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William Tecumseh Sherman: February 8, 1820 – February 14, 1891


William Tecumseh Sherman was an American soldier, businessman, educator, and author. He served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and achieved wide recognition for his command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the scorched-earth policies he implemented against the Confederate States. British military theorist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart declared Sherman was “the most original genius of the American Civil War” and “the first modern general.”

Sherman was born in 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio, near the banks of the Hocking River. His father, Charles Robert Sherman, was a lawyer and a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, died unexpectedly of typhoid fever in 1829. He left his widow, Mary Hoyt Sherman, with eleven children and no inheritance. After his father’s death, the nine-year-old Sherman was raised by a Lancaster neighbor and family friend, attorney Thomas Ewing. Ewing was a prominent member of the Whig Party who became U.S. senator for Ohio and the first Secretary of the Interior.

Sherman’s older brother Charles Taylor Sherman became a federal judge. One of his younger brothers, John Sherman, was one of the original founders of the Republican Party and served as a U.S. congressman, senator, and cabinet secretary. Another younger brother, Hoyt Sherman, was a successful banker. Two of his foster brothers served as major generals in the Union Army during the Civil War: Hugh Boyle Ewing, later an ambassador and author, and Thomas Ewing Jr., who was a defense attorney in the military trials of the Lincoln conspirators.

Sherman’s unusual given name has always attracted attention. According to Sherman’s Memoirs, he was named “William Tecumseh” after his father having caught a fancy for the great chief of the Shawnees, ‘Tecumseh.’ Sherman was baptized in the Ewing home by a Dominican priest who found the pagan name “Tecumseh” unsuitable and instead named the child “William” after the saint on whose feast day the baptism took place. Sherman had already been baptized as an infant by a Presbyterian minister. As an adult, Sherman signed all his correspondence—including to his wife—“W. T. Sherman.” His friends and family called him “Cump.”

Senator Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Sherman excelled academically at West Point, but he treated the demerit system with indifference. Fellow cadet William Rosecrans remembered Sherman as “one of the brightest and most popular fellows” at the academy and as “a bright-eyed, red-headed fellow, who was always prepared for a lark of any kind.” About his time at West Point, Sherman says only the following in his Memoirs:

At the Academy I was not considered a good soldier, for at no time was I selected for any office, but remained a private throughout the whole four years. Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications required for office, and I suppose I was found not to excel in any of these. In studies I always held a respectable reputation with the professors, and generally ranked among the best, especially in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy. My average demerits, per annum, were about one hundred and fifty, which reduced my final class standing from number four to six.”

Upon graduation in 1840, Sherman entered the army as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery and saw action in Florida in the Second Seminole War. In his memoirs he noted that “it was a great pity to remove the Seminoles at all,” as Florida “was the Indian’s paradise” and still had (at the time that Sherman wrote his memoirs in the 1870s) “a population less than should make a good State.” Sherman was later stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. As the foster son of a prominent Whig politician, the popular Lieutenant Sherman moved comfortably within the upper circles of Old South society in Charleston.

While many of his colleagues saw action in the Mexican–American War, Sherman was assigned to administrative duties in the captured territory of California. Sherman disembarked in Monterey, California on January 28, 1847, two days before the town of Yerba Buena acquired the new name of “San Francisco.”

In June 1848, Sherman accompanied the military governor of California, Col. Richard Barnes Mason, to inspect the gold mines at Sutter’s Fort. Sherman unwittingly helped to launch the California Gold Rush by drafting the official documents in which Governor Mason confirmed that gold had been discovered in the region. Sherman also assisted Capt. William H. Warner in surveying the new city of Sacramento and laying out its street grid in 1848.

On May 1, 1850, Sherman married his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, who was four years and eight months his junior. President Zachary Taylor, Vice President Millard Fillmore and other political luminaries attended the wedding. Ellen Ewing Sherman was a devout Catholic and the couple’s eight children were reared in that faith.

Sherman wrote to his wife in 1852: “I believe in good works rather than faith.” In letters written in 1865 to Thomas, his eldest surviving son, General Sherman said “I don’t want you to be a soldier or a priest, but a good useful man,” and complained that Thomas’ mother Ellen “thinks religion is so important that everything else must give way to it.”

Sherman was appointed as captain in the Army’s Commissary Department on September 27, 1850, with offices in St. Louis, Missouri. He resigned his commission in 1853 and entered civilian life as manager of the San Francisco branch of the Bank of Lucas, Turner & Co., whose corporate headquarters were in St. Louis. Sherman survived two shipwrecks and floated through the Golden Gate on the overturned hull of a foundering lumber schooner. Sherman suffered from asthma attacks, which he attributed in part to stress caused by the city’s aggressive business culture.

Later in 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he worked as the office manager of the law firm established by his brothers-in-law Hugh Ewing and Thomas Ewing Jr. Sherman obtained a license to practice law, despite not having studied for the bar, but he met with little success as a lawyer.

In 1859, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana. Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared that “if you had hunted the whole Army, from one end of it to the other, you could not have found a man in it more admirably suited for the position in every respect than Sherman.”

In Louisiana, he became a close friend of professor David French Boyd, a native of Virginia and an enthusiastic secessionist. Boyd later recalled witnessing that, when news of South Carolina’s secession from the United States reached them at the Seminary, “Sherman burst out crying, and began, in his nervous way, pacing the floor and deprecating the step which he feared might bring destruction on the whole country.” In what some authors have seen as an accurate prophecy of the conflict that would engulf the United States during the next four years, Boyd recalled Sherman declaring:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”

In January 1861, as more Southern states seceded from the Union, Sherman was required to take receipt of arms surrendered to the Louisiana State Militia by the U.S. arsenal at Baton Rouge. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent, declaring to the governor of Louisiana that “on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile to or in defiance of the old Government of the United States.”

Sherman departed Louisiana and traveled to Washington, D.C., possibly in the hope of securing a position in the U.S. Army. At the White House, Sherman met with Abraham Lincoln a few days after his inauguration as president of the United States. Sherman expressed grave concerns about the North’s poor state of preparedness for the looming civil war, but he found Lincoln unresponsive.

After the April 12–13 bombardment of Fort Sumter and its subsequent capture by the Confederacy, Sherman hesitated about committing to military service. He privately ridiculed Lincoln’s call for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell secession, reportedly saying: “Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.”

Sherman was first commissioned as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry Regiment, effective May 14, 1861. Sherman’s first command was a brigade of three-month volunteers who fought in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. During the fighting, Sherman was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder. The engagement at Bull Run ended in a disastrous defeat for the Union, dashing the hopes for a rapid resolution of the conflict over secession. However, Sherman was one of the few Union officers to distinguish himself in the field and historian Donald L. Miller has characterized Sherman’s performance at Bull Run as “exemplary.”

In February 1862, Grant, the previous commander of the District of Cairo, had just won a major victory at Fort Henry and been given command of the ill-defined District of West Tennessee. Although Sherman was technically the senior officer, he wrote to Grant, “I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities [the Confederates] have of concentration by means of the River and R[ail] Road, but [I] have faith in you—Command me in any way.”

Sherman got his wish to serve under Grant when he was assigned on March 1, 1862, to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division. His first major test under Grant was at the Battle of Shiloh. The massive Confederate attack on the morning of April 6, 1862, took most of the senior Union commanders by surprise.

Despite being caught unprepared by the attack, Sherman rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout. Sherman proved instrumental to mounting the successful Union counterattack of the following day, April 7, 1862. At Shiloh, Sherman was wounded twice—in the hand and shoulder—and had three horses shot out from under him.

This success contributed greatly to raising Sherman’s spirits and changing his personal outlook on the Civil War and his role in it. According to Sherman’s biographer Robert O’Connell, “Shiloh marked the turning point of his life.”

In November 1862, U. S. Grant, acting as commander of the Union forces in the state of Mississippi, launched a campaign to capture the city of Vicksburg, the principal Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River. Grant made Sherman a corps commander and put him in charge of half of his forces. According to historian John D. Winters’ The Civil War in Louisiana (1963), at this stage Sherman…

…had yet to display any marked talents for leadership. Sherman, beset by hallucinations and unreasonable fears and finally contemplating suicide, had been relieved from command in Kentucky. He later began a new climb to success at Shiloh and Corinth under Grant. Still, if he muffed his Vicksburg assignment, which had begun unfavorably, he would rise no higher. As a man, Sherman was an eccentric mixture of strength and weakness. Although he was impatient, often irritable and depressed, petulant, headstrong, and unreasonably gruff, he had solid soldierly qualities. His men swore by him, and most of his fellow officers admired him.

Sherman also conducted the ensuing Jackson Expedition, which concluded successfully on July 25 with the re-capture of the city of Jackson. This helped ensure that the Mississippi River would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.

After the surrender of Vicksburg and the re-capture of Jackson, Sherman was given the rank of brigadier general in the regular army, in addition to his rank as a major general of volunteers. Following the defeat of the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga by Confederate general Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, President Lincoln re-organized the Union forces in the West as the Military Division of the Mississippi, placing it under General Grant’s command. Sherman then succeeded Grant at the head of the Army of the Tennessee.

As Grant took overall command of the armies of the United States, Sherman wrote to him outlining his strategy to bring the war to an end: “If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol’ Uncle Abe [Lincoln] will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks.”

Historian Liddell Hart has credited Sherman with mastery of maneuver warfare, also known as the “indirect approach.” In maneuver warfare, a commander seeks to defeat the enemy on the battleground through shock, disruption, and surprise, while minimizing frontal attacks on well-defended positions.

Like Grant and Lincoln, Sherman was convinced that the Confederacy’s strategic, economic and psychological ability to wage further war needed to be crushed if the fighting were to end. Therefore, he believed that the North had to conduct its campaign as a war of conquest, employing scorched earth tactics to break the backbone of the rebellion. Historian Mark Grimsley promoted the use of the term “hard war” to refer to this strategy in the context of the U.S. Civil War. Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the Carolinas was characterized as hard war by its widespread destruction of civilian supplies and infrastructure.

Sherman proceeded to invade the state of Georgia with three armies: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson,and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield.

Sherman’s Atlanta campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city, which the Confederates had been forced to abandon. After ordering almost all civilians to abandon the city in September, Sherman gave instructions that all military and government buildings in Atlanta be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. The capture of Atlanta made Sherman a household name and was decisive in ensuring Lincoln’s re-election in November. Sherman’s success also caused the collapse of the once powerful “Copperhead” faction within the Democrat Party, which had advocated immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy.

After November elections, Sherman began marching on November 15 with 62,000 men in the direction of the port city of Savannah, Georgia, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage. At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, his troops took Savannah on December 21, 1864.

While in Savannah, Sherman learned from a newspaper that his infant son Charles Celestine had died during the Savannah campaign; the general had never seen the child.

Following Lee’s surrender and the assassination of Lincoln, Sherman met with Johnston on April 17, 1865, at Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina, to negotiate a Confederate surrender. At the insistence of Johnston, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, Sherman conditionally agreed to generous terms that dealt with both military and political issues.

In May 1865, after the major Confederate armies had surrendered, Sherman wrote in a personal letter:

“I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers … tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war; and, like others of his time and background, he did not believe in “Negro equality.” Before the war, Sherman expressed some sympathy with the view of Southern whites that the black race was benefiting from slavery, although he opposed breaking up slave families and advocated that laws forbidding the education of slaves be repealed. Throughout the Civil War, Sherman declined to employ black troops in his armies. However, tens of thousands of escaped slaves nonetheless joined Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas as refugees. Their fate soon became a pressing military and political issue.

In his Memoirs, Sherman commented on the political pressures of 1864–1865

My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I did not want them to cast in our teeth what General Hood had once done at Atlanta, that we had to call on their slaves to help us to subdue them.

In the years immediately after the war, Sherman was immensely popular in the North and highly regarded by his own soldiers. At the same time, he was generally respected in the South as a military man, as many white Southerners found his conservative politics very attractive.

Near the end of his life in 1888, Sherman published an essay in the North American Review defending the full civil rights of black citizens in the former Confederacy. In that essay, Sherman called upon the South to “let the negro vote, and count his vote honestly,” adding that “otherwise, so sure as there is a God in Heaven, you will have another war, more cruel than the last, when the torch and dagger will take the place of the muskets of well-ordered battalions.”

When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to the rank of full general. Much of Sherman’s time as Commanding General was devoted to making the Western and Plains states safe for settlement through the continuation of the Indian Wars

Sherman regarded the expansion of the railroad system “as the most important element now in progress to facilitate the military interests of our Frontier.” One of the main concerns of his postbellum service was to protect the construction and operation of the railroads from hostile Indians.

In 1867, he wrote to Grant that “we are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the railroads. In 1873, Sherman wrote in a private letter that “during an assault, the soldiers can not pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age. As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out, but the moment all resistance ceases, the firing will stop and all survivors turned over to the proper Indian agent” During this time, Sherman also reorganized the U.S. Army forts to better accommodate the shifting frontier.

In 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War, Sherman became one of the first Civil War generals to publish his memoirs: The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, by Himself.

The publication of Sherman’s memoirs sparked controversy and drew complaints from many quarters. Grant, who was president when Sherman’s memoirs appeared, later remarked that others had told him that Sherman treated Grant unfairly but “when I finished the book, I found I approved every word; that … it was a true book, an honorable book, creditable to Sherman, just to his companions—to myself particularly so—just such a book as I expected Sherman would write.”

On June 19, 1879, Sherman delivered a wholly inspirational address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy, in which he did not use the word hell, nor mention the horrors of war. However, on August 12, 1880, he addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 in Columbus, Ohio, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

One month later a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch simplified those words to “Gen. Sherman said war was hell.” By June 1881 it had become mainstream that General Sherman had said “War is hell”

Sherman stepped down as commanding general on November 1, 1883. He officially retired from the army on February 8, 1884.

Sherman lived out most of the rest of his life in New York City. He was devoted to the theater and to amateur painting and was in demand as a colorful speaker at dinners and banquets, in which he indulged a fondness for quoting Shakespeare. During this period, he remained in contact with war veterans, and he was an active member of various social and charitable organizations.

Some modern historians have characterized Sherman as a deist in the manner of Thomas Jefferson. While others identify him as an agnostic who accepted many Christian values but lacked faith.

In 1888, Sherman wrote publicly that “my immediate family are strongly Catholic. I am not and cannot be.” Upon Sherman’s death, his son Thomas publicly declared: “My father was baptized in the Catholic Church, married in the Catholic Church, and attended the Catholic Church until the outbreak of the civil war. Since that time he has not been a communicant of any church.”

Sherman died of pneumonia in New York City at 1:50 PM on February 14, 1891, six days after his 71st birthday. President Benjamin Harrison, who served under Sherman, sent a telegram to Sherman’s family and ordered all national flags to be flown at half staff. Harrison, in a message to the Senate and the House of Representatives, wrote that:

He was an ideal soldier, and shared to the fullest the esprit de corps of the army, but he cherished the civil institutions organized under the Constitution, and was only a soldier that these might be perpetuated in undiminished usefulness and honor.

On February 19, a funeral service was held at his home, followed by a military procession. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate officer who had commanded the resistance to Sherman’s troops in Georgia and the Carolinas, served as a pallbearer in New York City. It was a bitterly cold day and a friend of Johnston, fearing that the general might become ill, asked him to put on his hat. Johnston replied: “If I were in [Sherman’s] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat.” Johnston did catch a serious cold and died one month later of pneumonia.

Former U.S. President and Civil War veteran Rutherford B. Hayes, who attended both ceremonies, said at the time that Sherman had been “the most interesting and original character in the world.”

Sherman is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.✪

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