Special Report

Union Colonel Phil Sheridan's Valiant Horse

A young war-horse helped Phil Sheridan win the day in the Shenandoah Valley and, made famous by a poem, helped Abraham Lincoln win re-election

In Thomas Read's painting, Sheridan and his steed race toward Cedar Creek. (National Portrait Gallery)
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Read bristled, "Do you suppose I can write a poem to order?" Nonetheless he shut himself in his study and, by noon, called for his wife to copy "Sheridan's Ride" out fair.

That night, Murdoch uncorked the verse that would gallop across a nation and through countless poetry collections for children yet unborn. To keep up suspense, at the end of each verse, Sheridan was closer to the battle: "Up from the South at break of day, / Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay, / The affrighted air with a shudder bore, / The terrible grumble and rumble and roar, / Telling the battle was on once more, / And Sheridan twenty miles away."

"Sheridan's Ride" was a timely sensation. The election of 1864 had been hanging in the balance. People were tired of the war. In Chicago, the "Peace" Democrats had put up George B. McClellan, hoping the onetime military figure with an aversion to battle would appeal to an electorate that also seemed to be sick of Abraham Lincoln.

Only Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah looked undimmed in Republican war politics. In August, Grant ordered Sheridan to smash Early's army and make sure the Shenandoah never harbored another rebel force. By early October, Sheridan had already whipped Early twice, and his forces were burning the valley's crops. "A crow," he reported, "would have had to carry its rations if it had flown across the valley."

But Early's masterful attack at Cedar Creek nearly unseated Sheridan — and with him, Lincoln. When Rienzi delivered Sheridan in the nick of time, the Republican Party was eternally grateful. Read made the debt explicit: "Here is the steed that saved the day / By carrying Sheridan into the fight / From Winchestergtwenty miles way!"

"Widely read and recited, the piece made a fine recruiting and electioneering appeal," according to Civil War historian Shelby Foote. On Election Day, Horace Greeley's influential New York Tribune called it "a magnificent lyric" and ran the seven stanzas of "Sheridan's Ride" on page one. It is impossible to know how many votes Read's verses delivered to Lincoln, but in New York, every vote was critical. Lincoln carried the state by fewer than 7,000 votes and Connecticut by 2,000.

Lincoln's re-election was safe, but the war still had five fearful months to run. Now Rienzi got fully "stretched out," as newspapers reprinted Read's poem. "The thing they seem to like best about it," said Sheridan, "is the horse." He graciously acknowledged his debt in a letter to Read. "Your genius has put us into the same boat for a long journey, and we must try and take along the black horse."

Read had yet to cash in on his poem; the newspapers, the Republicans and the platform elocutionists had helped themselves. Read felt that only a painted version of "Sheridan's Ride" by his hand would yield real return. In 1865 Sheridan, posted to New Orleans to keep a baleful eye on French moves in Mexico, agreed to pose with Rienzi.

Read spent a month in New Orleans doing preliminary sketches. Then he finished painting his self-proclaimed masterpiece in Italy. "There may be poets who would write a better poem than 'Sheridan's Ride,'" he wrote, "but could the same man paint a better picture? There may be painters who could produce a better picture, but could the same artist write a better poem?"

Read launched into plans to issue the painting as a color lithograph suitable for framing.


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