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?
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)
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;
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