"Save the Day": The American Civil War origins of a superhero phrase

Dana Rovang


What would a superhero story be without someone swooping in at the last moment to “Save The Day?” Snatching victory from the jaws of certain defeat? When all hope is lost, the hero or heroine arrives to rally everyone to victory?


"Save the day" is now a common turn of phrase, used in comics, movies, TV, and even sports announcing. But where did it come from? The origin of the phrase is rooted in a real-life, heart-pounding saga that took place during a crucial period of the American Civil War at the Battle of Cedar Creek, on October 19, 1864.


The phrase, "save the day," is the culminating refrain of a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read, called "Sheridan's Ride." A bit of wartime propaganda, the poem was hastily written to commemorate Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Union victory over the Confederate forces at Cedar Creek, Virginia. The battle itself was considered "the beginning of the end," and it came right before the 1864 Presidential election, buoying Lincoln to a second term.


The poem might have launched "save the day" as a heroic anthem, but the story itself, as told by Sheridan in his memoirs, is a remarkable account of tactical achievement, bravery, and turning the tide of a very dire situation - a genuine "save the day" circumstance. (Cont. below after the video.)



Jonathan Noyalas and Dana Rovang go more in depth about Cedar Creek.


UP FROM THE SOUTH AT BREAK OF DAY

On his way back from a strategy conference in Washington, D.C., General Sheridan was staying overnight in Winchester, VA, roughly 20 miles away from his troops stationed to the south in Cedar Creek. Situated in the Shenandoah Valley, Cedar Creek was a hotly disputed area wanted by both Union and Confederate forces - it was strategically significant, and it was in relative proximity to Washington, D.C.


In the early morning hours of October 19, Confederate Major General Jubal Early decided to take advantage of Sheridan's absence, and he launched a surprise attack on Sheridan's still-sleeping troops. Gen. Early easily routed Sheridan's men, pushing them back north. Then, Early paused to regroup and revel in what appeared to be an easy victory.


Back in Winchester, Sheridan was woken around 6am by an aide who reported artillery fire from the direction of Cedar Creek. Sheridan asked a few questions of the aide, and then decided the explosions were likely his own troops harrying the enemy, and tried to go back to sleep. He could not, feeling "restless." He got up, and made ready to leave.


Read's "Sheridan's Ride" begins:

A drawing of a Union soldier on a horse, holding the reigns of another horse, outside of a house.
Woodcut from "Sheridan's Ride" (Lippincott, 1891).

Up from the South at break of day.

Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,

The affrighted air with a shudder bore,

Like a heard 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.


Sheridan and his escort left Winchester heading south between 8:30am and 9am. Sheridan recounted later, "On reaching the edge of the town I halted a moment, and there heard quite distinctly the sound of artillery firing in an unceasing roar."



HE THOUGHT OF THE STAKE IN THAT FIERY FRAY

Sheridan rode further, then paused to listen more closely, "I put my head down toward the pommel of my saddle and listened intently, trying to locate and interpret the sound, continuing in this position till we had crossed Mill Creek." He concluded that his army was in retreat.


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,

And Sheridan twenty miles away.


As he and his escort made their way down the road, they began to encounter "fugitives," and Sheridan confirmed that his troops were in disarray. He began to consider his options. Either he could regroup his troops at the outskirts of Winchester, or he could move further in and try and retake the area. He decided on the latter course of action. As he put it,


"I was sure the troops had confidence in me, for heretofore we had been successful; and as at other times they had seen me present at the slightest sign of trouble or distress, I felt that I ought to try now to restore their broken ranks, or, failing in that, to share their fate because of what they had done hitherto."


Although "Sheridan's Ride" depicts a solo Sheridan riding the rode alone, Sheridan tells us he was accompanied by Major George A. Forsyth, Captain Joseph O’Keefe, and twenty men. As they went along the road at "regular pace," they passed the men and wagons in retreat. When the retreating forces saw Sheridan, they cheered. Sheridan told his men to spread the word of his return, and the men began to turn around and follow him. As Sheridan observed, "I already knew that even in the ordinary condition of mind enthusiasm is a potent element with soldiers, but what I saw that day convinced me that if it can be excited from a state of despondency its power is almost irresistible." In other words, Sheridan recognized that if troops are in a state of despair, they could be rallied to great effect if given enough to believe in.

A drawing of Sheridan on his horse, with his right arm raised, greeting his troops who are cheering for his return.
Sheridan cheered by his men. Woodcut from "Sheridan's Ride" (Lippincott, 1891).

SNUFFING THE SMOKE OF THE ROARING FRAY

Even though Sheridan and his escort were welcomed by the men they passed, all yet appeared lost. The troops were in full retreat, streaming away from the field of battle. It was up to Sheridan to turn things around. The poem counts down the distance he needed yet to travel, "...fifteen miles away, ...ten miles away." In doing so, it conveys the urgency of the moment:

A drawing of Sheridan along on his horse, galloping down the road.
Woodcut from "Sheridan's Ride" (Lippincott, 1891).

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.


Counting down the miles to his target, what is noteworthy about this point in the poem is not only how well it communicates the fevered pace, but it also reminds the reader about another key piece to Sheridan's Ride: his horse. Sheridan's horse, while not expressly mentioned - or even named - in Sheridan's personal account, was more than just a mode of rapid transportation. His horse was also how Sheridan made a dramatic and troop-rallying entrance, one that was likely key to rousing his men and reversing the course of the battle.


As they got closer to the front, Sheridan and his horse had to work their way through crowded streets, and then snake through battlements and barricades on the field. Blocked by one of these, Sheridan gathered his horse and joined the fray, "Jumping my horse over the line of rails, I rode to the crest of the elevation, and there taking off my hat, the men rose up from behind their barricade with cheers of recognition." It must have been a very dramatic entrance, and it would have electrified his forces.

Drawing of Sheridan riding a galloping black horse, with his hat in his right hand, waving to his cheering, but bedraggled troops.
Sheridan greets his troops. Woodcut from "Sheridan's Ride" (Lippincott, 1891).

A full partner to Sheridan, the horse is elevated in the poem to worthy ally, and T. Buchanan Read lets the horse say the words that still resonate today:


With foam and with dust, the black charger was gray;

But the flash of his eye, and the red nostril’s play,

He seemed to the whole great army to say,

“I have brought your Sheridan all the way

From Winchester, down to save the day!”


Sheridan - on his horse - then toured the front, giving encouragement to his troops. He also talked with his commanders and worked out a plan of attack. Later in the afternoon, he gave the order to attack "in a swinging movement" and "when the order was passed along, the men pushed steadily forward with enthusiasm and confidence." With some timely interventions in troubled areas, and putting on constant pressure, Sheridan's troops broke General Jubal Early's line, and took as many of the fleeing troops prisoner as possible.


SAVE THE DAY

The Battle of Cedar Creek turned the tide of the war, and it was also the last notable battle in the Shenandoah Valley, ensuring that it remained in Union territory. Sheridan recalled that after this battle his was given the appointment of Major General, "for the personal gallantry, military skill, and just confidence in the courage and patriotism of your troops."


As for the end of "Sheridan's Ride," the finale gives the reader the opportunity to cheer for Sheridan and his troops, and is already predicting the monument to come. Notably, it's the unnamed horse that is given the credit for "saving 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 Soldiers’ 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!”


A drawing of Sheridan on his horse, as a monument, with his right hand raised, holding a sword. They are on a stone plinth with rays of light beaming down from the clouds.
Drawing of Sheridan on his horse, as a monument. Sheridan's Ride (Lippincott, 1891).

The poem ends with an artistic representation of an imagined future monument of Sheridan on his horse. Sheridan's arm raised high, holding a sword and leading the charge.


The actual monument to Sheridan and his horse was erected in 1908. Dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt, it is 11-feet high and the centerpiece of Sheridan's Circle in Washington, D.C. Bearing some resemblance to the monument envisioned in the book, the statue was created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was also known for Mt. Rushmore. (While he was a brilliant sculptor, Borglum is a problematic figure, known for his ties to the KKK, and other white supremacist groups.) Borglum's Sheridan monument has Sheridan with his hat in his hand, rather than a sword. This is in keeping with Sheridan's account after he "jumped the line of rails" with his horse, waving his hat to greet his troops. Sheridan's unnamed horse is posed dramatically, perhaps having just landed after clearing the defense blockade. Maybe this is the moment that Sheridan and his horse did arrive to "save the day," now immortalized in bronze.

A bronze statue of Sheridan on his horse, now green with age. He holds his hat in his right hand out to his side, and is looking down, presumably at his troops.
Sheridan's Monument, by Gutzon Borglum (1908).

In the poem, the phrase "save the day" was used purposefully, and was paired with rhyming lines that counted down the miles "away" Sheridan was from the battlefront. While it cannot be said with any real certainty that "save the day" was coined with "Sheridan's Ride," an ngram search does not find this phrase in use before the 1860s. Thus, this makes the popular 1864 poem about a hero and his horse the likely place where "save the day" was launched into the public consciousness.


A version of this story was first published on the now-inoperative blog, "Saving the Superhero," on August 24, 2017, by Dana Rovang.


 

Do Your Own Research

LEARN MORE



 

PRIMARY SOURCES

T. Buchanan Read, Sheridan's Ride (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Co, 1891).

Major-General Philip Henry Sheridan, A Famous Ride (from Sheridan's Personal Memoirs, 1888).


SECONDARY ONLINE SOURCES

Sheridan's 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign - Jonathan Noyalas

Battlefields.org - Cedar Creek

Shenandoah Valley Battlefields - Cedar Creek

National Park Service - Cedar Creek



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