A few days ago, while reading the memoirs of Philip Sheridan, I noted his meeting with Stanton in Washington on the morning of October 17, 1864. According to Sheridan, he was summoned to Washington by Stanton himself, and “proceeded at an early hour to the War Department, and as soon as I met Secretary Stanton, asked him for a special train to be ready at 12 o’clock to take me to Martinsburg, saying that in view of existing conditions I must get back to my army as quickly as possible. He at once gave the order for the train, and then the Secretary, Halleck and I proceeded to hold consultation in regard to my operating east of the Blue Ridge. The upshot was that my views against such a plan were practically agreed to, and two engineer officers were designated to return with me.” Sheridan Personal Memoirs 2:66.
This meeting among Stanton, Halleck, and Sheridan is mentioned in biographies of Sheridan: both that by Roy Morris, Jr., published in 1992, and the one by Joseph Wheelan, published in 2012. It forms part of the background to Sheridan’s famous ride, two days later, when he “saved the day” at Cedar Creek.
This morning, while reading through the telegrams sent by the Secretary of War and his office from this same period, I started to have doubts. There was a telegram sent by Assistant Secretary Charles Dana, in Washington, to Secretary Stanton, at Fortress Monroe, apparently dated October 17. How could Stanton be in Washington and Fortress Monroe on the same day? Perhaps, however, this date was incorrect?
Some quick online newspaper research suggested that Stanton was indeed at Fortress Monroe at this time. The New York Times of October 17 reported, for example, that “The Secretary of War has gone to City Point, taking with him the Quartermaster, the Commissary General, and the Surgeon General, to confer with General Grant upon the war-estimates for the next year.” There was also an item in the Chicago Tribune of October 20 saying “the Herald’s Martinsburg special says Sheridan returned to that place on the night of the 17th from Washington, whither he had proceeded by way of Piedmont and the Manassas Gap and the Orange and Alexandria railroads.”
And then I found the nail in the coffin: a telegram from Dana in Washington to Stanton at Fort Monroe, also dated October 17, 1864. “General Sheridan, who came in to-day to see General Halleck, reported to me personally that the rebel army lately under Early but now apparently under Longstreet having appeared in the vicinity of Strasburg, his forces moved to attack them on Saturday.” The telegram is on National Archives Microfilm M473, reel 87, at frame 511.
So Sheridan did come to Washington on October 17, as he recalled in his memoir, and he did meet with people at the War Department, but he did not meet with Stanton, nor did Stanton order any train.
It is not, of course, surprising that Sheridan would make such an error, more than twenty years after the events in question, in writing his memoirs. But it raises questions about other events described in Sheridan’s memoirs, such as his comment that Stanton opposed his promotion, thinking him too young for the position. Sheridan Personal Memoirs 1:463. I do not see anything in the contemporary records suggesting that Stanton opposed Sheridan’s promotion—no request to Grant that he come to Washington to discuss it in person, for example. So is this also a figment of an old man’s memory? Or should it be accepted as the only evidence there is on the issue?