Thomas Buchanon Read (1822-1872) was a relatively minor artist and poet of the nineteenth century, but he did have one very enduring success during the Civil War. Read’s 1864 poem “Sheridan’s Ride” , which celebrated Union general Philip Sheridan’s rallying of his soldiers at the October 19th, 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, was widely published and served to promote the success of the Union war effort and President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in that election year.
In August of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Sheridan to conduct a campaign against General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army operating in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan was also to neutralize the Valley as an economic resource to the Confederate army by destroying crops, railroads, and anything else of value to the Rebel cause. Moving tentatively at first with only minor fighting and skirmishing, Sheridan picked up the pace with a major engagement at the Battle of Opequon, or Third Winchester, on September 19th, followed by the Battle of Fisher’s Hill on the 21st and 22nd, and the Battle of Tom’s Brook on October 9th. Each of these was a Union victory.
Sheridan was confident that Early’s force had been reduced to the point that it was no longer a major threat. The Federals sent up camp along the banks of Cedar Creek and the commanding general went to Washington DC to discuss future plans and strategy. After departing Washington, Sheridan spent the night of October 18th at Winchester. Meanwhile, Early and his generals planned a surprise attack on the Union encampment. In the predawn hours of October 19th, the Confederates attacked, taking the Federals by surprise and routing two Union corps.
Sheridan awoke that morning and heard the distant cannon fire of the battle. He hopped on his horse named Rienzi and rode south toward Cedar Creek.
As he approached the battlefield, Sheridan saw much of his demoralized army in retreat heading north. His commanders filled him in on the situation, and Sheridan proceeded to rally his troops, turning them around and restoring morale. Launching a counterattack that afternoon, the Federals turned almost certain defeat into victory.
Within days, Thomas Buchanon Read wrote a poem commemorating the ride from Winchester to Cedar Creek (though historians note the distance from Winchester to Cedar Creek was more like 12 miles and not the 20 in the poem). The poem was an immediate hit; Sheridan himself liked it and changed Rienzi’s name to Winchester. The ride was also celebrated in paintings, including one by Read himself; Sheridan, mounted on Rienzi/Winchester, posed for Read in 1865. After his death, Winchester was preserved by taxidermists and can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872)
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!”