How ‘Irish’ was Phil Sheridan?

I have had the good fortune to speak about the Irish in the American Civil War in many different parts of Ireland. When it comes to question-time, there is one topic that is almost always guaranteed to come up- General Phil Sheridan. This is unsurprising given his leading role as one of the key players in the conflict. Questions usually revolve around where Little Phil was born, but are there more interesting aspects of Sheridan’s ‘Irishness’ to explore?

Lieutenant-General Phil Sheridan (Library of Congress)

Lieutenant-General Phil Sheridan (Library of Congress)

There has been much debate about Sheridan’s birthplace, with historians divided over the issue. Sheridan himself claimed to have been born in Albany, while others have placed his birthplace at the family residence of Killenkere, Co. Cavan, or aboard the boat that took the Sheridan family to the United States. It seems unlikely that this question will ever be definitively answered. However, I think a focus on the nativity of Sheridan masks a more interesting question- how ‘Irish’ did he consider himself to be?

Regardless of Phil Sheridan’s birthplace, he was undoubtedly of Irish stock. But how much did he associate with the country of his family’s emigration, and what were his thoughts about Ireland and Irish-America? The majority of biographies I have read on Sheridan fail to address this question or to examine his place in Irish-America. Undoubtedly the loss of some of Sheridan’s personal papers in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire has hindered opportunities to examine this aspect of Sheridan’s life, but it does appear that Phil Sheridan regarded himself (and wanted to be regarded) as unambiguously American. This was in an era when many Irish-Americans had no difficulty in expressing a dual allegiance both to the cause of the United States and Ireland, even when they had been born in America. Examples of this include New York born James A. Mulligan, who led ‘Mulligan’s Irish Brigade’, and Peter Welsh of the 28th Massachusetts, who although born on Prince Edward Island imbued his letters with such a sense of ‘Irishness’ that he is sometimes erroneously referred to as Irish-born.

Phil Sheridan appears to have had little interest in portraying himself as an Irish-American. There may have been many reasons for this, such as an attempt to avoid nativist prejudice, or the lack of a political need to identify closely with the Irish community (as he was a career soldier rather than a politician). In his Personal Memoirs, published in 1888, he deals with his Irish ancestry in a single paragraph and elects not to make significant further reference to his ‘Irishness’. This is despite the fact that it must have been a feature of his childhood- for example he was taught by ‘an old time Irish master’ in his village school in Ohio. In later life, Sheridan visited Europe in 1870-1, where he observed the Franco-Prussian war before taking an opportunity to visit England, Scotland and, for the first time, Ireland. His description of his time in the land of his ancestry is dealt with in his memoirs with a single sentence: ‘My journeys through these countries [England, Ireland and Scotland] were full of pleasure and instruction, but as nothing I saw or did was markedly different from what has been so often described by others, I will save the reader this part of my experience.’ (1)

When Sheridan was in Ireland in 1871 he carried out an interview with a Dublin based correspondent of the New York Herald. Sheridan, who was staying in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, was asked about Ireland:

Correspondent: This, I presume, is your first visit to Ireland?

General: My first visit.

And before I could ask another question the General, turning to the window, which looked out on Stephen’s Green,- reputed to be the largest square in the word- said, “What a beautiful country.” And I must say, that in my heart I fully endorsed his words. The Green, at this season, looks peculiarly beautiful. It is encircled with a row of hawthorns, and interspersed with chestnuts, and as both at this time are putting on their coat of green, and bursting into red and white blossoms, its appearance was most striking and beautiful.

Correspondent: Ireland, General, I believe, is the land of your forefathers?

General: It is; but my family emigrated so long ago that I am unable to say whether it belonged to the north or south. It strikes me it came from Westmeath.

Correspondent: That is almost in the centre, General, and, although there is great poverty in that district, a magnificent county it is.

…Correspondent: Have you seen much of Ireland?

General: Well, yes, a good deal. I have been to Punchestown, and got a good wetting. Both days were fearfully wet. This is a damp climate, I think, and I see that it is raining to-day also. Then, I’ve been to the north of Ireland for a short time, which appears to me the most nourishing part of the country.

Correspondent: Belfast is a fine city.

General: A flourishing city; there’s wealth there, and I was greatly pleased with it. It reminded me of an American city. The people are very active, steady and industrious, and I’m sure they’ll make great progress. On the whole, I formed a very favorable impression of Ireland and the Irish people. (2)

The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, c.1900. Sheridan stayed in one of the rooms facing Stephen's Green during his visit. Ulysses S. Grant also stayed here on his visit to Ireland (Library of Congress)

The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, c.1900. Sheridan stayed in one of the rooms facing Stephen’s Green during his visit. Ulysses S. Grant also stayed here on his trip to Ireland (Library of Congress)

It seems almost unbelievable that Sheridan would have been unaware when he gave this interview that his parents were from Cavan rather than Westmeath. If the correspondent reported the dialogue correctly, it suggests that Sheridan at this stage of his life was either ignorant of the particulars of his family heritage, or wanted to downplay any significance that heritage had for him to an American audience. While in the Shelbourne, Sheridan was also approached by a delegation of Irish nationalists who wished to meet with him. He refused, on the basis that he felt that he was on semi-official business for the United States and such a meeting could be misconstrued. The refusal was met among the Fenian movement in America with anger and they sought a meeting with Sheridan upon his return to the United States. The General reassured them that no slight had been intended and that he was sympathetic to the Fenian cause. Although willing to voice his general support, Sheridan clearly had no intention of becoming closely identified with the nationalist movement. (3)

Phil Sheridan is a fascinating individual and his interaction with his Irish heritage is a subject worthy of attention. He steered clear of overt declarations or actions that could have been construed as associating him too strongly with the Irish-American community; this is in stark contrast to the actions of many other leading figures of Irish ancestry in the United States. His priority was to first and foremost be seen as an American. What are your thoughts on Sheridan and his ‘Irishness’? I would be keen to hear from readers- are you aware of any sources that shed further light on Sheridan or his family’s interactions with the Irish-American community?

(1) Sheridan 1888, Vol.1: 1, Sheridan 1888, Vo. 2: 452-3; (2) New York Herald 12th May 1871; (3) Ibid.; New York Irish-American 20th May 1871;

References

Sheridan, Philip, 1888. Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan. General United States Army. Volume 1

Sheridan, Philip, 1888. Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan. General United States Army. Volume 2

New York Herald 12th May 1871. Gen. Sheridan’s Visit to Ireland

New York Irish-American 20th May 1871. “Phil Sheridan” in Ireland

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Cavan, Discussion and Debate

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

Follow Irish in the American Civil War

Follow Irish in the American Civil War via Social Media

12 Comments on “How ‘Irish’ was Phil Sheridan?”

  1. January 5, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    There is a great equestrian statue of him in Albany that I see on lobbying visits. Like most such monuments, everyone passes by without knowing who the man on horseback is.

    It is surprising how few references there are to Sheridan’s Irishness. I think it highly likely that he was born in the U.S. He may have underplayed his Irishness because he had ambitions to be president.

    • January 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Patrick,

      I agree I think it is most likely he was born in the U.S. as well. The potential that he underplayed it in case of a Presidential bid are there, although he did not express a huge political interest through much of his career (not that that means much!). I think he did underplay it in case it proved a disadvantage to him though, possibly for a number of different reasons.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. peter patten
    January 5, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Curious how he would say Westmeath, not exactly a name that would first come to mind when asking an American to name an Irish county. The usual name that pops up when asking an Irish American who doesnt know where his people came from is “Cork”, either as a port of departure or as one of the few Irish counties he can name.

    • January 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

      Very true Peter. I often wonder what his immediate family were like and how ‘Irish’ or not they were, you would imagine that had a big influence on him. As Patrick says there might have been a difference if he had grown up in Albany as opposed to rural Ohio. I actually find it the most fascinating aspect of Sheridan- I think he was always quite cautious about what public face he put on his Irishness, with different levels for different audiences. I would love to know what his actual thoughts were!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. peter patten
    January 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    ….and Westmeath and Cavan do abut one another. We had folks in our area who originated along the “Kings” and “Queens” borders and it did get murky. It is only nine miles from Killinkere to the Meath border. Perhaps he identified with a grandparent from that side of the line.

  4. pycarecen
    January 5, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    Peter, I work with a lot of children of immigrants and they often have very vague ideas of where their parents came from, how they came, or even why. Some children of immigrants see “the old country” as a place they’ve never been to and a place they’ll never go. I would not say that this is a majority position, but it is not unheard of.

    Had he grown up in Albany, with its strong Irish community, he would likely have been better tied to his roots. But he was raised in a small Ohio backwater.

  5. January 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    I think your comment that Sheridan wanted to be seen as an American not an Irishman points to his aversion to being seen as ‘Other.’ I wonder if this aversion was not also deep seeded and fueled his hatred for the American Indians. Post Civil War he was assigned the Indian problem. His mandate to the officers was to kill them all. And, as for the Fenians, they had lost any political support by 1871 after their last disastrous attempt to invade Canada in’70. He would certainly want to distance himself from that cause.

    • January 13, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      He was extremely ruthless in dealing with the Native Americans, there is no doubt. Men like Sherman and Sheridan were willing to bring the methodologies with which they had prosecuted the Civil War to the west, with horrific results for the Native Americans. I think Sheridan was very eager to be seen first and foremost as American and didn’t want his Irish heritage to interfere too much with that, although I would love to gain an insight into his non-public face when it came to his Irishness (and that of his family).

  6. Jarlath MacNamara
    February 17, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    When General Sheridan died on August 5th 1888 , his body was interred in Arlington Cemetery . The Bandleader P S Gilmore held a memorial concert for Sheridan in Manhattan Beach on August 11th – “seats free to all with none reserved ” The average attendance for this event in 1888 would have been 25,000 . . The 8 pieces played in order were as follows
    1. Dead March in Saul – Handel
    2. Aria , I know my redeemer liveth – Handel
    3. Grand Sacred Aria . Deaths at the door – Gilmore
    4. March Funerbe from Gotterdamnrung – Wagner
    5. Angels ever bright and fair – Handel
    6. Peace to the memory of the Brave – William Vincent Wallace
    7. Nearer to my God to thee – Mason
    8. Rest Spirit Rest – Rooke
    At the close of the Memorial Concert , minute guns were fired according to military program for the burial of a General of the Army
    Of 3 key Generals of the Union Army during the Civil War , ie Grant , Sherman and Sheridan , Gilmore led the funeral Cortege of both Grant and Sherman to their final resting place . And so this memorial Service is was symbolic . The inclusion of Wallace { from Waterford } as an Irish Composer in the service should be also noted .

    • February 26, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      Hi Jarlath,

      Thanks for this detail- yet another huge historical event that P.S. Gilmore was at the heart of!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  7. LongIslandMichael
    June 9, 2014 at 3:46 am #

    What is interesting about Sheridan is that during his Second Class Year at West Point he was suspended for one year due to fighting with a classmate, William R. Terrill. The previous day, Sheridan had threatened to run him through with a bayonet in reaction to a perceived insult on the parade ground about Sheridan being Irish & Catholic. He graduated in 1853, 34th in his class of 52 cadets. So maybe in his early years he may have been quite defensive about being Irish only to mellow about it as time passed.

    • June 9, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Hi Michael,

      That is a very interesting point, you might be right with regard to that- it might also have made him more guarded about highlighting that aspect of his background. Certainly something worth looking into a little more.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,534 other followers

%d bloggers like this: