Feb. 8, 1820 - Feb. 14, 1891
General of the Union, Destroyer of the Southby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Though he never won a major battle during the Civil War, the success of the Union in that conflict is due in large part to General William Tecumseh Sherman. In fact, it is doubtful that the United States would be the same today if not for Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and his “March to the Sea” which destroyed the Confederacies resources using “total war”. Despite these accomplishments Sherman faced many trials during his military life, and failure at his attempts to live quietly as a civilian. Yet, he still made his mark on history, and it is important to reminisce on the man, and his accomplishments.
Tecumseh Sherman was born on February the 8th, 1820, to Charles Robert Sherman, a lawyer, and Mary Hoyt Sherman. His family lived in Lancaster, Ohio, and he had 11 brothers. His father died when Sherman was nine, and the boy was taken in by his father’s friend and fellow lawyer Thomas Ewing. Ewing was also a senator of Ohio. While Tecumseh was raised Episcopalian, he had not been baptized yet. The Ewing’s were devout Catholics and insisted he be baptized by an ordained priest. His baptism occurred on June 25th, and the friar christened him William, in reference to the feast day of Saint William of Montevergine. Despite his heritage, Sherman was not religious and only used the name William in public settings.
At 16, Sherman’s foster father secured an appointment for him at West Point. While Sherman was an excellent and popular student, his attention to the rules and form were less than pristine, and he remained a private throughout his education. However, he entered the army with the rank of second lieutenant and was stationed in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and California. He saw action in the 2nd Seminole war during his first station, but did not fight during the Mexican-American war due to administrative duties in California.
Upon returning to the east in 1850, Sherman was promoted to Captain and married Eleanor Ewing, his foster father’s daughter. Three years later he resigned from the army and moved back to California. However, his attempts at managing a bank were trying and eventually failed during the financial “Panic of 1857”. He was also unsuccessful at the practice of law in Leavenworth, Kansas, and in 1859 began his journey back to the military by accepting a teaching position in Pineville, Louisiana. Though finally finding accomplishment in this walk of life, it was short lived. Upon the eve of the Civil War, Sherman resigned his position at the Southern controlled academy and moved to St. Louis.
Sherman volunteered for the Union Army in 1861 and was made a colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry Regiment. His regiment of volunteers entered the First Battle of Bull Run under General Daniel Tyler, and they were effective at collapsing the Confederate line at one point in the battle. However, the Union’s artillery was captured and the tide turned, forcing a disastrous route by the Confederate forces. Nevertheless Sherman was promoted for his efforts to brigadier general and he was stationed in Kentucky.
In Kentucky Sherman met his first great trial. As his wife Ellen once described it, Sherman was subject to a “melancholy insanity” and his outlook on the war became quite bleak. His frequent complaints to his superiors and his overestimation of the Confederate army led the press to label him as crazy, and as a result of this bad publicity he was replaced and transferred to Missouri where he suffered a nervous breakdown. He recovered in Ohio under the care of his family, and quickly returned to service in Missouri under General Halleck, but after General U.S. Grant’s promotion to major general he was placed under Grant’s command.
In April of 1862 Sherman proved an important tool to Grant at the battle of Shiloh despite challenges early in the battle. He ignored intelligence reports, failed to strengthen his defensive position, and was completely unprepared for the rebel assault on the 6th. His unpreparedness could be in part due to wishing to appear unworried and composed. In a letter written to his wife during this time, he said he thought that by taking more precautions, the army might think he was crazy again. Despite the powerful assault on his position, Sherman showed great leadership in forming a defensive retreat which did not create a route advantageous to the Confederates. The next day in a blistering counterattack, the rebels suffered from their own unpreparedness as Grant’s army pushed them all the way back to Corinth. Sherman was called a hero of the conflict and was further promoted to major general.
Sherman’s and Grant’s relationship developed through the years they served together, and each was a great encouragement to the other. It is known that Grant was having difficulties with his commander, and it is in great part due to Sherman’s advice and help that Grant did not resign his commission. Sherman later said that “Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk and now we stand by each other always.” This camaraderie set up the events which would come later, and ultimately the end of the war.
Despite a mixed record during the battles at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Grant chose Sherman to replace him when he took command of the Army of the Potomac. Together they formulated a plan to divide and conquer the South. While Grant was battling the famous confederate general Robert E. Lee, Sherman would be marching through Georgia, and ultimately capture Atlanta and Savannah. This march was especially important as far as two things. One, the idea of “total war” was heavily employed by Sherman. And second, the capture of Atlanta gave a morale boost which helped Lincoln be re-elected. This second point is most important as Lincoln’s opposition in the election race was advocating peace with the South. By securing Lincoln’s election with his conquest in Georgia, Sherman lengthened the war and gave himself and Grant enough time to win it.
“Total war”, or “hard war” as Sherman called it, was a strategy to destroy all objects of military value to the enemy. In doing so, Sherman hoped to cut off its access to resources, and strangle the enemy into submission. Even from the start of the war the Confederate army was ill equipped, but the destruction of the limited resources still available was a terrible blow. These tactics created resentment in the Southern people which remained long after the war was over. To his credit, Sherman was preoccupied with the care of those civilians in the area of combat. After the capture of Atlanta, he ordered all civilians to leave the city, as he knew that they would be in greater danger within it, than outside of it. Sherman burned the resources critical to the enemy’s war effort within the city according to his total war policy. However, this fire spread throughout the city and created wide spread damage. If Sherman hadn’t ordered the residents out of the city, who knows what the death toll would have been.
Continuing on his march, Sherman aimed for Savannah and destroyed a 60 mile wide tract of land on his way. His troops speed and skill at destruction of property and resources was incredible. For example, after three days only one of the railroad lines leading into Atlanta remained intact. Any steel that was used in those railroads was further made useless by being made into “Sherman’s bowties”. By heating the railroad ties and twisting them around trees, they were made useless to the Confederacy who no longer had the ability to recycle steel.
The last move in Sherman’s war was to move north through the Carolina’s. He was trailing the confederate general Joseph Johnston, but did not face him in direct combat until after he conquered Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. The capture of Columbia was a difficult situation as the capital was considered the birth place of the Confederacy. It is very possible that due to the over-zealousness of Sherman’s troops, the center of the city was burned to the ground. After Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9th and Sherman negotiated Johnston’s surrender on the 17th, the war wound down and there was hardly any more damage done to the South.
After the war Sherman did not follow in Grant’s footsteps as a political leader. He knew he was a good soldier, and that is what he remained. After Grant was elected president, Sherman was appointed General of the Army, and his concentration was routed from the South to the West. As the United States and its railroads secured themselves in the west, it was the army’s job to protect that establishment. Sherman’s experience in the South fully prepared him for the task, but one cannot help but express sorrow for the efficient destruction of the Native American people and their resources. It can be said for Sherman in this situation that he was doing his duty as soldier, and he did it quite well. He was not an exploiter of the Indians as many of the government agents were during that time.
At the end of November 1883 Sherman stepped down from his position in the army. It is good to say that he did not simply slip into society, but instead continued active as a speaker, and as a supporter of the men who would be taking his place in the future. He continued to avoid the political scene, and bluntly rejected any suggestion of having him run for the presidency. He lived his last years in New York City, and was respected by friends and former opponents alike. Joseph Johnston, the very general he had defeated in the Carolinas, was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.
A humble man, with a strong heart; that is one way Sherman could be described. He knew his position and his ability, and he performed them as he knew best. While he may not have been the most successful general of the civil war, it is doubtful the Union would have been successful without him. His motivations of loyalty to his country and his desire for unity in the so-named United States can and should serve as an example to any citizen of any nation across the world.
1. General Sherman was all of these except ______.
a. Bank Manager
2. Which of these was not among General Sherman’s trials?
a. Conversion to Catholicism as a young boy.
b. The financial “Panic of 1857”
c. Unpreparedness at Shiloh
d. Nervous breakdown in Missouri
3. As mentioned in the essay, which of these ranks did Sherman not hold?
a. Master Chief
b. General of the Army
4. Which of these was not one of Sherman’s contemporaries?
a. U.S. Grant
b. Joseph Johnston
c. Douglas Macarthur
d. Daniel Tyler
1D, 2B, 3B, 4C