William Tecumseh Sherman
The armies of the United States were led in 1864-65 by two generals, to whom, more than to any other military leaders, was due the final victory of the Northern forces. Both Grant and Sherman were Western men; both were somewhat unsuccessful in the early years of the war and attained success rather late; to both of them the great opportunity finally came, in 1863, in the successful movement which opened the Mississippi, and their rewards were the two highest commands in the Federal army and the personal direction of the two great masses of men which were to crush the life out of the weakening Confederacy. Grant was the chief and Sherman his lieutenant, but some military critics hold that the latter did more than his chief to bring the war to an end. They were friends and were closely associated in military matters after 1862; in temperament and in military methods each supplemented the other, and each enabled the other to push his plans to success.
William Tecumseh Sherman was born in Lancaster, Ohio, February 8, 1820. The family was of New England origin, and had come to America from England in the seventeenth century. About two hundred years later, Sherman's father and mother migrated to what was then the unsettled West and made their home in Ohio. His father, a lawyer and in his later years a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, died in 1829, leaving a large family of children without adequate support. The subject of this sketch was adopted into the family of Thomas Ewing, who was later United States senator, and Secretary of the Interior in the cabinets of Harrison and Tyler. The boy grew up with the Western country in which he lived, among energetic, brainy farmers, lawyers, and politicians, the state-makers of the West.
When sixteen years of age, Sherman secured an appointment to West Point, where he tells us " I was not considered a good soldier." But he was at least a good student, for he graduated as number six in a class of forty-two, the survivors of one hundred and forty-one who had entered four years before.
After graduation, in 1840, he was assigned to the Third Artillery, with which he served for six years in the Southern States, mainly in Florida and South Carolina. In South Carolina, he made the acquaintance of the political and social leaders of the South. At this time, in fact up to the Civil War, Sherman was probably better acquainted with Southern life and Southern conditions than with Northern. He spent some of his leisure time in the study of his profession and finally attacked the study of law.
Most of the next ten years was spent in California, where he was sent, in 1846, at the outbreak of the Mexican War. As aide to Generals S. W. Kearny, Mason, and Smith, in turn, Sherman was busy for four years in assisting to untangle the problems of the American occupation.
In 1850, he returned to Ohio and was married to Senator Ewing's daughter, Ellen Boyle Ewing, a woman of strong character and fine intellect, who for thirty-six years was to him a genuine helpmeet the same time, he was made captain in the Commissary Department and served for a short time in St. Louis and New Orleans, resigning early in 1853 that he might return to California to take charge of a banking establishment, a branch house of Lucas, Turner and Company, of St. Louis. During this second period of life in California, we see Sherman as a business man-a banker. He was cautious and successful, and soon his bank was considered one of the best on the Pacific coast. This was due mainly to the prudent management by which the institution was enabled to weather the storm that destroyed nearly all the Californian banks in 1856-57. But Sherman had always reported to his headquarters in St. Louis that the bank could not make profits under the existing conditions, and in 1857 his advice was accepted and the business closed.
From 1853 to 1857, Sherman appears in but one conspicuous instance in another role than that of banker. In 1856, he accepted the appointment of general of militia in order to put down the Vigilantes, an organization formed in San Francisco to crush the lawlessness which had come as a natural result of the weakness and corruption of the local government. He sympathized with the members of the organization in their desire to put down disorder, but maintained that the proper authorities should be forced to remedy matters, and that illegal methods of repressing crime should not be tolerated. For a time it seemed that he would succeed, but the local authorities were much disliked and distrusted by the people, and the promised support was not given him by the United States military authorities, with the result that his plans failed.
During the next two years, Sherman decided that as a business man he was a failure. In his letters, he vigorously asserts it as a fact; and in truth his business career must have been extremely unsatisfactory to him. In spite of good management, the San Francisco venture had failed. For a few months afterward he was in charge of another branch of the same business in New York, and, during the great panic of 1857, this also was discontinued on account of the failure of the main house in St. Louis. Then he went to Kansas, decided to practise law and was admitted to the bar, " on general intelligence," he said, and with his brother-in-law formed the law firm of Ewing, Sherman and McCook.
Sherman's law career, as described it, was rather humorous. He lost his only case, a dispute over the possession of a shanty, but joined with his client to defeat the judgment by removing the house at night. Afterward, he undertook army contracts for constructing military roads and opened a large tract of Kansas wild land for Senator Ewing. Disgusted with business life, Sherman decided to reenter the army, and applied for a paymastership. But his friends of the War Department recommended him instead for the superintendency of the Louisiana State Seminary (now the Louisiana State University), then being organized. He was elected to that position in August, 1859, and for a third time he made his home in the South.
He was an efficient college executive ; the seminary was soon organized and running like clockwork, students and instructors all under the careful direction of the superintendent, who very soon became a general favorite, not only with " his boys " but with the faculty of young Virginian professors. He had no regular classes, but gave episodical instruction in American history and geography, and on Fridays conducted the " speaking." He was a good story-teller, and frequently his room would be crowded with students and young professors, listening to his descriptions of army life and of the great West.
He was a firm believer in expansion and " our manifest destiny," and frequently lectured to students and visitors on those events in American history which resulted in the rounding-out of the national domain. It was due, perhaps, to his long residence in the far West that he regarded slavery as in no sense the cause of the sectional troubles of 1860-61. It was all the result, he maintained, of the machinations of unscrupulous politicians scheming for power, working upon a restless people who were suffering from an overdose of Democracy. It is clear that Sherman, while appreciating both the Northern and the Southern points of view, did not fully comprehend the forces which for years had been driving the sections apart.
When Louisiana seceded, Sherman announced publicly what was already generally known-that he would not remain at the seminary ; that he would take no part against the United States. It is said that he wept bitterly when he heard of the withdrawal of South Carolina. One of the strongest arguments against secession was, in his opinion, the geographic one. Familiar with all the Southern country, especially the Mississippi valley, he insisted that Nature itself had already decided the question against secession and that the South ought to struggle within the Union for redress of grievances. He believed that the South, though itself at fault, was aggrieved. He could not be prevailed and in February, 1861, he left the seminary and the State.
Sherman at once went to Washington where he found the politicians busy, and as they and Lincoln were " too radical " to suit him, he left, profanely declaring that " the politicians have got the country into this trouble; now let them get it out." For two months he was president of a street-railway company in St. Louis, and while here he was a witness of the division of Missouri into hostile camps. He watched the North while it gradually made up its mind to fight, and then he offered his services to the War Department, and was appointed colonel of the Thirteenth United States Infantry.
Sherman's military career falls into four rather distinct parts: The Manassas, or Bull Run, campaign, and Kentucky, in 1861; the Shiloh-Corinth campaign, in 1862; the opening of the Mississippi, in 1863; the campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas, in 1864-65. During the first two years, he was making mistakes, getting experience, and learning his profession. In the third campaign, his military reputation was made secure, and in the last one he crushed half the Confederacy mainly by his destructive marches.
At Bull Run, or Manassas, he commanded a brigade with credit, and though it was routed he quickly restored its organization and morale, and for this he was made a brigadier-general of volunteers.
Transferred to Kentucky to assist General Robert Anderson, his former commander, in organizing the Federals of Kentucky, he came near ruining his career by the frankness of his speech to the Secretary of War and to the newspaper men. The administration evidently desired to minimize the gravity of the situation in the West, but Sherman insisted that to hold Kentucky sixty thousand men were necessary, and to open the valley to the Gulf two hundred thousand would be needed. He was better acquainted with the Southern temper than were the Northern politicians and the newspapers, some of which now declared him insane for making such a statement. He was hounded by them for several months and was almost driven from the service. The course of the war showed that he was correct.
During the next year was begun the movement to open the Mississippi valley. From the beginning of the war this had been one of Sherman's favorite projects. It was a Western feeling that the river must be opened, that the valley must belong to one people. Sherman saw service in responsible commands in the Shiloh-Corinth campaign. At Shiloh, he, like the other Federal and Confederate commanders, was hardly at his best; all of them still had much to learn. But in the rather uneventful Corinth military promenade, Sherman began to show his wonderful capacity for making marches count as much as fighting. He was now regarded as one of the best minor leaders, was no longer considered insane, and was made a major-general of volunteers as a reward for his services in the campaign.
In the Vicksburg campaign of 1863, which completed the opening of the Mississippi and cut in two the Confederacy, Sherman bore a conspicuous part, first under McClernand and later under Grant. It was the successful termination of the Vicksburg campaign which made secure the military reputations of both Grant and Sherman. Their good fame was enhanced by the subsidiary campaigns into the interior of Mississippi, and by the battle on Missionary Ridge, in Tennessee. Henceforth, " political " generals were less in evidence and the professional soldiers came to the front. Grant was called to exercise the chief command over all the armies of the Union. To Sherman, who was now made a brigadier-general of regulars, was given the supervision of the entire Southwest, embracing practically all of the military frontier not under Grant's immediate control. He was to direct the chief army which was to strike at the vitals of the lower South, and to exercise general supervision over the military operations in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, which were designed to make secure the hold of the Federals upon the lower Mississippi valley.
The river was held, and the army of one hundred thousand men, under the immediate command of Sherman, carried to successful conclusion, in 1864-65, three campaigns-that against Atlanta, the " store-house of the Confederacy," for which he was made major-general in the regular army, the march through Georgia to the sea, cutting the Confederacy in two a second time, and the campaign through the Carolinas, which was designed to crush the two principal armies of the South between Sherman's and Grant's forces.
For three months of the Atlanta campaign-May, June, and July-:Sherman was pitted against Joseph B. Johnston, one of the Confederacy's greatest generals, the one best qualified to check Sherman's march. But Johnston, with his smaller force, fell back slowly from one strong position to another, holding each until flanked by Sherman, who could make progress in no other way. When Atlanta was reached, Johnston was superseded by John B. Hood, who at once initiated an offensive policy but was severely defeated in several battles during the latter days of July and in August. For his success in this campaign, Sherman was made a major-general in the regular army. Finally Hood evacuated Atlanta, started on the fatal Tennessee campaign, and left the Federal commander free to move on through the almost undefended country to the Atlantic seaboard.
Sherman had provided for the defense of Tennessee and had garrisoned the important exposed posts which he considered it necessary to retain. On November 12, 1864, communications with the North were severed. He started with sixty-two thousand men on the "promenade" through Georgia, and for a month was not heard from except through Confederate sources. In December, Savannah was captured and was made a Federal base of supplies. Then began the march to the North through the Carolinas, which was much more difficult than the march to the sea, and Sherman was again confronted with his old antagonist, Joseph E. Johnston, who had been placed in command of the remnants of the Confederate forces. But the contest was more unequal than it had been in 1864, and when Lee surrendered in Virginia, Johnston in North Carolina gave up the struggle, and the war was practically at an end.
Here it is proper to add an estimate of the military qualities of the great Federal commander. Like the other successful commanders, he attained the fullness of his powers slowly. Not all military experts agree that he was a great commander on the battlefield, and in his successful campaigns he was generally pitted against weaker Confederate forces, acting (Hood excepted) uniformly on the defensive. Sherman's armies had no such experiences as did those which opposed Robert E. Lee. He was aided by such blunders of his opponents as were never made by Lee. But all agree that under the military and economic conditions existing in the Southwest, Sherman was preeminently fitted to undertake the task of breaking to pieces the weakening South. He was a great strategist if not so successful as a tactician ; he won more by marches than others by fighting ; he had a genius for large conceptions, and with his clear comprehension of Southern conditions he was able to strike with irresistible force at the weak points in the defense. Thus it was, according to Robert E. Lee, that he was enabled to give the Confederacy a mortal wound before any of its armies surrendered.
One feature of Sherman's campaigns, after leaving Atlanta, has been severely criticized. Much of the destruction of private property in Georgia and South Carolina, it is held , was not only unnecessary but amounted to cruelty in depriving the population of the necessities of life. Woodrow Wilson says of the work of the armies under Sherman's command: " They had devoted themselves to destruction and the stripping of the land they crossed with a thoroughness and a care for details hardly to be matched in the annals of modern warfare- each soldier played the marauder very heartily." Sherman himself intimated that the march would " make Georgia howl," and would "make its inhabitants feel that war and ruin are synonymous terms." The most intense feeling on the subject still exists in the communities over which Sherman marched in 1864-65, a feeling which does not exist against any other commander on either side, nor against Sherman himself in the regions over which he fought before 1864.
That Sherman himself did not intend to go beyond the limits of legitimate warfare is clear, and the unfortunate excesses were due mainly to the somewhat demoralized discipline of the troops, to the fact that they were in the midst of a hostile. country, to the increasing bitterness that had developed as the war progressed, to the natural development of the permitted " foraging " into reckless plundering, and in part to certain characteristics of Sherman himself, which probably affected the policy of his corps commanders, who were more directly charged with the conduct of the troops. But if Sherman was merciless in war, he was superbly generous when the fighting was over.
When Grant was made President, Sherman succeeded him as general of the army, and knowing Grant's views to coincide with his own, he hoped so to reorganize the army that the commanding general, not the Secretary of War, would be the real head of the army. With Grant's assistance the reforms were undertaken, but they lasted less than a month, the political pressure upon the President in favor of the old system being too strong for him to bear. Sherman and Grant then drifted apart; the former could do little toward carrying out his plans for the betterment of the army, and finally, to escape unpleasant treatment, he removed his headquarters to St. Louis where he remained until President Hayes invited him to return to Washington and inaugurate his cherished plans of army administration. This pleasing professional situation continued until Sherman's retirement, in 1884.
During his later years, he spent most of his time in New York among old army associates, attending reunions, making speeches at soldier's celebrations, and putting his papers in order for the use of future historians. He died in New York on February 14, 1891, aged seventy-one years. He was buried, as he wished, in St. Louis, by the side of his wife and his little son, who had died nearly thirty years before. Inconspicuous among the many generals who went to New York to do honor to the dead leader was a quiet old gentleman in civilian dress- Sherman's ablest antagonist in war, Joseph E. Johnston, and by the side of the grave at St. Louis was one of his old Louisiana colleagues, proud of his unique experience, " a professor under Sherman and a soldier under ' Stonewall ' Jackson."
Source: "Photographic History of the Civil War"
Article by Walter L. Fleming, PH.D
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