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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But he did not have long to enjoy his profits. Heading home in 1872, a cold he caught on the Liverpool docks turned to pneumonia at sea. In New York a week later, he died at age 50.

Rienzi was next, although by then Sheridan had officially renamed him Winchester. He had carried the general to Appomatox Court House, there to wait outside, nervously twitching his tail as always, while, as Sheridan looked on, Lee and Grant brought the Civil War to a close.

When the old war-horse died in 1878, he was stuffed (or "mounted" as taxidermists insist) and presented to the military museum on Governor's Island in New York Harbor.

Ten years later, Sheridan, too, was dead, at 57. He was only 33 at Cedar Creek, and a long Army career took him from enforcing Reconstruction in the South to observing the Franco-Prussian War to fighting the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. He wound up in 1888 as Commander in Chief of the Army.

Adverse critical reaction to "Sheridan's Ride" eventually set in. Picky historians kept pointing out that Sheridan's route from Winchester to Cedar Creek was more like 12 miles than Read's 20. They claimed that Sheridan couldn't have ridden hell-for-leather along a road choked with a defeated army. But the ride was for real, and Rienzi/Winchester was no fake.

When a fire damaged the Governor's Island museum in 1922, an unharmed Winchester was given an Army escort as far as the Smithsonian in Washington. At the New York farewell ceremony, the 22nd Infantry Band played Civil War melodies. Bertram Isaacs, the grandson of a Grand Army of the Republic dignitary, recited "Sheridan's Ride." Then the old veterans stood up and gave Winchester a rousing cheer. The day was bright again before their eyes: "Hurrah for Sheridan! / Hurrah, hurrah, for horse and man!"

By John Fleischman


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