During the Civil War, Americans in the Union states thrilled to “Sheridan’s Ride,” a poem by Chester County’s Thomas Buchanan Read. Written after the October 1864 battle of Cedar Creek, the work describes how Gen. Phil Sheridan turned the tide after a long gallop to the front on his horse. It was read aloud to cheering crowds in theaters, military hospitals and army camps.
Reprinted on the front page of the New York Tribune on Election Day 1864, “Sheridan’s Ride” may well have affected Abraham Lincoln’s margin of victory. “Widely read and recited, the piece made a fine recruiting and electioneering appeal,” according to Civil War historian Shelby Foote.
Read, who also painted, later made a life-size portrait of Sheridan based on the poem for the Union League of Philadelphia, where it still hangs. The poem was recited by school children for decades. But as the Civil War generation passed away, so did the popularity of all Read’s work. Today, he’s dismissed as a “minor painter and versifier.”
Born at a crossroads called Corner Ketch near Guthriesville, Read was the grandson of a Revolutionary hero. In 1777, before the Battle of Brandywine, Rev. Thomas Read had gone to the American camp in the wee hours at the request of Gen. Washington himself to sketch maps for officers who didn’t know the roads.
Young Read loved drawing and poetry, but neither was encouraged by his parents. Then, when he was 10, Read’s father died and his mother apprenticed him to a tailor near Downingtown. Afterward, according to a 1937 newspaper account, his mother “went west” to live with other relatives.
Apparently, Read hated tailoring—or, perhaps, he hated his boss. Or, maybe, he hated both. In any case, he soon ran away and landed in Cincinnati. There, he made a living by rolling cigars and painting canal boats.
Soon enough, Read met Ohio sculptor Shobal Vail Clevenger, who worked part-time cutting tombstones. Clevenger hired Read to do some of the rough work and lettering. Eventually, he learned to cut more elaborate designs. The work gave Read both some knowledge of sculpture and an artistic outlet. He’d saved enough money to open a sign shop, while also practicing drawing and writing poetry for the local papers.
“Thomas Buchanan Read, however, was as ill fitted for the career of a commercial artist and sign painter as a racehorse [is] for a brewery dray,” wrote Chester County historian Henry Pleasants.
Bored, Read took off to wander through rural Ohio, earning a little money as he went by painting portraits. In the course of things, he also met Nicholas Longworth, one of Ohio’s wealthiest men and an art patron. (Longworth’s grandson and namesake would be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Longworth helped Read establish a studio, where one of his first subjects was William Henry Harrison. It was 1840, and Harrison, who was running for president, needed a portrait. Looking back, Read later dismissed the Harrison work as a “sad daub.” But the 1840 election was the first to use large amounts of campaign buttons, ribbons and banners, so Read’s image was widely seen. The notoriety this brought could have been what convinced Read—still not yet 20—to move to Boston the following year.
In Boston, more luck: Read was befriended by author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and painter Washington Allston, the latter a pioneer of the Romantic school of landscape painting. Longfellow hired Read to paint his daughters, a portrait now considered one of his best. The two artists provided valuable connections; Read, in turn, was inspired by the patriotic themes in their work. At 252 pages, his most ambitious poem, “The New Pastoral,” describes the pioneer life of a family of immigrants.
Read seems to have had some nostalgia for Chester County. One poem described his visit to his parents’ old home, then occupied by others: There is the shaded doorway still / But a stranger’s foot is on the sill. “His verse, though sometimes irregular, is always musical,” wrote 19th-century critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold. “In the easy flow of his stanzas and in the melody of their cadences, he seems to follow some chime of sound within his brain.”
With the opening of the Civil War, Read hurried home from Boston to offer his services. Col. Lew Wallace, adjutant general of Indiana and future author of Ben-Hur, made Read a major and assigned him to recruiting duties and anti-Copperhead propaganda. On the evening before the Battle of Murfreesboro in 1863, Read recited poetry for the assembled Army of the Cumberland and—to “enthusiastic applause”—told the troops: “Sweep on! And if the safety of the Union requires it, make a desert of the whole Southern land.”
Future president Gen. James Garfield wrote to thank Read for the “pleasure of hearing your patriotic words.”
It wasn’t bad work. Much of the time, Read was able to live with his wife at her brother’s house in Cincinnati.
By the fall of 1864, Union troops controlled most of the Shenandoah Valley, despite occasional rebel raids. That October, however, Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early surprised the federal army at Cedar Creek, northwest of Washington, D.C., in a 9 a.m. attack. It was a rout, even though the Federals had about 50 percent more troops. The Union commander, Gen. Phil Sheridan, was 12 miles away, but heard the artillery and rode to the scene as fast as his horse, Rienzi, could carry him.
The ride took 90 minutes. Cresting a ridge at 10:30 a.m., “there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army,” Sheridan later recalled, “throngs of unhurt but utterly demoralized [men] and baggage wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear.”
A colonel told Sheridan it was no use. “The army,” he said, “is whipped.”
“You are,” retorted Sheridan, “but the army isn’t.”
Then, waving his hat so the troops could see him, Sheridan turned the retreat into a counterattack that recovered all of the lost ground. The battle annihilated Early’s army and forever ended the rebel threat in the Shenandoah.
A few weeks later in Cincinnati, Read was having breakfast with James Murdoch, a theatrical star who was scheduled to read patriotic verse at a war fundraiser that evening. Read’s brother-in-law arrived with a copy of Harper’s Weekly. On the cover was a Thomas Nast drawing of Sheridan’s ride to the front. “Buck,” he said to Read, “there’s a poem in that picture.”
Read bristled. “Do you suppose that I can write a poem to order, just as you would go to Sprague’s and order a coat?” he posed.
But after the others departed, Read went to his room and told his wife, “Hattie, do not let me be interrupted. I am not to be called even if the house is on fire.”
At about noon, he emerged and handed “Sheridan’s Ride” to his wife to copy in her much more legible penmanship.
That night, Murdoch introduced the poem that would spread almost as fast as Rienzi had galloped. To build suspense through the verses, Read had Sheridan getting steadily closer to the front:
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 …
Sheridan was 20 miles away, then 15 miles … 10 … 5, until:
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.”
Never mind that Sheridan had only been 12 miles from the scene.
The election of 1864 could’ve gone either way. Voters were tired of the war, and the overall military situation was not promising. The Democrats were running Gen. George B. McClellan as a peace candidate. One bright spot was Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley. So “Sheridan’s Ride”—both the actual ride and the poem—were well timed.
Lincoln won the election with 55 percent of the vote, but his margin was not wide everywhere. In New York, he received only 7,000 more votes than McClellan. Without Read’s poem to drive home the memory of Union success, who knows how it would have turned out?
Read made nothing from the poem. The newspapers, the Republicans and the platform speakers had helped themselves. His painting—for which Sheridan agreed to pose—was probably more lucrative. Read had plans to issue the image as an affordable lithograph, but he died before he had the chance. “There may be poets who would write a better poem,” Read later wrote. “But could the same man paint a better picture?”
In 1922, on the centennial of Read’s birth, the Chester County Historical Society erected a marker near his old home, where a later owner had painted “Stranger on the Sill” on an exterior wall. But already, revisionists were dismissing Read’s paintings as “careless” and his most famous poem with faint praise. “One need not necessarily be a great poet to leave an enduring name,” sniffed Edward Robins, president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Circumstances had changed.
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