Friday, October 31, 2014

October 31, 1864: "Sheridan's Ride" Makes its Debut

Sheridan's Ride is a poem that Thomas Buchanan Read wrote in late October 1864 in Cincinnati at the request of well-known  actor and performer James Murdoch, who was looking for fresh material to perform on stage. General Phil Sheridan had just become the hero of the fight at Cedar Creek in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He had left the area for a meeting in Washington D.C. As he was returning on the morning of October 19, he received reports of a battle going on and son found many of his men fleeing from the enemy. He rallied his troops, yelling "Give 'em hell boys! We'll sleep in our old camps tonight!"

The union troops did rally and earned one of the more spectacular victories - snatching victory from the jaws of defeat - of the late war. This victory gave the Union control of "the Valley" and earned great fame for Sheridan. It also inspired Murdoch with an idea for the new material he needed and Reed wrote it in quick fashion. Manty different artistic renditions of the charge, featuring Sheridan riding his horse, waving his hat or sword as he rallied his troops, also appeared.

Murdoch performed this poem on October 31 at the Pike Opera House in Cincinnati, and it became a quick national sensation, with newspaper coverage across the north telling the story of an aggressive leader on his heroic horse. Of course, Winchester is actually 12 miles from Cedar Creek, not 20 as the poem says, which I guess is an example of poetic license.

It may have even created additional enthusiasm for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause as the 1864 Presidential election approached, though the short span of time before the November 8 election probably limited its potential influence, even as technology like railroads and the telegraph sped up the spread of information throughout the land.

Sheridan reputedly noted that the poem made his horse Rienzi (later renamed Winchester) the real hero, and laughed at his fairly accurate observation.

I have copied the verses from this site.  Here is another, more thorough  report on this campaign and poem and more information about Cincinnati's role in the creation of the poem.

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!"

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