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He continued to make his mark during the following year, taking part in various combats, the greatest of which was the disastrous battle of Chickamauga, September 19 and 20. Here, through some mistake or some misunderstanding of orders, Sheridan's division became separated from the rest of the army, and had to fight alone against superior forces. Its resistance was vigorous, but in the end it was driven from the field.
There followed a series of brilliant events around Chattanooga, where Grant took command and in late November launched his whole army against that of General Bragg, strongly intrenched on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. In the movement against the latter Sheridan's division formed the centre of the column and in the final day's fight, that of the 25th, did work reflecting the highest honor on itself and its gallant leader.
Moving from the timber in which his lines had been formed, the men charged at double-quick across an open plain against the first Confederate line of rifle-pits, at the foot of the ridge. The work was so rapid and impulsie that the men were in the pits before any effective defence could be made and drove the defenders pellmell from their works, killing some, capturing many.
To take this line was all that Grant had intended and a messenger was on the way with instructions to that effect. But the victorious troops and their impulsive leader did not wait for orders. Already they were rushing up the five-hundred-feet hill, and in a few minutes had stormed and captured the second line of works, half-way up the slope. The daring fellows were not to be stopped by orders or by the storm of bullets that met them as they rushed with wild cheers
on upward, and we may be sure that Sheridan was not far behind the front.
Soon the crest of the hill was gained and they met its defenders in a desperate hand to hand conflict with a force and fury that nothing could withstand. The Confederates were forced from their guns and driven down the opposite slope, their pace accelerated by a shower of stones from Sheridan's men, who had no time to reload. Before the last of the charging column had reached the crest Bragg's men, utterly demoralized by their sudden defeat, were in hurried retreat, with their large wagon train, along the valley below.
Sheridan's conduct in this brilliant victory was fully appreciated by Grant. He saw that in the young Irish leader he had a man who could fight to win, and in the following year, when he was made the nation's commander-in-chief, Sheridan was one of the men he asked for. When, in March, 1864, he took command of the army of the Potomac, he told President Lincoln that he wanted the very best leader in the army. “How would Sheridan do?" asked Halleck, who was present. The very man I want,” said Grant. Sheridan was at once ordered north, and on April 4 he took command of the cavalry corps of the army of the Potomac, which he set himself at once to bring into the best fighting trim.
Work was soon cut out for him. On May 8, after having helped effectively in the battle of the Wilderness, Sheridan was ordered to break loose from the army, attack the cavalry of the enemy, cut his line of communications and supplies, and sweep around Lee's lines to Butler's position on the James River. This was work to Sheridan's heart and he accomplished it with his usual vim and promptitude. Dashing towards Richmond, he destroyed Lee's stores at Beaver Dam, recaptured four hundred Union prisoners on their way to Libby prison, destroyed miles of railroad and telegraph, and on the lith met Stuart at Yellow Tavern in the hottest cavalry fight of the war. Stuart, Lee's ablest cavalry commander, fell on the field and his men were driven back, while Sheridan crossed the Chickahominy and made a dash on the defences of Richmond. After having four cavalry fights in all, he went into camp on the James, where he gave his men a three days' rest. For more than two weeks Grant was saved from all annoyances by the cavalry of the enemy.
We cannot name all the combats in which Sheridan took part. His one failure was when he was sent to the Shenandoah Valley on June 6 to cut the Virginia Central Railroad and relieve General Hunter, then in a critical position far up the valley. This movement did not succeed and Hunter was soon after forced into a retreat to West Virginia, leaving the valley undefended. Lee took quick advantage of this state of affairs by despatching General Early on his famous movement, in which Maryland was invaded and Washington put in serious danger of capture. On July II Early was within view of the capital, which a little more energy might have put into his hands. But the rapid gathering of troops obliged him to retreat and he was soon in the valley again, which was dominated by his victorious troops.
Early's threatening attitude led Grant to send Sheridan to face him, a new division, named the Middle Military Division, being formed and put under Sheridan, who was given an army of thirty thousand men, eight thousand of whom were cavalry. Hunter's troops from West Virginia subsequently joined it, making a total force of forty-five thousand men, with twenty-two batteries of artillery. This was the force that afterwards became famous as the Army of the Shenandoah.
Sheridan took his time. He was feeling his way and getting acquainted with the situation. There were marching and countermarching and fights here and there of minor importance, but a month or more passed with no decisive action and the positions of the two armies remained with little change. Each of the generals had felt the other and found him too strong to attack. The country grew impatient. People were eager to see something done. Grant himself did not understand the reasons for delay and visited Sheridan, intending to propose a plan of operations. But when he saw the state of affairs and learned that Sheridan was only biding his time, waiting till he could take his adversary at a disadvantage, the shrewd commander concluded that his able subordinate did not need advice but was quite able to take care of himself. The time came in September. Early had been strongly posted on Fisher's Hill, two miles south of Strasburg. On September 14 General Anderson's force left him, under orders to join General Lee. Early further weakened his army by sending a large detachment to Martinsburg, his men being stretched out in a long line through Bunker Hill and Winchester.
This unwise weakening of his force gave Sheridan the opportunity he was awaiting. He took quick advantage of it, marched upon the Confederate army, flanked Early right and left, and, after a day's bloody conflict, defeated him so completely that, in Sheridan's telling phrase, he was sent "whirling through Winchester in defeat. Sheridan's loss in men was much the heavier, but he had won an important battle, taken two thousand prisoners, and captured five guns and nine battle-flags. Grant made up his mind, on hearing of that day's work, that it was not necessary to visit General Sheridan before giving him orders.” Early had accepted defeat in time to save his train and stores and fell back to the position he had left on Fisher's Hill. Sheridan had been severely punished, his total losses being nearly five thousand men, but on the day after the fight he was in pursuit again, and lost no time in striking Early in his strong post. General Crook was sent forward and, all day long, moved towards and along Little North Mountain, under cover of the woods. In this way he gained unseen the Confederates' flank and rear. Just before sunset he rushed upon them suddenly, and was over their intrenchments before they could recover from their surprise. The other divisions joined in with the charge. “Go on; don't stop; go on!” shouted Sheridan and his staff. Early's whole line broke and fled from the trenches and their stronghold was carried, with six guns and a thousand prisoners.
Early fled, with Sheridan hot upon his heels, the pursuit not ceasing until he had been driven out of the valley and into one of the gaps of the Blue Ridge, where reinforcements came to meet him. Sheridan's success was phenomenal. Go on,” said Grant, “and your work will cause the fall of Richmond.” The whole North was jubilant. Early's men were thoroughly disheartened. The mob at Richmond, disgusted at his defeat, labelled the fresh cannon sent him, To General Sheridan; Care of General Early."
Sheridan, his foe having got beyond reach, obeyed the orders sent him by devastating the valley so that