War is Hell: William Tecumseh Sherman

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.

— William T. Sherman to Professor David Boyd, December 24, 1860 —

William Tecumseh Sherman predicted the course of the American Civil War in a conversation with a colleague in December 1860, days after South Carolina had seceded from the Union. His words showed a keen understanding of the relative strengths of North and South, and he forecast with eery accuracy the course the war would take. Sherman had always been an ardent Unionist, believing that the United States should remain one nation, and this motivated his service to the North during the Civil War. His views on slavery were typical of a Northerner for most of his life—that slavery was economically necessary and that Freedmen should not be permitted to settle near whites. He did, however, oppose breaking up slave families and urged Southerners within his social circle to teach their slaves to read and write. Only when the war broke out and Sherman saw with his own eyes what was happening to enslaved Africans did his heart and mind turn to abolition.

Sherman was born in 1820 in central Ohio, and after his father’s death nine years later he was raised by a family friend, as William’s mother lacked the resources to care for all eleven of her children. His foster father, Senator Thomas Ewing, recommended him for admission to West Point in 1836, and William completed his military education with excellent grades but a dreadful disciplinary record. (In his memoirs, written after the Civil War, Sherman wrote that he averaged one hundred fifty demerits each year because he refused to conform to the “neatness in dress and form” required of the cadets.) After graduating, Sherman served in the Second Seminole War in Florida and then in California during the Mexican War. He saw no combat in California but was recognized for his “meritorious service” as an administrator. Two years after the war ended, Sherman returned to Washington, DC, and married his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing; Ellen’s father Thomas, now Secretary of the Interior, and President Zachary Taylor, the hero of the Mexican War, were in attendance with much of official Washington.

In 1853, Sherman resigned his Army commission and turned his attention to business. He opened a bank in San Francisco which earned him a good living but suffered from stress-related asthma because of his work. Ultimately, Sherman’s business venture in California failed, and he moved to New York to open a new branch, which also closed its doors after only a few months. By 1858 he was living in Kansas and practicing law, but his success was minimal. The next year, he was able to secure a post at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, where he finally found his niche. His time at the school earned him a solid reputation within the military establishment, but the tumult of sectional crisis would soon sweep him up.

Sherman’s Personality

Sherman has always been an enigma to historians, whether they approve of his actions during the Civil War or not. For much of his life he struggled with depression, and he considered taking his own life in early 1861. His fiery temper and erratic behavior worried his wife Ellen, who wrote to her brother-in-law John, complaining that her husband suffered of “that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject.” Reports of Sherman’s instability reached a Cincinnati newspaper, which labeled him as “insane” in an article published in December 1861.

While serving in Kentucky early in the Civil War, Sherman began to experience bouts of paranoia. He imagined spies lay in wait behind every tree ready to sabotage the Army’s efforts (which later turned out to be true, as Kentucky was riddled with secessionist supporters of the Confederacy), and his colleagues began to whisper behind his back that he was losing his mind. In public, he remained a model of order and duty, but in private he was a lonely figure within the Army, content only in the company of a few close friends. Among these was Ulysses S. Grant, about whom he later wrote, “He stood by me when I was crazy.” His letters to his wife reveal a deep love for her and for their eight children but also a terrible sense of inadequacy and rejection by the world.

Historians and psychologists have diagnosed Sherman with a number of maladies. Writing in a Northern newspaper shortly after the war ended, one doctor commented, “Sherman’s abilities in command do not fully mask his inadequacies in matters of human interaction. He is cold, withdrawn, and even hostile toward those whom he does not know well.” The article went on to claim he possessed two distinct personalities, exhibiting one in public and another in private—what is today termed “schizophrenia.” More recently, scholars have begun to reexamine Sherman in the light of modern medicine. In 2001, amidst renewed interest in Sherman’s exploits after the publication of The Soul of Battle by Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, psychologists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences read all of Sherman’s surviving letters and published works in an effort to determine whether or not he truly suffered from mental illness or was simply what we would now call an introvert. Their findings were not conclusive, but in their report they stated, “General Sherman may have suffered from a form of autism, perhaps Asperger syndrome, that was undiagnosed during his lifetime.” Whatever his mental state, General Sherman was immensely popular with his soldiers, who referred to him fondly as “Uncle Billy,” and he was one of the most effective military commanders in American history.

Sherman’s Passion

As the sectional crisis smoldered through the “Secession Winter” of 1860-61, Sherman readied himself for war. He returned to Washington and met with President Abraham Lincoln shortly after he was inaugurated. Sherman hoped to regain his commission, but Lincoln, perhaps wary of the soldier’s reputation, was not interested. He then moved to St. Louis to run a streetcar company (which failed). After the attack on Fort Sumter in April, Sherman again contacted the War Department and offered his services, and he was summoned to Washington once again in June 1861, where he was commissioned colonel of the 13th US Infantry Regiment. He saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, where he was wounded, and then transferred to the Western Theater, where he would remain for the rest of the war.

Sherman believed firmly that war was hell but that it was necessary only to prevent worse atrocities like the breakup of the American union. His passionate belief in the Union cause led to the aforementioned mental breakdown and contemplation of suicide as he saw his country’s armies weather personnel and supply shortages while the Confederacy seemed to be invulnerable to attack—at least on paper. His commander, General Henry Halleck, placed him on leave so he could recover mentally and physically (he had refused to eat and lost nearly forty pounds), and only when Halleck was promoted and command of the Department of the Missouri passed to his friend General Grant did Sherman return to action. On March 1, 1862, Grant gave Sherman command of the Army of the Tennessee’s 5th Division, and the army moved south from Kentucky into Tennessee.

Like Sherman’s, General Grant’s reputation within the Army was mixed at best. Grant’s business ventures in Illinois between the Mexican and Civil wars had been a catalogue of failures, and he was reputed to be an alcoholic and unfit to lead even a company of soldiers. (This may have been a slur by his career and political opponents.) And yet, because both men were proven leaders and effective strategists, President Lincoln gave them his support no matter the charge against them. Later in the war, when a delegation of politicians were at the White House demanding Grant’s removal because they thought he was hesitating at Vicksburg, the president refused their request. A New York Times article reported that, “When one charged General Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling General Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”

The Confederates attacked Grant’s army at Shiloh Church on the morning of April 6, 1862. The furious assault drove the Union troops back, but Sherman rallied his division and was able to hold it together as it retreated toward the Tennessee River. Grant had been away from the army during the attack but returned that night; when the two men met under a tree (Grant was smoking one of his customary cigars), they planned a counterattack for the following day. On April 7th, Sherman was in the front lines of his division as the Union army advanced. His division turned the enemy flank and drove them back, and he was wounded in the hand and shoulder and had three horses shot out from under him. The victory at Shiloh, followed up by those at Corinth, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, won Sherman great fame with the American people and, for the most part, restored his reputation among his colleagues.

In March 1864, Grant’s army had captured Chattanooga and was poised to invade Georgia. The Confederacy had been sundered in half with the fall of Vicksburg eight months earlier, and the Union now had to destroy the enemy’s remaining sources of food. Grant was summoned to Washington and given command of all Union armies, and he promoted his friend Sherman to command the Western Theater. Sherman had one order: march on Atlanta, the last remaining east-west railroad junction, and then on to the Atlantic Coast and split the Confederacy again. He regularly outmaneuvered his opponents as he approached Atlanta, fighting only one pitched battle at Kennesaw Mountain, and the Georgia capital fell on September 2nd. (The fall of Atlanta was more than a military victory—it secured Lincoln’s reelection in the 1864 campaign, and historians have commented that this may have been Sherman’s greatest contribution to the Union cause.)

With the armies in the Eastern Theater locked in mortal combat in Virginia around Richmond and Petersburg, Sherman turned his thoughts to how he could finally break the Confederates’ will to fight. Through three long years of bloodshed, the rebels’ spirits had never wavered, and Sherman believed it was because the people of the South had not felt the true horrors of war. In a telegram to General Grant on October 9th, Sherman laid out his plan to march “to the sea” from Atlanta to Savannah and destroy or capture anything that sustained the rebels’ war effort. In characteristic fashion, Sherman ended his telegram with the words, “I can make this march, and I will make Georgia howl.”

As Washington, DC, prepared for the Christmas holiday, President Lincoln received a telegram from General Sherman on December 22, 1864. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Sherman’s “Army of the West” had burned its way across Georgia over the preceding two months, costing the South nearly $100 million in property damage and freeing nearly ten thousand slaves along the way. Roads, telegraph poles, and railroad lines were ripped up; bales of wheat, hay and cotton were burned; and the homes of any Confederates who resisted were destroyed. (Contrary to popular belief in the South, Sherman’s army did not murder rebel civilians in cold blood and only fired upon those who had first fired on them.) Sherman’s “March to the Sea” inaugurated a new era in warfare—he had waged “total war” by targeting not merely the soldiers of enemy armies but anything which sustained their war effort. Sherman understood that wars are waged by nations whose people believe in the cause, at least to some extent; only by breaking that will to fight could an enemy be truly beaten. This lesson, taught by General Sherman, would be learned well by future generations of American military leaders.

Sherman was not a cruel man. Temperamental, yes, but never cruel. His diaries during the March to the Sea are filled with sadness as he saw homeless children reaping the consequences of their parents’ defiance of the Union. He did what he could to ease their suffering, but this did not prevent him from fulfilling his duty. As he saw the horrors of slavery firsthand in Georgia, he grew more abolitionist by the day, and his Special Field Order No. 15 appropriated land for forty thousand freed slaves in Georgia from their former masters (an order later revoked by President Andrew Johnson). Many slaves saw Sherman as a man of God, a “Moses” come to free them from bondage. The March to the Sea burned the heart out of the Confederacy, and when the rebels surrendered in April 1865, it was due in equal measure to Grant’s ruthlessness in battle and Sherman’s willingness to inflict cruelty upon the Southern people. It also demonstrated Sherman’s opinion on the nature of war: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

Sherman’s Politics

After parading with his victorious Army of the West through Washington in the Grand Review of May 24, 1865, Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Missouri, encompassing all US territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Four years later, when Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army, where he waged political battles with Washington bureaucrats and his troops fought actual battles against Native Americans. He organized new training schools for Army officers and did his best to help his friend stem the growing violence of the Democrat-backed Ku Klux Klan in the South during Reconstruction. By 1883, Sherman had grown tired of politics, and he resigned his command of the Army and then left the military on February 8, 1884.

Sherman’s final years were spent in New York City, where he pursued his interests in art and the theater—he was a devoted fan of Shakespeare. In 1884, the Republican Party approached him to run for president as General Grant had done. Sherman had watched politics destroy his friend’s reputation and health, and before the party could even offer him guidance on a platform or campaign strategy, he issued a public statement in the newspapers that has become famous: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

Ellen Sherman died in 1888, which devastated the old general, and in grief he turned his attention to conservation efforts with fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt (who had also used the outdoors to comfort himself after the death of his wife Alice four years earlier). The two men worked together to form the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization named for two famous American outdoorsmen. In January 1891, General Sherman fell ill with pneumonia, and he died on February 14th. President Benjamin Harrison issued a statement to Congress on Sherman’s death, saying, “He was an ideal soldier, and shared to the fullest the esprit du 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.”