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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Phil Sheridan at Fort Vancouver

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:05am

In 1830, John and Mary Sheridan left their leased holdings in Ireland to purchase passage across the Atlantic Ocean, emigrating to America with their two children. Their third, Philip, was born in America a year later. Eventually, he would rise to command the Army of the United States in 1888 during President Grover Cleveland’s second term.

Before Phil Sheridan burned the Shenandoah Valley to turn back the Confederates during the Civil War and waged calloused campaigns against the Indigenous people of the Great Plains, he spent time posted at Fort Vancouver.

After working as a clerk in a dry goods store, Sheridan entered West Point in 1848. He was suspended in his third year when he threatened to bayonet another cadet, whom he felt had insulted him. After graduating 34th in a class of 52 in 1853, he found himself in Texas. A year later he was assigned to the 4th Infantry at Fort Reading, Calif., not far from present-day Redding. A year later, the 4th Infantry marched from Fort Reading to Fort Vancouver. The unit camped at the Switzler farm on the south side of the Columbia River because there wasn’t enough housing in Vancouver for them.

In October 1855, the Yakama War broke out, and the fort’s commander, Maj. Gabriel Rains, sent troops against the Yakama people, who held white settlers and drove back one expedition. Second Lt. Sheridan led 40 dragoons to free them, arresting 13 Natives. Col. Wright ordered 10 hanged. During the Rogue River War, Sheridan lived with an Indigenous woman from that area. Through his campaign participation, Sheridan learned to lead troops, face combat and negotiate with the enemy.

Just before the Civil War, Sheridan was promoted to first lieutenant and left his command of Fort Yamhill, Ore., for the east, traveling via the Isthmus of Panama. In St. Louis, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck assigned him to investigate the records of his predecessor, Maj. Gen. John Fremont, the famous explorer and mapper of the West. However, Fremont was charged with wasteful spending. Once Sheridan sorted out the Fremont mess, Halleck made him his staff officer.

In 1862, Sheridan’s next assignment was as quartermaster general, where he found officers profiteering. When Sheridan refused to pay for stolen horses or other goods, his commanding officer ordered him to do so. He refused, and was arrested for insubordination. Halleck’s influence seems to have wiped away the charges.

Michigan made him a colonel in the 2nd Michigan Calvary the same year. Although Sheridan lacked experience commanding mounted men, he became famous for it. Throughout the Civil War, his rank rose as he proved himself an effective commander, eventually stopping Confederates from advancing through the Shenandoah Valley to take Maryland and Washington, D.C.

In 1876, Sheridan returned briefly to the Columbia District. On Aug. 31, 1876, Gen. O.O. Howard met Gen. Sheridan, then 45, and his 22-year-old wife, Irene, in Portland on their extended honeymoon as they walked from an ocean steamer to a Willamette River ferry. Howard hosted the couple for several days of public and private receptions. Later, after Chief Joseph’s pursuit and surrender to Gen. Nelson A. Miles, Howard defended his actions before Sheridan, trying to claim due credit for Joseph’s capture.

Columbian freelance contributor