William Tecumseh Sherman
A True American Achiever
One of the most colorful characters of the Civil War was a General named William T. Sherman. During the period of the war (1861-1865), General Sherman went full circle from being forced to retire on trumped up charges that he was insane, to becoming a key player in bringing this bloody war to a close. He entered the annals of military history as one of the greatest and most distinguished generals of all time.
William T. Sherman was born to Charles N. Sherman and Mary Hoyt Sherman in Lancaster, Ohio, on February 8, 1820. General Sherman can trace his family history back to England. The Sherman family first came to the New World in 1634, settling in Boston, Massachusetts. Several family members achieved notorial prominence; including Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Daniel Sherman, who sat in the Connecticut General Assembly for 30 years. In addition, Shermans father became a state Supreme Court Judge in Ohio.
William T. Sherman was once thrown from a horse as a young child and was not expected to live. In 1829, things would once again take a turn for the worse with the Sherman Family. Shermans father was away on the circuit when the elder Sherman took ill and died. No doubt this caused a problem for Mrs. Sherman to have to support 10 children. Family members and friends took all but the three youngest children to raise in their homes. A family of prominence took in Young William. Senator Thomas Ewing and his wife took in young William and treated him like their own son. Senator Ewing was the first Secretary of the Interior for the United States. It was Senator Ewings influence that helped William get into West Point in 1836. William graduated in 1840, 6th in his class. Sherman would later marry his stepsister Ellen Ewing on May 1, 1850, in the Blair House in Washington, D.C. Sherman and his wife would eventually have several children together, including a young son who died during the Civil War, just as President Lincolns young son had died. One of Shermans sons became a Catholic priest at the urging of his mother who was a devout Catholic. General Sherman himself converted to Catholicism but never really accepted the religion as his own.
In peacetime, Sherman was unsuccessful at several business attempts just like Ulysses S. Grant. Ironically it was the Civil War that distinguished them as historical immortals. Shermans early military career also saw much frustration. He was sent to California during the Gold Rush and had trouble keeping his men from deserting because they wanted to try to make a fortune by cashing in their gold. Shermans last job before the Civil War was the First Superintendent of Louisiana Military Institute (LMI), now known as Louisiana State University.
Upon hearing the rhetoric of war and secession, Sherman became concerned. He dearly loved his life in the South but felt duty bound to the Constitution. When war was imminent William Sherman resigned his post at LMI and headed south.
Sherman re-entered the army as a Colonel and on one occasion just prior to the onset of the War, Sherman went to Washington to meet his brother John who was the Senator from Ohio (and the sponsor of the Sherman Anti-Trust in later years). Senator Sherman took his brother to meet President Lincoln. After the meeting, William Sherman thought the President was unsuited for the job at hand, however, that belief would change in years to come. Sherman argued with his brother that you politicians have things in a helluva fix.
Shortly after the War broke out, most newspapers predicted that the War would last no more than ninety days. In fact, in the early battles, civilians would come and picnic and watch the battles from a distance. This would change very soon. The so-called 90 day War was quickly becoming a bloody affair and not a Sunday picnic. In fact, it was General Sherman who proclaimed that this would most likely be a long and bloody war. It was those very words that would come back to haunt him. During the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Va., he remarked that the War was going to take some time to be over with and that there will be a great loss of life on both sides. These remarks had General McClellan declare Sherman to be insane and had him relieved of duty. During this time, Sherman was depressed and even contemplated suicide. Through his brother, the Senator, Sherman was able to re-enter the Army after Washington realized he wasnt insane after all and his predictions were becoming a reality.
Sherman returned to the Army as a Brigadier General and he fought with General Ulysses S. Grant in the trans-Mississippi and during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Sherman went on to fight in Georgia and make his way to Atlanta where the beginning of his March to the Sea would take place thus expediting an end to the War. At this time, General Grant was brought to command the army of Potomac as General McClellan was relieved of his duty by President Lincoln. This would all be politicized in the near future during the next presidential election. Little did Sherman know how important a part he would play in getting President Lincoln re-elected.
Before the March to the Sea, General Sherman had to take Atlanta, which was no easy task. The city was heavily defended as Sherman set siege on the city and finally took control of Atlanta in October, 1864. Atlanta was considered the gateway to the south. Before Sherman went into Atlanta he reminisced about when he was a young budding army officer traveling south in 1844 (twenty years earlier). He stood there with his horse on top of the mountain overlooking the bustling town of Marthasville (now Atlanta). The young lieutenants dark eyes flashed with interest at the stories he heard of the towns drive and hustle. A sawmill, groups of stores, a railroad terminus were part of the emerging pattern by which Marthasville, linked to the sea. This area promised to dominate one of the most fertile areas of the south. In nearby Marietta rose the wooded slopes of Kennesaw Mountain. On horseback the young lieutenant climbed to the summit and gazed across fifteen miles of rolling country to Altoona. In the hour of sunset the sky grew streaked with red, as though a bloody hand moved behind the clouds. Who then could have understood that terrible prophecy? .Twenty years later, again facing towards Atlanta, Sherman remembered the images that had formed in his mind looking down from the summit of Kennesaw that summer day in 1844. (Royster, p. 167)
Shermans military career would take a radical change. After conquering Atlanta in October of 1864, Shermans scheme was to gather rations and supplies and march in two columns to Savannah. He kept pushing to have his plan approved. He pleaded with General Grant to get President Lincoln to approve his plan. If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic, I think Uncle Abe will give us a twenty day leave of absence to see the young folk. (Davis, p. 22)
Sherman was confident that he could make this march for several reasons. He was very familiar with the southern terrain, and rationalized that with most of the soldiers fighting in Virginia and Hoods army heading towards the Ohio River there would be very little resistance. Sherman explained to Grant that Georgia needed to have its roads, railroads and factories that made military supplies totally destroyed.
I can make the march and make Georgia howl. (Miers, p. 23) Grant, although he trusted his friend Sherman, was hesitant to accept his plan. In fact, most politicians in Washington thought the plan was a disaster waiting to happen. After much thought and debate amongst his generals and cabinet, Lincoln approved the march to go on as Sherman proposed. Most present were stunned. Grant wired Sherman telling him of the President’s approval. Almost immediately Sherman severed the lone telegraph line so the march could not be rescinded. Sherman did state in his final telegraph to Grant that the march may not be war but rather statesmanship. If the North can march an army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevailWhen we took Atlantathey were bound by every rule of civilized warfare, to commence a system that would make them feel the power of the government and cause them to succumb. (Memoirs, p 67) The reality of it was that there would be some atrocities to come as the large foraging army passed through the Georgia countryside; in numerous cases victimizing helpless civilians.
As for the March to the Sea, there are several different viewpoints as to the purpose and manner of which it was conducted. As for General Sherman himself, it is often said that he was considered the first of the modern day military generals due to the fact that he was one of the first to realize that civilians were the backers of most war efforts. In order for him to achieve his goal of ending the war, he purposely made life miserable for the civilian population of Georgia. Shermans army foraged off of the land. Throughout the march, Shermans men destroyed railroads, factories, mills, foundries, warehouses, and other facilities and structures, which could have been used by the confederacy in support of the Rebel cause. A lot of these buildings were a legitimate military target, and the destruction was lawful.
However, some of the federal soldiers, primarily the foragers and stragglers, also burned many other structures that were unauthorized to be destroyed; usually private homes and barns. This violated Sherman’s order of not destroying any private property. By destroying the war machine (factories, railroads, etc), Sherman was achieving his objective, to deprive the Rebel army of much needed supplies. In essence, Sherman was kicking the legs out from underneath the Rebel army while General Grant opposed General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. This helped to expedite an end to this long and bloody war that was supposed to last for 90 days, and was now in its fourth year.
Another viewpoint was that the march was totally lawless and without cause. Due to the fact that so much personal property was destroyed.
The March to the Sea started in mid-November and ended in mid-December, 1864. It was the taking of Atlanta that helped Lincoln get re-elected. And now with the march ending in Savannah, Georgia right before Christmas, Sherman gave the North hope that the wars end was in sight. In fact, Sherman wired Lincoln and jokingly presented him the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift.
Shermans primary and operational objectives were met in the March to the Sea which was to deprive the Confederacy of any portion of its territory that was used to produce or transport supplies. Shermans strategy combined with the lack of resistance resulted with very low loss of life for both sides.
The war would last only a few more months and this was greatly due to the fact that general lees army in Virginia was unable to get supplies due to Shermans destruction of railroads, etc. Just prior to the closing of the war, Generals Sherman, Grant, & Admiral Porter met with President Lincoln on a boat off of City Point, Virginia to plan the final assault and discuss terms of surrender for the Confederacy. Unlike four years before, Sherman was most impressed with President Lincoln. Not realizing this would be the last time he saw him, he came out of the meeting with great respect for the president.
Upon the wars end, Sherman gained extreme popularity among both political parties and was a hero for the North. Sherman went on to become the Secretary of War and has been given credit for coining the phrase, War is Hell in a famous speech given to the cadets at Westpoint. The general continued to gain notoriety after the war for his achievements much like Colin Powell was courted by both political parties to run for president. As mentioned earlier, with his disdain for politics, Sherman said If nominated, I will not run; if elected I will not serve. (Wheeler, p. 89)
In later years even after his death, Sherman was admired and studied by many military people all over the world. Sherman died in New York City in February of 1891.
Davis, Burke. Shermans March. First Vintage Books. New York, NY: Random House. Ed, May 1988: p. 22.
Miers, Earl Shenks. The General Who Marched to Hell. New York, NY: Dorsett Publishing Co, 1990: p. 23.
Royster, Charles. The Destructive War. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY: 1991: p. 167.
The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. DaCapo Press, New York, NY: 1984: p. 67.
Wheeler, Richard. Voices of the Civil War. Meridian, New York, NY: 1976: p. 89.
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