Less than two weeks following the Union victory at Cedar Creek, one of the most famous poems associated with the Civil War appeared in public. Written by Thomas Buchanan Read, "Sheridan's Ride" dramatically recounts the ride by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan from Winchester to Cedar Creek, where he ultimately rallied the broken Union lines and turned an apparent defeat into a decisive victory.
Soon published in newspapers across the North, the poem made this one of the most famous episodes associated with the Shenandoah Valley, and perhaps the entire war. The poem was widely used by the Republican Party to boost Abraham Lincoln's reelection campaign that fall. The New York Times actually printed the poem on its front page on Election Day (November 8, 1864) to remind its readers of Sheridan's great victory and the administration's successful war efforts.
"Sheridan's Ride" eventually became one of the most widely read poems in the country, being a favorite regularly recited by school children for decades after the war. While the poem contains numerous historical errors (as an example, Winchester is actually twelve miles from Cedar Creek and not the twenty miles Read used repeatedly throughout the poem), it captures perfectly the momentous events it depicts and the importance of Sheridan's timely arrival upon the battlefield.
by Thomas Buchanan Read
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!"
Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872) was a revered 19th century poet and artist whose work forever captured the patriotic fever of his day.
Living in Italy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Read moved back to the United States and enlisted in the Union army.
"Sheridan's Ride," became Read's most famous work.