight of the Civil War. Couldn’t disagree with you more Jay. Burning the crops was a perfectly legitimate tactic of war. The Shenandoah Valley had served as the main supply source for Confederate forces in northern Virginia since the beginning of the War. Burning the crops vastly increased Lee’s supply woes and hastened the end of the War. As for the ultimate fate of Sheridan, if he went to Hell I am certain that there were quite a few Southern Fireeaters there to greet him for the part they played in starting a war in defense of slavery that the South was bound to lose.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I will be away from my computer at a Rotary District Conference until late on Saturday in the event that this thread explodes into the Second Civil War. When I return I will take up the cudgels for the Union Forever. 🙂

  4. Jay Anderson says:

    Don’t care to re-fight the war. Just pointing out that taking warfare to the civilian population – and I would assume the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley qualify as civilian population – violates Catholic teaching.

  5. Lone Star Man says:

    I was not born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. Before I lived her, I knew it would be hot, and plagued by mosquitoes. But between the heat, the mosquitoes and the hurricanes, I made a living out of it – just like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and others before me.

    I will admit, like any Texan, that it’s hot down here. It’s the plain and simple truth. But any Yankee who presumes to compare Texas with hell is full of it. That’s my humble opinion, sir.

  6. RL says:

    I’ve been critical of some of the destrection wrought by Sherman, but I’m not informed enough to criticize Sheridan. Based on the above exchange I would have to agree with Don about the destruction of crops. That tactic is as old as time, was just as critical in seige warfare as was breeching a wall, and was widespread in Christendom. I am unaware of any condemnations of the practice by the Church.

    On the other hand, Sherman’s men indescriminately and deliberately burning civilian homes is another story.

  7. Dale Price says:

    During the War, the U.S. developed what was called the “Lieber Code” to govern what was, and was not, acceptable military behavior.

    While harsher in many respects than we now allow, it did ban torture and “wanton” destruction of property. Significantly, it permits destruction of property if “commanded by the authorized officer.” Article 44. And despite the noble words of Article 56, the Union’s treatment of its Confederate prisoners was as bad as anything at Andersonville. Worse, really–the Union had the material means to provide better for its prisoners.

    Not so by the way, Lieber thought of himself as a compiler/harmonizer, not an innovator. Thus, his Code is a kind of declaration of the law of war as it had developed up until his time.

    Be that as it may, the actions of Sherman and Sheridan rendered the wounds of the nation that much slower to heal.

  8. Joe says:

    With 27 years in the Army, and service in 2 combat zones, I don’t claim to be a hard-core combat vet, but I’ve seen enough to provide an informed perspective. Spare the enemy’s civilian support at the expense of your own soldier’s life in combat. Spare one in exchange of the other. On which side of the equation can you tolerate more death? Sherman is quoted as saying “war is hell” and a more accurate description would be hard to come by. A commander has to make incredibly difficult decisions. As an officer, I had to figure out how to kill the enemy and spare enough of my own soldiers in a way that would still allow me to reach heaven. There were excesses in Sheridan’s campaigns and Sherman’s march to the sea, to be sure. When my time comes, I’ll find out how God judged them.

    And, since I live in Texas, I can say I like what Crockett said. To paraphrase… if you don’t like Texas, you can go to the other place… I like it here just fine!

  9. Jay Anderson says:

    From the Civil War Preservation Trust website:

    … [Grant] sent Philip Sheridan on a mission to make the Shenandoah Valley a “barren waste”.

    In September, Sheridan defeated Jubal Early’s smaller force at Third Winchester, and again at Fisher’s Hill. Then he began “The Burning” – destroying barns, mills, railroads, factories – destroying resources for which the Confederacy had a dire need. He made over 400 square miles of the Valley uninhabitable. “The Burning” foreshadowed William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea”: another campaign to deny resources to the Confederacy as well as bring the war home to its civilians.


    In an effort to force the Plains people onto reservations, Sheridan used the same tactics he used in the Shenandoah Valley: he attacked several tribes in their winter quarters, and he promoted the widespread slaughter of American bison, their primary source of food.

    (emphasis added)

  10. R.C. says:

    For a sin to condemn a man to hell, he has to know it’s a sin and embrace it anyway.

    When I learn from reliable historical sources that Sheridan, prior to burning crops, queried the Vatican website or opened his copy of the Catechism, found teachings there not to his liking, and ignored them, I will then assume that he willfully committed mortal sin in the burning.


    My point is not merely that earlier generations found it more difficult, for purely technological reasons, to reliably know Church teaching on difficult topics when they arose.

    It is also that earlier eras have tended towards sins other than those towards which we tend. For of course one possible rejoinder to my wise-acre remark above would be, “But it’s obvious that burning crops would be sinful!” To you, maybe. But not to every Christian who ever lived in every era.

    If earlier eras were often without mercy, then our era is often without chastity and courage and industry. We look at them and wonder how they could have sunk to the level of burning crops. They look at us and wonder how we could have sunk to the level of producing and maintaining a trillion-dollar pornography industry to help us fill the hours when we aren’t watching American Idol.

    Anyhow, I hope Sheridan is in heaven after a fitting, but not interminable, purgation. And I think that hope is not improbable.

  11. Jay Anderson says:

    I certainly don’t hope or condemn Sheridan to hell. Not my place, so to speak. My comment was a tongue-in-cheek play on Sheridan’s own desire to live in hell rather than in my home state.

    As to the rest of your comment, taking warfare to the populace was controversial even in Sheridan’s time, and, as the link I provided indicates, he did far more to take the war to the populace than merely burn some crops.

    Especially in the example of what he did with regard to the plains Indians. You’d think an Irishman might have qualms about taking an action that forces the starvation of whole peoples.

  12. T. Shaw says:

    Don’t mess with Texas.

    Here is a quote of General Sherman that provides timeless truth.

    “If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.”

    Point of information, Mr. Anderson: At any moment, the Confederacy and the Plains Indian could have enjoyed peace and freedom. About 80% of the (thousands of) Indian warriors that massacred Custer and his battalion of the Seventh Cavalry had jumped their reservations (eating guvmint beef) for one last spree.

    Lo, the noble savage! Each Plains tribe had a “calling card” they left on the bodies of their victims. The Sioux would cut the (Marine?) corpses’ throats. Another tribe would cut stripes in the victims’ thighs. The Army told Custer’s widow his body hadn’t been defiled – white lie. And, if they captured an enemy, slow torture to death was de rigeur. The male Plains Indian was a warrior and hunter. It was all he did. He was the finest light cavalryman the world had seen since the Mongols and just about as gentle.

    The quicker the generals destroyed the Confederacy’s/Plains Indians’ means of waging war, the fewer combatants would die.

  13. FUJI says:

    My favorite Sheridan quote is:

    “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

    It is certainly nice to know that the good general’s genocidal tendencies were not restricted to Southern Rebels.

    Defending such actions by stating that they shortened fighting after starting such fighting after initiating aggression and invasion . . . well, let’s just start excusing Hitler and Stalin and Mao, and their ilk. By engaging in ruthless conduct they were just attempting to break the spirit of their enemies and thus bring resistance and additional deaths to a quick end. Like Sheridan, I doubt if any of these men had access to the Vatican web site or had a through understanding of Church teachings so we need to likewise excuse their ruthlessness since it was merely a product of their respective eras.

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Of course Sheridan was not Stalin, Mao or Hitler and did not engage in the mass slaughter of civilians. Sheridan never said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That is a myth. If he had said it, the comment would have come as a vast surprise to his good friend General Ely Parker, a Seneca.

  15. Centinel says:

    In the 1640’s, Oliver Cromwell treated Ireland in the same brutal way that Sheridan would treat his enemies. If Sheridan had some Irish blood in him, he ought to know better.

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Unlike Cromwell Sheridan did not engage in the mass execution of civilians, especially Catholic priests, nor did he exile the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley to West Virginia and resettle the land with loyal Unionists. Sheridan was 100% Irish, his parents both being immigrants from the land of Saints and Scholars.

  17. Centinel says:

    The end does not justify the means. Cromwell thought his political/military goals were more important than human life. He did not care too much about the deaths he caused, because they were of a different religion, race or nationality than his own. In this regard, Cromwell and Sheridan are not too far apart from each other.

  18. Donald R. McClarey says:

    They are miles apart Centinel, as Cromwell’s actions at Wexford and Drogheda amply demonstrate and his policy of Hell or Connaught in expelling the native Irish to the west of Ireland, and if you don’t know that you truly don’t know either Old Ironsides of Little Phil.

  19. Tito Edwards says:

    Cromwell’s actions alone were a signal of the atrocities that were going to be committed in the French Revolution.

    He was ruthless, heartless, and amoral.

    Comparing him to Sheridan is character assassination of the worst order.

  20. Centinel says:

    Sheridan burned the Shenandoah Valley to the ground and promoted the massacre of buffalo to starve the Indians. He caused the deaths of many people. He thought he was doing the right thing. His actions are unjustifiable.

  21. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Wrong again Centinel. Sheridan burned the crops of the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 in order to starve Lee’s army. He gave his troops specific instructions that the farm families were to be left sufficient food for personal use to get them through until the next harvest. Personal dwellings were not to be touched.

    In regard to the Indians, Sheridan applied the buffalo slaughter strategy to tribes that were at war with the US in order to have them go to reservations where they could have food. It worked very well at bringing the wars to a rapid close. The idea of course that a policy could have been adopted at the time that would have left the plains Indians free to roam the plains following Buffalo herds may appeal to people sitting at their computers in th 21rst century, but in the Nineteenth Century in the 1860s and 1870s that simply was not going to occur.

  22. Centinel says:

    My pro-life values compel compel me to condemn warfare as Sheridan waged it. Sometimes a soldier must kill people, but the use of force must be:

    1. no more than necessary to achieve legitimate goals, and
    2. proportional to the evil that is being remedied or avoided.

    Once again, the end does not justify the means. Human life does not become expendable, merely because of one’s political/military goals. If one’s political/military goals conflict with innocent human life, one must give way to the other.

    I invite you to take a look at the map and see how big the Shenandoah Valley is. If Sheridan indeed left enough food for the farmers, that contradicts his boast of turning the Valley into a barren wasteland that a crow flying from one end to the other would need to bring its own provisions. That’s roughly 180 miles.

    Most of the time, the only justifiable wars are wars of self-defense and defense of others. Some of the Indian Wars may have been for self-defense, but the killing of civilians is seldom if ever justifiable.

  23. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Once again, the end does not justify the means.”

    Usually said by someone who supports neither the means nor the end. I believe that the means taken by Sheridan in both the Civil War and the Indian wars were completely justifiable. I have no difficulty at all in distinguishing between abortion and denying sustenance to enemy forces.

  24. FUJI says:

    Of course Sheridan was not Stalin, Mao or Hitler and did not engage in the mass slaughter of civilians. Sheridan never said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That is a myth. If he had said it, the comment would have come as a vast surprise to his good friend General Ely Parker, a Seneca

    Depends on what you consider a “mass slaughter” of civilians. It may not have been a mass slaughter to you but to those on the receiving end of the slaughter the number of others (Indians and Southerners) that died with them means very little.

    Secondly, you can deny what he said all you like but Sheridan did state that the only good Indians he knew were dead ones. He may have not used those exact words attributed to him but the ones he did use had the same meaning. Another example is Charlie Wilson and the quote “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA>” He never said that exact phrase but he said “[w]hat is good for the USA is good for General Motors and vise versa”, and this for all intents and purposes is the meaning of the quote attributed to him.

    Finally, I can’t believe you used the “some of his best friends were Indians” defense.

  25. T. Shaw says:

    Compared to the attrocites the “Saxon” committed against Irish Catholics (from say 1560 to 1922), Sheridan and all the Indian fighters were gentler than “Mother Teresa.”

    The source quote, by an unnamed US Cavalry officer, was in general response to Eastern papers’ “lo the noble savage” tripe. He said, “The only good Indian I ever saw was dead.”

    The Saxon was far gentler to the Irish Catholic than the Democratic party is to 47,000,000 unborn babies they exterminate.

    Vilifying General Sheridan won’t get you into Heaven if you vote Democratic.

  26. Dale Price says:

    “Finally, I can’t believe you used the ‘some of his best friends were Indians’ defense.”

    *I* can’t believe anyone tried to compare Sheridan to Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Supporters of the lost cause should avoid the same victim-speak, hyperbole and morally-incoherent rhetoric deployed at public university ethnic studies departments. Sheridan’s conduct can be condemned on its own terms without resort to bankrupt analogies. Using such trivializes 20th century butchery and obscures what actually happened.

  27. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Finally, I can’t believe you used the “some of his best friends were Indians” defense.”

    The mythic statement applied to Sheridan to the effect that the only good indian was a dead indian is refuted by Sheridan’s friendship with Parker, who, I might add, was Commissioner for Indian Affairs from 1869-1871 while Sheridan was in command in the West.

    Before commenting on historical figures and controversies it does help to have some basic knowledge about the individuals involved in them.

  28. Centinel says:

    Nice try, fellas. The name of this blog is The American Catholic, but your position is not representative of the entire American Catholic population. I can count one regular and one guest contributor who have spoken up on this thread and they’re both pro-Sheridan.

  29. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Zounds, now he tells us! I always assumed that every position we take, even when contributors disagree vehemently with each other, was representative of all Catholics in the US. Thanks for straightening that out Centinel!

  30. Centinel says:

    For that matter, the online calendar on this blog makes Monday look like the first day of the week. You Catholics should know better.

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