Friday, August 21, 2015

Little Phil

Sheridan in his Civil War prime
History is full of great people who did wonderful things but were flawed in other ways. I sometimes wonder how Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, etc would fair in today's hyper critical sound bite world. The Founding Fathers kicked the slavery issue down the road, Lincoln was called a tyrant by half the country, FDR ordered internment camps for the Japanese-Americans. Imagine if they had Twitter or cable news then. Those were different times we always say. Future generations will no doubt say the same thing about us.

I never know what to think of guys like General Philip Henry Sheridan.  He certainly isn't a Jefferson or FDR but he was a major figure in preserving the Union during the Civil War which also ended the institution of slavery. That in itself is a noble thing. But he isn't really remembered for that so much. With the Union intact, the US looked again to the West. Sheridan and his peers resumed American expansionism with the exploitation and near genocide of the indigenous people of America. He is mostly remembered for an infamous (mis)quote "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Sheridan Monument in Somerset OH
March 6th 1831 is considered to be Philip Henry Sheridan's birthday and I meant to post something on that day. 2015 is also the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. I had thought Sheridan was born in Ohio which is why I decided to write up something about him. In history even the simplest things can be quite murky.

It turns out Sheridan, who earned his "Little Phil" nickname from a his 5'5" stature, either didn't know where he was born or lied about it because he had early Presidential aspirations. He is on the record as saying Somerset OH at one point, Albany NY another time, and even Massachusetts. In all likelihood he was born in Ireland or possibly on the ship from Ireland to the US. The dates of his parents immigration seem to suggest this. The city of Somerset OH claimed him as early as 1888 and erected a statue of him in 1905. The memorial is the only Civil War equestrian statue in Ohio. His Mother is also on Team Somerset, but said his birth certificate was burned in a fire. Convenient. We do know he spent his early childhood there. For the record, Albany NY claims him as well. For more on all this check out this link with telegrams and articles from February 1888.

During the Plains Indian Wars in the last half of the 19th century they had a tough time determining a friendly or a "good" Indian vs a hostile or "bad" Indian. Some "good" Indians assisted Americans soldiers as scouts and provided intelligence on other Indians. It got complicated. Some bands or individuals within the same tribes had differing allegiances. To most Americans on the Plains, there was no distinction. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

The original "dead Indian" story has Comanche Chief Tosahwi identifying himself to Sheridan in 1869 at Fort Cobb in present day Oklahoma as a "good" Indian meaning he was cooperative and not hostile to US goals. Sheridan supposedly replied  "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Sheridan denies he ever said such a thing.

Post Civil War diplomacy in the 1860s and 1870s seemed to be shoot first and...who the hell cares about asking any questions, just shoot! Entire villages, women and children too, could be easily mowed down by the new automatic Hotchkiss guns. Keep in mind, many whites at that time considered Indians as an inferior savage race. Even good old George Washington stated  a hundred years prior “Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape". Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" tells the 1867 account of Colonel Maynadier and a local "good" Indian named Spotted Tail. He was shocked to see Spotted Tail cry upon hearing the news of his daughters death. The Colonel was raised to believe Indians didn't really have human emotions like whites.

Little Big Phil Sheridan in 1876
Several witnesses claim Sheridan did made his remark in some form. If true, given the climate of the time, I'm not sure why he would deny it. Some have argued that the "dead Indian" statement was a message of regret and not an insult. Supposedly opponents of the General changed it to the infamous quote to smear Phil politically. I don't know about that. While not as catchy as the dead Indian statement, he is known to have said, "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." In essence, "kill em all, let God sort em out."
So, if he denied the quote why wasn't he taking credit and bragging rights? Or for that matter, if it was a statement of regret, why not just say that? No one seems to know. The General died in August 1888 from heart failure at the age of 57. Ironic, right?  If he ever wrote about it we'll never know. His personal papers were burned in the 1871 Chicago Fire. I assume this was the same fire that destroyed his birth certificate.
I suppose it makes no difference if he said it or not. While the quote is apocryphal it certainly embodied the spirit of his attitude and the general American outlook in the late 19th century. At the end of the day, even though his name and image adorn towns, counties, tanks, mountains, stamps and old bank notes, the "quote" will always be his legacy.
Happy late belated birthday. I guess.

other sources:
Philip Henry Sheridan at PBS.org
Philip Sheridan at History.com
Colonial Williamsburg - The Indian War

Collection of 1888 articles & telegrams claiming and disputing Sheridans birthplace