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Sacagawea
Santa Anna, Antonio López de
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Sherman, William Tecumseh
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Wovoka
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Photo of Philip Henry SheridanPhilip Henry Sheridan

(1831-1888)

A ruthless warrior, General Philip Sheridan played a decisive role in the army's long campaign against the native peoples of the plains, forcing them onto reservations with the tactics of total war.

Sheridan was born in Albany, New York, in 1831, but grew up in Ohio. He attended West Point and, after a year's suspension for assaulting a fellow cadet with a bayonet, graduated near the bottom of his class in 1853.

Like all the U.S. generals of the Indian wars, Sheridan gained his military experience in the Civil War. An obscure lieutenant serving in Oregon when Fort Sumter was shelled, Sheridan rose to the command of the Union's cavalry by the time the Confederacy surrendered. He saw action in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and in Virginia, where his campaign through the Shenandoah Valley laid waste to an important source of Confederate supplies. At Petersburg he won an important victory that halted Robert E. Lee's retreat from Richmond and helped bring the war to an end.

After the war, Sheridan was first given command over Texas and Louisiana, where his support for Mexican Republicans helped speed the collapse of Maximillian's regime and where his harsh treatment of former Confederates led to charges of "absolute tyranny." Within six months he was transferred to the Department of the Missouri, where he immediately shaped a battle plan to crush Indian resistance on the southern plains.

Following the tactics he had employed in Virginia, Sheridan sought to strike directly at the material basis of the Plains Indian nations. He believed -- correctly, it turned out -- that attacking the Indians' in their encampments during the winter would give him the element of surprise and take advantage of the scarce forage available for Indian mounts. He was unconcerned about the likelihood of high casualties among noncombatants, once remarking that "If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack."

The first demonstration of this strategy came in 1868, when three columns of troops under Sheridan's command converged on what is now northwestern Oklahoma to force the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne onto their reservations. The key engagement in this successful campaign was George Armstrong Custer's surprise attack on Black Kettle's encampment along the Washita River, an attack that came at dawn after a forced march through a snowstorm. Many historians now regard this victory as a massacre, since Black Kettle was a peaceful chief whose encampment was on reservation soil, but for Sheridan the attack served its purpose, helping to persuade other bands to give up their traditional way of life and move onto the reservations.

In 1869, Sheridan succeeded William Tecumseh Sherman as commander of the Division of the Missouri, which encompassed the entire plains region from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. With Sherman, he refined his tactics -- massive force directed in surprise attacks against Indian encampments -- to mount successful campaigns against the tribes of the southern plains in 1874-1875, and against those of the northern plains in 1876-1877. Where some of his generals in these campaigns, such as Nelson A. Miles, occasionally expressed a soldierly respect for the Indians they were fighting, Sheridan was notorious for his supposed declaration that "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead" -- an attribution he steadfastly denied.

Sheridan became commanding general of the United States Army in 1884 and held that post until his death in 1888.


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