William T. Sherman - Civil War

From CivilWarWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Biography Index

Civil War

Army commission

Sherman accepted a commission as a colonel in the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment, effective May 14, 1861. He was one of the few Union officers to distinguish himself at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, where he was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder. The disastrous Union defeat led Sherman to question his own judgment as an officer and the capacities of his volunteer troops. President Lincoln, however, promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (effective May 17, 1861, which made him senior in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander).[1] He was assigned to serve under Robert Anderson in the Department of the Cumberland in Louisville, Kentucky, and in October succeeded Anderson in command of the department. Sherman considered his new assignment to violate a promise from Lincoln that he would not be given such a prominent position.[2]

Breakdown and Shiloh

Having succeeded Anderson at Louisville, Sherman now had principal military responsibility for a border state (Kentucky) in which Confederate troops held Columbus and Bowling Green and were present near the Cumberland Gap.[3] He became exceedingly pessimistic about the outlook for his command, and he complained frequently to Washington, D.C., about shortages and provided exaggerated estimates of the strength of the rebel forces. Very critical press reports appeared about him after an October visit to Louisville by the then Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, and in early November Sherman insisted that he be relieved.[4] He was promptly replaced by Don Carlos Buell and transferred to St. Louis, Missouri. In December, however, he was put on leave by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri, who considered him unfit for duty. Sherman went to Lancaster, Ohio, to recuperate. Some consider that, in Kentucky and Missouri, Sherman was in the midst of what today would be described as a nervous breakdown. While he was at home, his wife, Ellen, wrote to his brother Senator John Sherman seeking advice and complaining of "that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject."[5] Sherman himself later wrote that the concerns of command “broke me down," and he admitted contemplating "suicide."[6] His problems were further compounded when the Cincinnati Commercial described him as "insane."[7]

By mid-December, however, Sherman was sufficiently recovered to return to service under Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. Sherman's initial assignments were rear-echelon commands, first of an instructional barracks near St. Louis and then command of the District of Cairo.[8] Operating from Paducah, Kentucky, he provided logistical support for the operations of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to capture Fort Donelson. Grant, the previous commander of the District of Cairo, had recently 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 at this time, 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 Road, but [I] have faith in you — Command me in any way."[9]

After Grant captured Fort Donelson, Sherman got his wish of serving under Grant when he was assigned on March 1, 1862, to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division.[10] 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. Sherman in particular had dismissed the intelligence reports that he had received from militia officers, refusing to believe that Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston would leave his base at Corinth. He took no precautions beyond strengthening his picket lines, refusing to entrench, build abatis, or push out reconnaissance patrols. At Shiloh, he may have wished to avoid appearing overly alarmed in order to escape the kind of criticism he had received in Kentucky. He had written to his wife that, if he took more precautions, "they'd call me crazy again".[11]

Vicksburg and Chattanooga

The careers of both officers ascended considerably after that time. In Sherman's case, this was in part because he developed close personal ties to Grant during the two years they served together in the West. However, at one point during the long and complicated Vicksburg campaign, one newspaper complained that the "army was being ruined in mud-turtle expeditions, under the leadership of a drunkard [Grant], whose confidential adviser [Sherman] was a lunatic."[12]

Sherman's own military record in 1862–63 was mixed. In December 1862, forces under his command suffered a severe repulse at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi.[13] Soon after, his XV Corps was ordered to join Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand in his successful assault on Arkansas Post, generally regarded as a politically motivated distraction from the effort to capture Vicksburg.[14] Before the Vicksburg Campaign in the spring of 1863, Sherman expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of Grant's unorthodox strategy,[15] but he went on to perform well in that campaign under Grant's supervision. After the surrender of Vicksburg to the Union forces under General Grant on July 4, 1863, Sherman was given the rank of brigadier general in the regular army in addition to his rank as a major general of volunteers. Sherman's family came from Ohio to visit his camp near Vicksburg; their visit resulted in the death of his nine-year-old son, Willie, the Little Sergeant, from typhoid fever.[16]

Thereafter, command in the West was unified under Grant (Military Division of the Mississippi), and Sherman succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee. During the Battle of Chattanooga in November, under Grant's overall command, Sherman quickly took his assigned target of Billy Goat Hill at the north end of Missionary Ridge, only to discover that it was not part of the ridge at all, but rather a detached spur separated from the main spine by a rock-strewn ravine. When he attempted to attack the main spine at Tunnel Hill, his troops were repeatedly repulsed by Patrick Cleburne's heavy division, the best unit in Braxton Bragg's army.[17] Sherman's effort was overshadowed by George Henry Thomas's army's successful assault on the center of the Confederate line, a movement originally intended as a diversion. Subsequently, Sherman led a column to relieve Union forces under Ambrose Burnside thought to be in peril at Knoxville and, in February 1864, led an expedition to Meridian, Mississippi, to disrupt Confederate infrastructure.[18]


General Sherman with Generals Howard, Logan, Hazen, Davis, Slocum, and Mower, photographed by Mathew Brady

Despite this mixed record, Sherman enjoyed Grant's confidence and friendship. When Lincoln called Grant east in the spring of 1864 to take command of all the Union armies, Grant appointed Sherman (by then known to his soldiers as "Uncle Billy") to succeed him as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of Union troops in the Western Theater of the war. 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 concluding that "if you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol' Uncle Abe will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks."[19]

Sherman proceeded to invade the state of Georgia with three armies: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry 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.[20] He fought a lengthy campaign of maneuver through mountainous terrain against Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, attempting a direct assault only at the disastrous Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In July, the cautious Johnston was replaced by the more aggressive John Bell Hood, who played to Sherman's strength by challenging him to direct battles on open ground. Meanwhile, in August, Sherman "learned that I had been commissioned a major-general in the regular army, which was unexpected, and not desired until successful in the capture of Atlanta."[21]

Sherman's Atlanta Campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city. After ordering all civilians to leave the city, he ordered that all military and government buildings be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies. Capturing Atlanta was an accomplishment that made Sherman a household name in the North and helped ensure Lincoln's presidential re-election in November. Lincoln's electoral defeat by Democratic Party candidate George B. McClellan, the former Union army commander, had appeared likely in the summer of that year. Such an outcome would probably have meant the victory of the Confederacy, as the Democratic Party platform called for peace negotiations based on the acknowledgment of the Confederacy's independence. Thus the capture of Atlanta, coming when it did, may have been Sherman's greatest contribution to the Union cause.[22]

After Atlanta, Sherman began his march south, declaring that he could "make Georgia howl". Initially disregarding Hood's army moving into Tennessee, he boasted that if Hood moved north he (Sherman) would "give him rations" as "my business is down south." He quickly, however, had to send an army back to deal with Hood.[23] Sherman marched with 62,000 men to the port of Savannah, Georgia, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage.[24] Sherman called this harsh tactic of material war "hard war", which is now, in modern times, known as total war.[25] At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman's March to the Sea, his troops captured Savannah on December 22, 1864. Sherman then telegraphed Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present.

Sherman's success in Georgia received ample coverage in the Northern press at a time when Grant seemed to be making little progress in his fight against Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. A bill was introduced in Congress to promote Sherman to Grant's rank of lieutenant general, probably with a view towards having him replace Grant as commander of the Union Army. Sherman wrote both to his brother, Senator John Sherman, and to General Grant vehemently repudiating any such promotion.[26] According to a war-time account,[27] it was around this time that Sherman made his memorable declaration of loyalty to Grant:

It is related that a distinguished civilian, who visited him at Savannah, desirous of ascertaining his real opinion of General Grant, began to speak of him in terms of depreciation. "It won't do; it won't do, Mr. _____," said Sherman, in his quick, nervous way; "General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always."

While in Savannah, Sherman also suffered the blow of learning from a newspaper that his infant son Charles Celestine had died during the march to the sea; the general had never even seen the child.[28]

Final campaigns in the Carolinas

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Portrait by Mathew Brady, ca. 1864

In the spring of 1865, Grant ordered Sherman to embark his army on steamers to join him against Lee in Virginia. Instead, Sherman persuaded Grant to allow him to march north through the Carolinas, destroying everything of military value along the way, as he had done in Georgia. He was particularly interested in targeting South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, for the effect it would have on Southern morale.[29] His army proceeded north through South Carolina against light resistance from the troops of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. Upon hearing that Sherman's men were advancing on corduroy roads through the Salkehatchie swamps at a rate of a dozen miles per day, Johnston "made up his mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar."[30]

Sherman captured the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865. Fires began that night and by next morning, most of the central city was destroyed. The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, others a deliberate act of vengeance, and still others that the retreating Confederates burned bales of cotton on their way out of town. Local Native American Lumbee guides helped Sherman's army cross the Lumber River through torrential rains and into North Carolina. According to Sherman, the trek across the Lumber River, and through the swamps, pocosins, and creeks of Robeson County "was the damnedest marching I ever saw". Thereafter, his troops did little damage to the civilian infrastructure, as North Carolina, unlike its southern neighbor, which was seen as a hotbed of secession, was regarded by his men to be only a reluctant Confederate state, due to its position as one of the last to join the Confederacy. In late March, Sherman briefly left his forces and traveled to City Point, Virginia, to consult with Grant. Lincoln happened to be at City Point at the same time, allowing the only three-way meeting of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman during the war.[31]

Following Sherman's victory over Johnston's troops at the Battle of Bentonville, Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, and Lincoln's assassination, Sherman met with Johnston at Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina, to negotiate a Confederate surrender. At the insistence of Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Sherman offered generous terms that dealt with both political and military issues. Sherman thought his terms were consistent with the views Lincoln had expressed at City Point, but the general had no authority to offer such terms from General Grant, newly installed President Andrew Johnson, or the Cabinet. The government in Washington, D.C., refused to honor the terms, precipitating a long-lasting feud between Sherman and the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Confusion over this issue lasted until April 26, 1865, when Johnston, ignoring instructions from President Davis, agreed to purely military terms and formally surrendered his army and all the Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, becoming the largest surrender of the American Civil War.[32]

Slavery and emancipation

Though he came to disapprove of slavery, Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war, and like many of his time and background, he did not believe in "Negro equality".[33] His military campaigns of 1864 and 1865 freed many slaves, who greeted him "as a second Moses or Aaron"[34] and joined his marches through Georgia and the Carolinas by the tens of thousands.

The fate of these refugees became a pressing military and political issue. Some abolitionists accused Sherman of doing little to alleviate the precarious living conditions of the freed slaves.[35] To address this issue, on January 12, 1865, Sherman met in Savannah with Secretary of War Stanton and with twenty local black leaders. After Sherman's departure, Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister, declared in response to an inquiry about the feelings of the black community:

We looked upon General Sherman, prior to his arrival, as a man, in the providence of God, specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously felt inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he did not meet [Secretary Stanton] with more courtesy than he met us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman.[36]}}

Four days later, Sherman issued his Special Field Orders, No. 15. The orders provided for the settlement of 40,000 freed slaves and black refugees on land expropriated from white landowners in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Sherman appointed Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who had previously directed the recruitment of black soldiers, to implement that plan.[37] Those orders, which became the basis of the claim that the Union government had promised freed slaves "40 acres and a mule", were revoked later that year by President Andrew Johnson.

Although the context is often overlooked, and the quotation usually chopped off, one of Sherman's most famous statements about his hard-war views arose in part from the racial attitudes summarized above. In his Memoirs, Sherman noted political pressures in 1864–1865 to encourage the escape of slaves, in part to avoid the possibility that "'able-bodied slaves will be called into the military service of the rebels.'"[38] Sherman thought concentration on such policies would have delayed the "successful end" of the war and the "liberat[ion of] all slaves."[39] He went on to summarize vividly his hard-war philosophy and to add, in effect, that he really did not want the help of liberated slaves in subduing the South:

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. But, as regards kindness to the race . . ., I assert that no army ever did more for that race than the one I commanded at Savannah.



  1. See, for instance, Hirshson, pp. 90–94
  2. Sherman, Memoirs, p. 216; see also p. 210: In Washington, after Bull Run, Sherman explained to Lincoln "my extreme desire to serve in a subordinate capacity, and in no event to be left in a superior command. He promised me this with promptness, making the jocular remark that his chief trouble was to find places for the too many generals who wanted to be at the head of affairs, to command armies, etc."
  3. For more detailed discussion of this overall period, see Marszalek, Sherman, pp. 154-67; Hirshson, White Tecumseh, pp. 95-105; Kennett, Sherman, pp. 127-49.
  4. Sherman to George B. McClellan, Nov. 4, 1861, in Stephen W. Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1861-1865 (New York, 1989), p. 127, note 1; Marszalek, Sherman, pp. 161-64.
  5. Quoted in Lewis, p. 203.
  6. Sherman to John Sherman, Jan. 4, 8, 1862, in Simpson & Berlin, Sherman’s Civil War, 174, 176.
  7. See Cincinnati Commercial, Dec. 11, 1861; Marszalek, Sherman, pp. 162, 164.
  8. At one point, Halleck suggested to General-in-Chief McClellan that Sherman be given command of an expedition on the Cumberland River (on which Fort Donelson was located), but Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton objected, telling Lincoln that any "expedition . . . will prove disastrous under the charge of General Sherman." Kennett, pp. 155-56, quoting EMS to AL, Feb. 14, 1862.
  9. WTS to USG, Feb. 15, 1862, Papers of Ulysses S. Grant 4:216n; see Smith, pp. 151–52.
  10. Eicher, p. 485
  11. Daniel, p. 138
  12. Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Her Generals, and Soldiers (New York, 1868), 1:387.
  13. See Marszalek, Sherman, pp. 202-08. Sherman's operations were supposed to be coordinated with an advance on Vicksburg by Grant from another direction. Unbeknownst to Sherman, Grant abandoned his advance. "As a result, [Sherman's] river expedition ran into more than they bargained for." Smith, Grant, pp. 224.
  14. Smith, p. 227
  15. To whit: an invading army may separate from its supply train and subsist by foraging. Smith, pp. 235–36
  16. Sherman, Memoirs, pp. 370-75.
  17. McPherson, p. 678.
  18. Sherman, Memoirs, pp. 406-34; Buck T. Foster, Sherman's Meridian Campaign (University of Alabama Press, 2006).
  19. Sherman, Memoirs, p. 589
  20. McPherson, p. 653
  21. Sherman, Memoirs, p. 576. The nomination was not submitted to the Senate until December. Eicher, p. 702.
  22. For extended discussion of Lincoln's reelection prospects and the effect of Sherman's capture of Atlanta, see James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin, 2008), 231-50.
  23. Telegram by W.T. Sherman to Gen. U.S. Grant, October 9, 1864, reproduced in Sherman's Civil War, pp. 731–732
  24. Report by Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman, January 1, 1865, quoted in Grimsley, p. 200
  25. History Channel
  26. See, for instance, Liddell Hart, p. 354
  27. Brockett, p. 175 (p. 162 in 1865 edition).
  28. Marszalek, Sherman, p. 311.
  29. John F. Marszalek, "'Take the Seat of Honor': William T. Sherman," in Steven E. Woodworth, ed., Grant's Lieutenants: From Chattanooga to Appomattox (Larwence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 2008), pp. 5, 17-18; Marszalek, Sherman, pp. 320-21.
  30. Jacob D. Cox, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War (1900), vol. 2, 531-2; Jacob D. Cox, The March to the Sea (1882), p. 168; Johnston is also quoted in McPherson, p. 828.
  31. Sherman, Memoirs, pp. 806-17; Donald C. Pfanz, The Petersburg Campaign: Abraham Lincoln at City Point (Lynchburg, VA, 1989), 1-2, 24-29, 94-95.
  32. See, for instance, Johnston's Surrender at Bennett Place on Hillsboro Road
  33. See, for instance, letter by W.T. Sherman to Salmon P. Chase, January 11, 1865, reproduced in Sherman's Civil War, pp. 794–795, and letter by W.T. Sherman to John Sherman, Aug. 1865, quoted in Liddell Hart, p. 406
  34. Letter to Chase, cited above
  35. See, for instance, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 247.
  36. "Sherman meets the colored ministers in Savannah"
  37. Special Field Orders, No. 15, January 16, 1865. See also McPherson, pp. 737–739
  38. Sherman, Memoirs, pp. 728-29, quoting a December 30, 1864 letter from Henry W. Halleck.
  39. Sherman, Memoirs, p. 729.
  40. Sherman, Memoirs, 2d ed., ch. XXII, p. 729 (Lib. of America, 1990).