The Civil War Hero Who Started the Conservation Movement


Mr. Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America published this fall by Shearwater/Island Press.

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A chance meeting in a Montana stage stop led General Phil Sheridan to become a central figure in the 19th Century’s conservation movement--which, in turn, that led to the environmental movement a century later.

Sheridan, the feisty former cavalry commander, known as “Little Phil,” was one of the top three hero Union generals of the Civil War along with William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. He won the last major battle of the war, defeated cavalry genius Jeb Stuart and led the Union’s successful Shenandoah Valley campaign. His famous ride from Winchester, Virginia to rally his troops to victory at Cedar Creek in 1864 was turned into a popular poem, recited by school children for the next 50 years. He also was famous for his “scorched earth” policies during the Shenandoah campaign, his harsh reconstruction policies in Texas and the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

But after he met a mountain man on the road to Helena in May of 1870, who regaled him with tales of the wonders of Yellowstone, the hunter and former ornithologist turned into one of the park’s leading advocates.

Sheridan sent Army escorts on the explorations that led Congress to protect it. Later, he fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s effort to monopolize the park. He called for expanding its boundaries to include the entire habitat of the park’s big game, leading a movement for what was then called “Greater Yellowstone.” When Congress cut off all Yellowstone funding and was prepared to end its preservation, Sheridan sent in the cavalry. On August 20, 1886, Moses Harris, a Medal of Honor winner in Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign, led troops into the park where forest fires had been raging for months. Captain Harris ordered his men to battle the flames, beginning the federal government's role in forest fire control.

Harris and his successors developed the firefighting strategies and tactics that are still used today, including, a series of lookouts, communication, and lightning-quick responses. Army rangers introduced the idea of public campgrounds to control visitors’ camp fires. The Army’s success convinced a National Academy of Sciences panel in 1897 -- with Preservationist John Muir as an ex-officio member and future Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot as its youngest member -- to recommend expanding the federal preservation of public lands. Thanks to the Army’s success today more than 600 million acres of wild lands remain in the public domain. Conservation and federal control became one and the same for Progressive era reformers including TR Roosevelt. The soldiers’ example also convinced managers they could control fire by eliminating it from the forest.

A century later ecologists had independently rediscovered the vision of a Greater Yellowstone, the idea of managing the entire ecosystem as one natural area despite political boundaries. The power of that idea was illustrated to the world in 1988 when nearly a million acres burned in and around Yellowstone National Park. Like the grizzly bear, the elk and the gray wolf, the fire made its own boundaries.

Sheridan’s critical role, rediscovered in the 1980s by Paul Hutton, has not been widely recognized outside the cadre of historians. Even they have missed how the events he set in motion shaped conservation history.

John Wesley Powell, another Civil War hero, who lost his arm holding the line on Shiloh’s bloody first day so Grant could reorganize, had his own vision for conserving and developing the American West. His was tied to water. The explorer of the Grand Canyon envisioned “watershed commonwealths” where the farmers who captured the waters running out of the mountains would control the forests, not the federal government. He saw fire as a possible tool, not just a threat, having watched Indians burn to improve game habitat. His nonchalant description of starting a forest fire by mistake in the 1860s that burned hundreds of thousands of acres of Colorado undercut his credibility with foresters and bureaucrats who would eventually follow Sheridan’s path instead.

Had his vision won out, Americans would have a far smaller public land estate. But we might have had a more balanced view of fire and the role of government and private individuals in conservation.

Instead, it was Sheridan’s Hamiltonian view that eventually won and carried the day just as his rallying cry helped win at Cedar Creek.

Copyright 2005

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More Comments:

Tom Sweetnam - 12/12/2005

Yea, and how about General Delivery, General Contractor, and General Practitioner? Where would our post-Civil War society be without them?

C'mon Thomas. Only the winners get be "top generals". That's part of the spoils of war.

Frederick Thomas - 11/29/2005

Mr. Barker:

I enjoyed this light little piece, but have a bone to pick with you:

"Sheridan ... was one of the top three hero Union generals of the Civil War along with William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant."

On the Union side, how can you pass over Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, the first Medal of Honor winner, hero of Little Round Top, later President of Boudoin College and Governor of Maine? How about John Reynolds, who was at the very focus of every major Eastern battle, and many times wounded? How about George Thomas, the "Rock of Chicamaugua," and hero of Lookout Mountain and Nashville?

Of the Southerners, who were after all Americans too, Lee was surely the finest overall commander, on either side, and Jackson the finest sub-commander, with Longstreet close behind. And while JEB Stewart was a remarkable man, the best cavalry commander of all, including Custer and Buford, was surely Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Stewart was indeed killed by Sheridan's troops, while outnumbered many to one, and wounded. The circumstances do not do much credit to the commander, who was not involved and not at the scene.

I could go on, but the list gets pretty long before one comes to Sheridan, although he was a creditable commander.

Nonetheless, his activities after the war were very intertesting, and your reporting of them does you credit.