New York in History and Anecdote
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Sheridan’s Ride

Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square is not named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The Rivals. The statue of General Philip Sheridan, for whom the square is named, is around the corner in Christopher Park. And the only nearby battle was the Stonewall Riot at 53 Christopher Street in June 1969. Sheridan’s statue, erected in 1936, is so poorly executed one might not know the subject without his name on the plinth. The sculptor was one of those of whom Hilaire Belloc observed, “We dream in fire and work in clay, and some of us puddle in butter with our toes.”

One can forgive bad public art if it is bad on a truly grand scale—the kind of stuff that Peter Fleming describes so well in Brazilian Adventure: “Victory has got a half Nelson on Liberty from behind. Liberty is giving away about half a ton, and also carrying weight in the shape of a dying President and a brace of cherubs. (One of the cherubs is doing a cartwheel on the dying President’s head, while the other, scarcely less considerate, attempts to pull his trousers off.) Meanwhile an unclothed male figure, probably symbolical, unquestionably winged, and carrying in one hand a model railway, is in the very act of delivering a running kick at the two struggling ladies, from whose drapery on the opposite side an eagle is escaping, apparently unnoticed. Around the feet of these gigantic principals all is bustle and confusion. Cavalry are charging, aboriginals are being emancipated, and liners launched. Farmers, liberators, nuns, firemen, and a poet pick their way with benign insouciance over a subsoil thickly carpeted with corpses, cannon balls, and scrolls.”

The works of Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) are—sadly—a cut above this. Her genius was for small, subtle, vivid animal sculptures, and she is not forgotten: the National Museum of Women in the Arts sells a reproduction of her Yawning Jaguar in genuine hydrostone for $99.99 online, shipping and handling extra. Huntington’s large sculptures combine her superb technique with overblown romantic bombast. She studied with Gutzon Borglum, whose megalomaniacal later works include Mount Rushmore and the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain, Georgia. (Borglum began what became the world’s largest bas-relief, three acres of Lee, Jackson, and Davis on horseback, all at least nine stories high.)

In 1923, Anna Hyatt married Archer Milton Huntington, who bankrolled the Hispanic Society of America. Understandably, then, her flamboyant El Cid Campeador dominates the society’s forecourt at Audubon Terrace, between 155th and 156th Streets. An admirer wrote, “The Cid gloriously bestrides his mount, he carries himself with exactly the flourish that is associated with his legend, and from the tips of his feet to the hand clenching the staff of his flaunting banner he is magnificently alive.” Mrs. Huntington added four statues of seated warriors about the base, surrounded by heraldic lions, stags, does, bears, jaguars, vultures, and wild boar, and then, energies unquenched, designed the bases of two nearby flagpoles, carved with “muscular men and frantic horses entangled in desperate struggle, kneeling monks and churchmen, and statuettes symbolic of the arts.” On the rear walls of the forecourt are equestrian bas-reliefs of Don Quixote and of Boabdil, Granada’s last Muslim king, who has reined up to turn and gaze at his lost city. On its base is engraved a verse by Mr. Huntington:

He wore the cloak of grandeur. It was bright
With stolen promises and colours thin,
But now and then the wind—the wind of night
Raised it and showed the broken thing within.

Mrs. Huntington’s genius sometimes overwhelms. Yet if she had sculpted Sheridan’s statue in Christopher Park, we would recognize the subject. He is better represented in the bravura statue by Borglum at Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd and R Streets in Washington: having pulled up his warhorse Rienzi, Sheridan has turned in the saddle, hat crumpled in his gloved right hand, ready to roar out his orders and turn the tide at Cedar Creek.

Philip Henry “Little Phil” Sheridan, who never lost a battle, was short—about 5 feet 5 inches tall, with a long torso, stumpy legs, and, as Lincoln quipped, “such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” After eight years’ active duty, Sheridan was still a second lieutenant in 1861. Within a year he would be a general. Like most great American commanders of the past, he would be unwelcome in today’s Army, corrupted by Robert McNamara and his successors into a puddle of political correctness.

Sheridan was quick-tempered and blunt: West Point suspended him for a year after he assaulted a cadet officer with a bayonet and his fists. Ten years later, Major Generals Sheridan and George H. Thomas—the latter justly called the Rock of Chickamauga—were conferring in a day coach when a Southern railroad conductor spoke to Little Phil with “less than adequate respect.” Sheridan wordlessly rose, beat the conductor senseless, threw him off his own train, returned to his seat, and resumed the conversation, “no explanation given and none required.”

Yet Sheridan’s planning reflected a deliberate, thoroughly professional mind. He had been a quartermaster, one who marshals men and supplies, and the discipline took. His commands fought hard, but never without food, clothing, shelter, or ammunition.

Perversely, he became immortal for the day he was surprised. In the fall of 1864, Sheridan was campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, transforming the breadbasket of the Confederacy into a wasteland, where “crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their own provender.”

Before dawn on October 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley, Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early commanding, fell upon Sheridan’s encamped army at Cedar Creek, Virginia. Like Sheridan, Early was tough, irritable and profane. Always outnumbered, always outgunned, he was audacious and imaginative. Three months before, he e had terrified the Union when he had reached the gates of Washington, having slipped his command through the Army of the Potomac. Now he had surprised Sheridan’s army and hoped to stop the campaign of destruction.

He shattered the Union’s left and center. The entire Eighth Corps, nine thousand strong, panicked and ran. The attack happened so quickly that a goodly number of federal troops fled in their underwear. The rebels were looting Sheridan’s tents as the sun rose over the Shenandoah Valley.

Little Phil was not there.  He was returning from a conference in Washington. He had reached Winchester, Virginia, and Thomas Buchanan Read’s most famous poem, “Sheridan’s Ride,” begins there:

Up from the South at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain’s door
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

When called at dawn on October 19, in Winchester, “twenty miles away,” Sheridan heard distant artillery fire. He thought it part of a reconnaissance in force he had ordered before departing for Washington. He stepped outside around 9 a.m. The guns seemed louder. He mounted his warhorse Rienzi and met his cavalry escort. Then, puzzled, he dismounted and put his ear to the ground. What the ex-Indian fighter heard was the continuous roar of full battle and the sound was approaching. His army was in retreat. Now he trotted forward. As he crested a rise, Sheridan suddenly saw, in Maj. George “Sandy” Forsyth’s words, “hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion.” He received reports as Rienzi walked forward at a measured pace. A conventional commander might have regrouped just outside Winchester, gathering stragglers into a defensive line. Instead, he ordered the stragglers collected and funneled back up the turnpike toward the front.

Then he spurred Rienzi toward the sound of the guns. At his right, an orderly carried Sheridan’s personal battle flag, bearing the two stars of a major general.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good broad highway leading down…
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

It was a brilliant Indian summer morning. Rienzi stretched his legs, leaving most of the escort in the dust. The Newtown crossroads were jammed with supply wagons and caissons. Sheridan took Rienzi over the wall and into the fields.

Then, striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line ’mid a storm of huzzas…

Sheridan thundered through the files of retreating men, most wounded only in their pride. He roared, “Come on back, boys, face the other way, we’ll giveem hell, God damn them, we’re going to lick those fellows out of their boots,” among other things. A witness of Sheridan’s verbal skills wrote he “didn’t spare anybody in the bunch and included all their kinfolk, direct and collateral. It was a liberal education in profanity to hear him.” And it worked. Thure de Thurlstrup’s painting, Sheridan’s Ride, now at Brown University, shows Sheridan at full gallop, the pennant whipping in the breeze, as the stragglers stop, stare, begin cheering and turn around.

South of Newtown, he regained the road to find the Sixth Corps standing fast in line of battle. Not everyone had run away. General Alfred Torbert rode up, saluted, and said, “My God, I’m glad you’ve come.” Sheridan rode out before the troops, wheeled Rienzi and shouted, “Men, by God, we’ll whip them yet. We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight.” The men roared back. He found his three corps commanders conferring nearby. Brigadier General Emory murmured that his men were ready to cover the retreat. Sheridan spat his reply: “Retreat! Hell, I just got here!”

It was 10:30 a.m. His men hungry and exhausted, Early’s assault had bogged down. Major General John Brown Gordon, who had broken Sheridan’s left that morning, begged to renew the attack. Early replied, “This is glory enough for one day.” Sheridan brought up his reserves and regrouped. At noon, he rode the length of his own front, as biographer Roy Morris Jr. put it, “swinging his hat in his right hand to give the soldiers a glimpse of his familiar bullet-shaped head.” Their thunderous cheers rolled down the line with him. At 4 p.m., 200 Union buglers sounded the charge. Sheridan smashed into the Confederate left, turned it and then rolled up Early’s line. By 5:30 the fighting was over. Sheridan’s horsemen pursued the rebels into the night.

Cedar Creek was Sheridan’s greatest triumph. At 9 a.m., he was beaten; by sundown, he had driven the enemy from the field. Within a week, Read’s poem was a bestseller. The horse gets the best lines:

I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester, down to save the day!

“Sheridan’s Ride” was recited in high schools for nearly a century.

On April 1, 1865, Sheridan personally commanded the charge at Five Forks, leaping Rienzi over the rebel breastworks into, as Morris noted, “a group of astonished southerners like the angel of death,” forcing General Robert E. Lee from Richmond. On April 6, he forced six generals and 10,000 men to surrender at Sayler’s Creek. On April 8, he blocked Lee’s last line of retreat. Around 1 p.m. on April 9, Grant and Sheridan rode up to Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee waited in the parlor.

The performance of Sheridan and his men during the first nine days of April 1865 is nearly unparalleled. As Grant said, “Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.” Little Phil was then 34 years old.

Rienzi died in 1878. Sheridan had his body preserved. Today, in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Armed Forces History, Rienzi stands, saddled as he was that golden October morning:

Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester, twenty miles away!

New York Press, August 29, 2000

February 6, 2015   No Comments

Haughty Bill, Fighting Cock of the Army

Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet between 23rd and 25th Streets, across from Madison Square Park. North of the intersection stands a marble obelisk. On bands around the shaft are names of battles and wars: Monterey, Chapultepec, Chippewa, Molina del Rey, Churubusco, Contreras. On its southern face is a bronze relief of a lone horseman, his horse rearing as the rider, turning to command, points his sword toward the unseen enemy. Beneath the whole is molded the words: MAJ. GEN. WORTH.

Here lies William Jenkins Worth, “Haughty Bill,” called by one of his admirers “The Fighting Cock of the Army.” Worth had panache. Remarkably good-looking, Worth was tall, superbly built, a magnificent horseman, charming when he chose to be, a good conversationalist, always tailored within an inch of his life, with a passion for cocked hats, gold braid, and epaulettes.

His pursuit of glory began at eighteen. He was working as a clerk in Hudson, New York when the U.S. Army came recruiting for the War of 1812. On March 19, 1813, Worth was commissioned a second lieutenant and appointed to the staff of the flamboyant Brigadier General John Parker Boyd. Frustrated by peacetime service, Boyd had resigned his commission in 1789 and journeyed to India, where he raised a private army of 1,800 mercenaries and sold their services to the native Princes. “Military history,” wrote Edward Wallace, “presents no more fascinating picture than this Yankee adventurer spurring across an Indian countryside with his brigade of turbaned lancers and a score of lumbering elephants with their field guns.”

Though colorful, and successful enough in India, Boyd proved incompetent in fighting British regulars in the service of the United States and was soon relieved by Winfield Scott, at twenty-six America’s youngest brigadier general. Three years before, as a captain, Scott had denounced his commander, General James Wilkinson, as a liar and a scoundrel. Scott did not know, as we do now, that Wilkinson was also a traitor, in the pay of the Spanish. Insulting generals does not ordinarily enhance an officer’s prospects. Yet within three years of his court-martial for insubordination, Winfield Scott was a general and William Worth his aide. They struck it off immediately and were close friends for nearly thirty-five years. Worth even named his only son Winfield Scott Worth.

They nearly missed their first battle. Scott and Worth had sat down to breakfast on July 4, 1814, when Worth observed several hundred Iroquois, then allied with the British and in an unsympathetic frame of mind, bursting from the trees at full charge, racing toward Scott’s headquarters. Clearly, someone had failed to maintain the perimeter. That would be dealt with later. For the moment, absence of body was as useful as presence of mind. Scott and Worth crashed out the front door, cleared the porch in a single leap, and sprinted for the main encampment.

Thus, inauspiciously, began the Battle of Chippewa, in which Scott turned and crushed his enemies. Scott wrote of Worth, “…there was no danger [he] did not cheerfully encounter in communicating my orders.” Three weeks later, on July 25, 1814, Scott fought the Battle of Niagara, also called Lundy’s Lane. Worth was so badly wounded that he spent the next year in bed and would limp for the rest of his life.

From 1820 to 1828, Worth was commandant of cadets at West Point. Josiah Quincy then observed Worth: the diarist wrote that Worth’s “polished exterior [concealed] the severity of a rigid disciplinarian; his men feel his slightest word has the force of an irrevocable decree.” He had a clear, crisp, full voice. He explained his orders clearly and concisely, as rare in military as in civilian life. He noticed everything, from a missing coat button to the quality of the food in the mess. He became wildly popular among the cadets, who cheered him wildly when he returned to active duty.

In 1840, Worth and his command, the Eighth Regiment, were sent to the Seminole War, our first Vietnam. The white men’s promises to leave the Seminoles alone had been broken. Matters were complicated by runaway slaves, who were welcomed by the Seminoles and then intermarried with them. The white men wanted the blacks re-enslaved. The Seminoles refused. The Seminoles used the Everglades as their home and their fighting ground. A tribe of 3000, including noncombatants, had defeated ten generals and tied down half the United States Army. Nearly 1,500 soldiers died of bullet wounds and fever in Florida: more than in all other Indian Wars.

Colonel Worth instituted sanitation in his camps and began taking his men into the swamp, gradually mapping the islands where the Seminoles lived. On April 19, 1842, the parade ground dandy led his men through the Everglades for two miles, through water to their waists, to a place called Palaklaklaha. There, he defeated the Seminoles in their last pitched battle.

The Seminoles fought no more, but never surrendered. They fell even further into the Everglades, where the white man would not pursue them and remained formally at war with the United States for another 130 years. Worth was brevetted a brigadier general for distinguished service.

In 1846, the United States provoked war with Mexico. President Polk, too clever by half in hoping to sow confusion among the Mexicans, allowed Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to re-enter Mexico. He began raising armies and prepared to take the field against “the degenerate descendants of William Penn [come] to insult the sepulchers of our fathers.”

The Napoleon of the West, Mexico’s Man of Destiny, the Ever-Victorious, the Soldier of the People, the Enigma: Texan and American propaganda painted this restless, energetic, and unfocussed man as a nineteenth century Saddam Hussein. Santa Anna was merely a charming rogue, fond of medals and gold braid, pompous ceremonial, wenching, drinking, and cockfighting, and the truth was not in him. He could pose like a soldier, but his genius for politics—he was four times President of Mexico—did not extend to the battlefield.

Worth first fought in Mexico under General Zachary Taylor, a thick-set, laid back old soldier. He was kindly and a bit of a slob. He was also personally brave and a dogged slugger of a fighter.

At daylight on May 18, 1846, the U.S. Army crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. Worth led them across and then became the first American to raise the Stars and Stripes on Mexican soil during the War. Taylor slogged to Monterey, about one hundred miles south. He chose to storm the city. Taylor didn’t care for Worth, but knew him the best soldier at hand. Accordingly, he gave him the right wing.

By 8:00 a.m. on September 21, having cut the last road out of Monterey, Worth advanced upon the heights. Worth sent a column of regulars and a column of Texans up the ridge. The heights rose four hundred feet, were lined with rough chaparral, and were defended with two artillery pieces and infantry. Worth was in the saddle all day, constantly under fire, but he had baraka, as the Moroccans would say, and the bullets knew him not. After several hours of maneuvering, the regulars and Texans, deciding to get it over with, rushed up the hill, “all firing volley after volley, ‘followed by the wild cheers and shouts of the men.'” The Mexicans withdrew to fight another day.

That evening it rained. Worth and his men had neither blankets, shelter, nor food. Off to the east, Taylor had lost control of his battle: the diversion to help Worth had become a major, unplanned assault on an entrenched enemy, with Taylor personally fighting in the streets like a subaltern instead of directing the battle like a general.

Taylor would not fight on the 22nd; Worth and his men would fight alone. Amidst the rain, the lightning, and the wild wind, Worth moved out at 3 a.m. The old Bishop’s Palace on a neighboring ridge was garrisoned and fortified. His men dragged their cannon up the hill as Worth waited. A little after noon, Worth’s men blasted down the palace doors and, pulling their guns into the complex, spread “grapeshot and consternation everywhere.” At 4 p.m., Worth personally raised the American flag over the palace.

He now awaited orders. At 10 a.m. on the 23rd, Worth, hearing artillery fire from the streets of Monterey, decided that his “orders must have strayed” and advanced. His men fought building by building until Worth was a block from the Central Plaza where the Mexican governor was holed up in the Cathedral. Worth then brought up a ten inch mortar saved for just this occasion. One round knocked a piece off the Cathedral. The governor immediately sent out a flag of truce. Thus ended the Battle of Monterey.

Worth won his second star.

Then Scott asked for Worth’s transfer to his own army. Scott envisioned a mass landing near Vera Cruz. Nothing on this scale had been done since William the Conqueror. On March 9, 1847, Worth and his First Brigade boarded sixty-five landing boats and headed for the beach. One moved ahead. It touched. Worth rose in the prow and turned to the landing force. His sword flashed from its scabbard. He roared, “Follow me,” vaulted over the side, and splashed ashore as, the other boats grounding, his men rushed after him, cheering. He was the first American on the ground at Vera Cruz.

By September 1847, Scott’s forces had fought their way to Mexico City.  It was largely surrounded by lakes, bridged by causeways held with artillery. Two causeways were guarded by Chapultepec, an old Aztec fortress rebuilt by the Spanish and the Mexicans. Scott chose Worth to take it.

The American artillery opened fire at 5 a.m. on September 12, keeping one shell in the air at all times. The north and east walls were too precipitous to be scaled; the west side could be approached only through a swamp. Even Worth believed he would be defeated. September 13 dawned clear and blue. The artillery fire stopped at 8:00 a.m. Then Worth’s forces rushed the castle. Its walls were so steep that the Mexicans could not direct aimed fire at their base.

The Americans clustered at the foot of the walls, out of the line of fire. Then the scaling ladders came. Sharpshooters began keeping the defenders’ heads down. The first ladders in place were toppled and the assault troops with them. But then enough rose to allow fifty men to climb simultaneously. Lieutenant George Pickett (who later commanded the Confederate charge on the third day at Gettysburg) stopped his sergeant. “I cannot command you to go where I would not lead you,” he said, and became the first American over the walls. Worth took Chapultepec within two hours.

Among those going over the walls were forty Marines. Thus they entered the halls of Montezuma. Six Mexican cadets, one holding their country’s flag in his arms, fought to the last shot and then, rather than surrender, leapt from the battlements. The great monument to Los Ninos Heroicos stands below the walls of Chapultepec.

On the next day, Winfield Scott rode into Mexico City. The friendship with Worth had been frayed by the stress of war, Worth’s ambition, and Scott’s occasional condescension. Soon, Scott would have Worth arrested for insubordination; Worth would prefer charges against Scott; neither man’s reputation remained untarnished.

Worth’s pursuit of glory ended on May 7, 1849, when he died of dysentery while commanding troops in Texas. His funeral took time to arrange, but was well worth the wait, and he would have greatly enjoyed it. On November 25, 1857, New York City’s shops closed at noon, when the church bells began tolling. His mahogany casket was borne out City Hall’s front doors and placed on the catafalque. This was drawn by sixteen matched iron gray horses, each shrouded in black housings that swept the ground, with black ostrich plumes nodding from their headstraps. Ahead marched four brigades of New York State militia in gorgeous full dress. The bands played the Death March from Saul. The parade was two miles long. It took three hours to reach Madison Square Park. Then the orators thundered: “The gallant chivalric Worth was ever seen with waving plume, in the heat of combat, leading to victory. His fame will endure when his monument shall have crumbled.”

The obelisk still stands; Worth is nearly forgotten.  As slaves whispered to Roman generals during their triumphs, all glory is fleeting.

— New York Press, February 17, 1999

February 3, 2015   No Comments