General Sheridan on Afghanistan

Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan rallying troops at the...

Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan rallying troops at the Battle of Opequon, during which Edwards earned a promotion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Foreword: If you came by yesterday, you know that I, like many Americans, were commemorating the dead from the attack on the World Trade Center. It is fit and meet that we do so, That was Yesterday, a time for remembrance. Now it’s Today.

In the fall we invaded Afghanistan in concert with indigenous forces on a two-fold mission. The mission was, and is a NATO mission, under Section 8 of the North Atlantic Treaty as being in response to  an attack on a member countries homeland. That’s all well and good.

We’ve been in Afghanistan now for nearly eleven years, it took about 2 months to topple the Taliban and send Al-Qaeda fleeing to elsewhere. So what have we been doing since? Nation building in a completely alien society, in fact in a Islamist society that has no desire to progress beyond the 7th century. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.Why?

Once upon on a time we knew how to fight wars. You fight wars by killing the enemy, not by riding around in armored 5 ton trucks to bribe the locals to leave you alone.

How does one handle a situation like this? In 1864 we were dealing with that problem with our own people, in the Civil War. Those were hard days as we all know, whichever side you believe was right. But some of the best Generals in American history developed a method to deal with it that worked. Here are some details about it. It wasn’t pretty and it surely wasn’t politically correct but, neither is war, however just. General MacArthur said it best when he said, “In war there is no substitute for victory.” Here’s the traditional American method for dealing with guerrillas.

If you’ve read much on our Civil War, you no doubt realize that the Union Army produced a triumvirate of really exceptional generals.

First there was Lieutenant General Grant, who while he was a capable field officer although the sight of blood sickened him, and a daring strategist (witness the campaign leading up to Vicksburg) has come down to us as primarily a dogged hold on to the mission type and an exceptional manager.

Then there was General Sherman, who while mostly remembered (especially in the South) for “the March to the Sea” showed real genius in the campaign leading to the capture of Atlanta. Indeed enough that Captain Sir Basil Liddel-Hart based a lot of his theory of the indirect approach,  used by such people as Guderian, Rommel, and Patton in the Second World War on that campaign.

And that brings us to the third member of the stellar triumvirate: General Sheridan. He was trained as a cavalry officer and his tactics always showed it, both in the Civil War and in the Indian Campaigns when he was the commanding general of the army. Like Grant at Shiloh, he got surprised at south of Winchester in 1864 by Jubal Early‘s Army of the Valley. Anyway Sheridan at the time was back in Winchester when he heard the noise of battle and mounted Rienzi to ride to the sound of the guns. Thomas Buchanan Read wrote a poem about that ride:

Sheridan’s Ride

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.

And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.

Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart’s desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.

The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?–a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, ‘mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
“I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.”

Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
“Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester–twenty miles away!”

He was that sort of leader. So, the problem with the Shenandoah valley was twofold, it was the breadbasket of the Confederacy, and it ran northeast to southwest, so that when the Confederates were advancing they were heading almost straight at Washington, while when the Federals were advancing they were going not much of anywhere. Grant soon had enough of this nonsense and had other uses for those troops. [In 1865 Sheridan’s troops would head off Lee’s attempt to escape Appomattox.] so Grant gave Sheridan some famous orders, amongst other things he told him to take the valley apart so thoroughly that “a crow flying across it will have to carry rations” which Sheridan did, even as Sherman was about to do to Georgia. He also dealt quite sternly with partisans, what we call guerrillas today.

So eventually the war ended and in 1870 Sheridan was in Europe observing the Franco-Prussian war. For some reason he and Otto von Bismarck struck up a friendship and von Bismarck asked Sheridan how to deal with the French guerrillas behind German lines. This was Sheridan’s answer:

 “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with after the war.” He advised that the insurgents be hanged, their villages burned and their lands laid waste until they begged for peace.

Personally, I think that the US Army would have been well advised to take Sheridan’s advice, if we really had to stay in Afghanistan as long as we have. I see no particular reason to be gentler with the Afghans than we were with our own countrymen. Unless of course we are too soft to fight a war anymore.

Just a reminder that the Laws of War and the various Geneva Conventions were developed to somewhat civilize wars between nation states, and as such have no applicability to nonuniformed insurgents, which fall into the same category as nonuniformed spies, and as such are subject to summary execution, until we unilaterally rewrote the rules of engagement to favor our enemies.

In addition the attacks against America were by definition attacks with weapons of mass destruction, which public American doctrine has always said calls for a nuclear response, our refraining from that response was forbearance of the part of the United States, nothing else.

Fergus M. Bordewich: Review of Joseph Wheelan’s “Terrible Swift Sword” | History News Network.


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17 Responses to General Sheridan on Afghanistan

  1. JessicaHof says:

    Yes, I think that would have been a policy which the Afghans would have understood and respected. The one we followed had neither effect on them.


    • I think you are correct. I don’t think we can win their “hearts and minds” but I do think we can make them respect us, if not quite hold us in awa.


      • JessicaHof says:

        That is the Muslim way – they respect power, not words. That’s why Obama is the wrong man to deal with them.


        • Yep, and not just them Dan Miller was commenting in a post the other day that Panamanians are snickering and giggling at Obama as well.


        • JessicaHof says:

          The problem is he thinks the rest of the world believe what he does – well, let’s hope he finds that most Americans don’t.


        • Most don’t, at least west of the Hudson but, do enough pay attention, today it’s getting lots of attention on Fox but, tomorrow it will be something else. Which of course is what makes the economy such a good issue, people do pay attention to their pocketbooks.


        • JessicaHof says:

          Yes, as Slick Willie used to say – it’s the economy, stupid, although in this case Stupid is running it 🙂


        • Yep, that about cover it, in both clauses. 🙂


        • JessicaHof says:



        • Proud of yourself? You should be. 🙂


  2. mstrmac711 says:

    Great read. The only way to successfully conduct a war is to make it total. If you leave a soldier alive, he will someday vow vengeance. The same goes with his family. If its worth fighting, its damn well worth winning with no second thoughts involved.


    • Funny how the NCA can’t seem to grasp that, Lincoln surely did,


  3. Our generals need to study Alexander’s campaign in the Hindu-Kush…masterful, deadly effective


    • It was indeed a great campaign.


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