General William Tecumseh Sherman - an Enigma Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

General William Tecumseh Sherman - an Enigma

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An original photographic portrait of General William Sherman
War is Hell!
– William Tecumseh Sherman - Address to the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy on 19 June, 1879.

He is considered to be one of most important generals of the Civil War in the northern US. In the south he is despised as much as Benedict Arnold. The Native Americans compare him more closely with Adolf Hitler. How did the man, whose middle name was inspired by one of the most famous Shawnee Chiefs of all time, come to leave such a diverse legacy? We shall attempt to explain.

The Early Years

William Tecumseh Sherman was born on 8 February, 1820, in Norwalk, Connecticut. His father was a prominent lawyer, who had met the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and learned to respect his ideas. Tecumseh was killed in the Battle of the Thames on 5 October, 1813. When William was born his father decided to honour his old friend by adding the Chief's name to his own son's moniker. Shortly after William's birth, his father moved to Lancaster, Ohio. William and his mother followed two years later. His father, who had been appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court, died when William was only nine years old. The large family, with 11 children, were left with few funds. The children were parcelled out to relatives. William was adopted by his uncle Thomas Ewing, who had been both a Senator and Secretary of the Treasury. In early 1836 William received his appointment to the military academy at West Point, New York.

Sherman graduated in June 1840 as the sixth highest scoring student in a class of 43 cadets. After graduation he was assigned to the 3rd Artillery and ordered to become a part of the 2nd Seminole War in Florida. He was promoted to first lieutenant and eventually assigned to Fort Moultrie, just outside Charleston, South Carolina; he would serve there for five years. In a strange twist of fate, while most of the US Army were engaged in the war with Mexico, Sherman was investigating the Army Posts and records in Georgia and Alabama. Although he begged for a small part in the war with Mexico it did not come to pass, the only Mexican territory he saw had been secured well before his arrival.

Sherman found himself in Yerba Buena1 at the time of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. With the new opportunities created by the Gold Rush Captain Sherman resigned from the Army on 6 September, 1853.

After several exploits in banking and law, Sherman accepted the position of headmaster, and Professor of Engineering, at the 'Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy'2. As the Southern states moved closer to secession and war, Sherman found himself in a difficult position. As the commander of a state military school, Sherman was given instructions about how to proceed after the state had declared its independence – the state assumed that his loyalty would be to the state.

Before the start of hostilities Sherman resigned from his post and returned with his family to St Louis, Missouri. He saw the 'Pelican Flag' of secession flying over the buildings of New Orleans as he booked his family's passage north to the Union.

The Start of the US Civil War

Upon his arrival at Lancaster, Ohio, Sherman found two letters waiting for him. In one he was offered the position of president of a railway in St Louis. The other was from his brother John, who was a Senator, urging William to join him in Washington, DC. After accepting the position in St Louis, Sherman travelled to the capital to meet with his brother. He was introduced to President Lincoln, who asked him about the political situation when he had left Louisiana.

William then proceeded to St Louis and took up his duties on the railway. As the country moved closer to war, Sherman was constantly urged to rejoin the army. William wrote to the Secretary of War and expressed his concern that after so many years living in California and Louisiana, the men of a volunteer unit would not elect him as an officer, and he could not support his wife and children on a private soldier's salary. In May 1861 Sherman was commissioned as a colonel in the regular Army and assigned to the 13th Regiment.

The Confederate Capital at Richmond, Virginia, lies only a hundred miles south of the Union Capital in Washington, DC. Both sides were convinced that if they could capture the other's capital, the war would be over, and they would be victorious. In mid-July Sherman found himself in command of a brigade formed by five regiments that was advancing into northern Virginia.

When the two armies first clashed at Bull Run Creek, near the town of Manassas, Virginia, they were both untrained and lacked discipline. Sherman held his brigade together for most of the battle, but the terrible destruction of the troops by both musketry and artillery fire was too much for the men. The Union Army broke and returned to their camp, or even the city of Washington itself, as a disorganized mob. Sherman managed to reform at least part of his force on the very bank of the Potomac River.

Shortly after the disastrous battle Sherman was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. By the end of August Sherman was transferred to the Army of the Cumberland that was being organized to fight in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Each side had their own rules for naming battles. Sherman's first battle of the war3 was known in the North as the First Battle of Bull Run, while in the South it was First Manassas.

The War in the West

The Department of the Cumberland was to be commanded by General Robert Anderson, who had surrendered Fort Sumpter at the start of the War. Sherman was to be second in command. He has stated that he told the President that he desired no higher position. After a few months General Anderson felt the strain of command was too much for him and he publicly published his resignation. As second in command, Sherman was forced to replace him.

As commander of the forces in the West, Sherman was confidentially asked if he had been supplied sufficient troops. He observed that the commanders in the east had 160,000 men under their command to attack a front of less than a hundred miles. Sherman was expected to attack over four hundred miles of the enemy's line with only 18,000 men. He said that a proper offensive would require at least 200,000 troops. His report was leaked to the press, who accused him of being insane. This did not encourage Sherman to remain in command.

Another West Point graduate, who had also resigned from the Army, took an active role in the war. Ulysses S Grant moved south from Illinois on the Mississippi River until he arrived at the section that was strongly held by the southern forces. He then turned west on the Cumberland River to attack the Confederate forces who had entered Kentucky.

Grant had managed to dislodge the Confederate forces from several forts. At one fort he was asked what terms he would offer for the surrender. 'Unconditional Surrender are the only terms I will accept', US Grant had earned the nickname 'Unconditional Surrender Grant'.

In mid-November General Buel arrived to take command of the Department of the Cumberland and Sherman was transferred to the Department of the Missouri.

The battle of Shiloh (known in the North as 'The Battle of Pittsburgh Landing') was one of the bloodiest battles in the early war. The battle was fought on 6-7 April, 1862. Sherman had command of a division of troops and fought under the command of General Grant. One of the most fierce skirmishes was fought near the Shiloh meeting house4. Sherman was promoted to the rank of Major General of Volunteers shortly after the Shiloh battle.

On 1 May, 1862, the Union secured the city of New Orleans, Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The forces quickly moved up the river in an effort to cut the south into two parts. Soon there was only one place where the Confederates still controlled the river – Vicksburg5. The city was situated on a high point overlooking the river and had been given the nickname 'The Gibraltar of the West'.

The advance up the Tennessee River was interrupted by the siege of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The armies had advanced so deep into Southern territory that its long supply line was vulnerable to attack. When the Confederates started cutting the railway lines, the troops were forced to live off the land by foraging. The campaigns inland had to be halted so the troops could return to the rivers for resupply at regular intervals.

The siege would last for over six months. During this campaign the newspapers often attacked the reputation of General Grant, accusing him of being a drunken fool who was blamed for every failure, and crediting others with the victories. It was Sherman who came to his general's defence by responding publicly to the false claims. On 4 July, 18636, the city of Vicksburg surrendered to the Union forces, led by Grant and Sherman. Far away in Pennsylvania, General Lee was also leading his forces back south from their defeat at Gettysburg. The war was far from over.

After the capitulation of Vicksburg the army got only a brief rest before the conflict forced them to concentrate their efforts on the city of Chattanooga in eastern Tennessee, near the southern end of the Appalachian mountain range. While Sherman and Grant were distracted by the events surrounding Vicksburg, Union General Rosecrans had been active at the eastern end of the Tennessee River. He had fallen against the Confederate Army at Chickamauga, with disastrous results. Rosecrans was forced to fall back into the city of Chattanooga, where he was surrounded by Confederate forces and cut off from any resupply.

The battles that secured Chattanooga included the 'Battle Above the Clouds' fought on the summit of Lookout Mountain, and the 'Battle for Missionary Ridge' to the east, primarily conducted by General Sherman. At the conclusion of the battles for Chattanooga the Confederate army under General Bragg was dispersed in confusion. After reinforcing the command at Knoxville, Sherman's troops settled in for the winter; it was already mid-December. Grant put forward a plan to push south and link with Admiral Farragut's squadron at Mobile, Sherman had another idea – we will talk about that later.

Congress reinstated the rank of Lieutenant-general and appointed Grant to this lofty position, last held by General Washington himself. This promotion effectively placed Grant in command of all of the Union forces involved in the war. The importance of protecting the capital forced Grant to take his command to the east, leaving Sherman in command of the armies in the west.

The Atlanta Campaign

Grant issued a series of orders to his generals in the west. Sherman was instructed to use his personal command to attack the forces of Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston (who had replaced Bragg after his defeat at Missionary Ridge), who were in a fortified position near the town of Dalton, Georgia, located in the mountain pass7 between Chattanooga and the railroad junction of Atlanta, Georgia. The Battle of Thermopylae, fought more than 2,000 years earlier, clearly shows the perils of a campaign through mountain passes.

Like the Persians, Sherman found small paths that allowed him to skirt around the flank of the Confederate forces. Johnston, however, found passes on the other side of the mountains and managed to reform his troops before the Union army could get past them. Later reports and letters indicate that the Union soldier's habit of polishing the barrels of their Springfield muskets allowed them to shine in the moonlight and gave away their movements.

After the battle of Kennesaw Mountain Sherman found himself once more on open ground and only 17 miles from the city. On 18 July, 1864, General JE Johnston was ordered to relinquish his command to Confederate General John Bell Hood8, after his unsuccessful attempt to defeat Sherman in the mountains. The city was placed under siege.

By 1 September, Sherman was on the south side of the city where he found himself heavily engaged with Hardee's Corps near Jonesboro. Loud explosions were heard about midnight, and again at 4:00am – Hood was blowing up his ammunition stores and the railroad equipment9. The resulting fires raged through the city with few left to control them. By dawn Atlanta was in Union hands; Sherman had gained his first objective.

Sherman now reduced Atlanta to an armed camp. He evicted the civilians and converted all the homes he could make use of for military needs, the rest were destroyed to prevent their use by the enemy for cover. The residents howled with rage. This was the first atrocity of Sherman against the people of Georgia.

The March to the Sea

Atlanta was at the end of a long supply route. The supply trains were being attacked by Confederate troops in Alabama, including Forrest's Cavalry. When Hood moved north to block Sherman's escape back through the mountains, an attack on Savannah, at the far side of the state, became an obvious alternative. The shortest way for Sherman to rejoin the rest of his army was to return through the same pass he had used to reach Atlanta. When the Confederate army moved to block this route he decided to cross the entire state instead. Sherman and his army would march to Savannah! There would be no supplies or communication until they could contact the blockading ships of the navy. In his last dispatch to Grant he had left his final destination open to be either Savannah or Mobile.

With his troops to the west well instructed and his army as well supplied as practical, the 'Grand March' began to the east on 10 November. Sherman himself did not leave Atlanta until the 16th, after he had word of President Lincoln's re-election. The election was a real concern, a peace party, known as 'The Copperheads', were led by Lincoln's former commanding General George B McClellan. Had Lincoln lost the election, Sherman's march might well have been seen as an illegal act. The last of the city's mills and munition plants were destroyed before the army left. They were soon as isolated as a ship at sea leaving the smoking ruins of Atlanta behind them. With over 60,000 men the first order was to maintain discipline, keep to their formations and not let anyone distract them from the march. There were strict orders on the subject of forage, destruction of property and the seizure of livestock. All were permitted at the discretion of the division commanders, such decisions were to be based on the attitude of the residents and the needs of the troops. The fate of any refugees and freed African American slaves had their own instruction – the needs of the soldiers must come first. Thousands of African American slaves joined the march. They were all happy to offer whatever skills they could in exchange for their freedom. Those who could cook offered their services in the kitchens, they knew far more than the Yankee cooks on the proper preparation of local items that the foraging parties brought in. The rest offered their labour whenever possible.

And so we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia!

The farms and plantations were untouched by the long years of war, supplies from Florida to the south also passed through this area to feed to Confederate armies in both Tennessee and Virginia. When they reached a railroad line, not only were the rails torn up, but a large bonfire started with the tar-soaked wooden ties. The iron rails were laid across these hot fires until the centre reached red heat and a gang of a few dozen men would grab them and twist the rails around the closest tree. These useless bars of iron can still be found in central Georgia and are known as 'Sherman's Bow Ties'. The only objective more important than feeding his own troops was to prevent any of the crops from reaching the troops in Virginia. The burning of crops in the field became known as the 'Scorched Earth Policy'.

On 23 November, Sherman arrived at the state capital in Milledgeville with two of his four Corps, about 30,000 men, the other half of his army were only 12 miles to the south. While in the southern capital Sherman had an opportunity to read about the concern he had raised in the local newspapers. Some begged for Confederate troops to be sent to the area, others urged the locals to burn their own crops to slow his progress and destroy the bridges before the invading army could cross them. After putting the torch to the storehouses and ransacking the public buildings, the invading army once more entered the countryside.

By 3 December, Sherman was determined to meet the sea near the city of Savannah. As the army approached from the south on the 13th, weary and most of their supplies expended, Sherman saw the entrenchments outside the city and he feared another long siege. Following the Ogeechee River that ran to the sea just to the south of the Savannah River he found himself facing a small earthen fort named 'McAllister'.

While leaving most of his army to challenge the forces defending Savannah, Sherman took a division to attack the fort. Before the battle had begun he found a high spot where he could signal the Federal squadron waiting off-shore. The defenders fought valiantly, but they stood no chance of resisting the huge number of troops that they faced. That night Sherman dined with the fleet and sent his report of the march to his superiors in the north. A lesser man might have requested transports for his victorious troops and rested on his laurels, but that was not Sherman's style. He had left a swathe of devastation behind him in Georgia, but there were still enemy cities before his army.

On 15 December, 1864, Sherman returned to his main army before Savannah. It had only been a month since they had left Atlanta on the far side of the state, and completed one of the most famous marches in military history. Sherman sent a letter to Confederate General Hardee, who was in command of the defending forces, demanding their surrender as he now had heavy cannons for the siege. Hardee refused, but by 21 December he and his troops had abandoned the city. The general sent a telegram to Washington DC:

'To His Excellency, President Lincoln: I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.'
Gen William Tecumseh Sherman, 22 Dec, 1864.

North from Savannah!

Sherman received a letter from Grant on 2 January, 1865, authorizing his 'March Though the Carolinas'; while not as romantic as the 'March to the Sea' there was increased danger as he entered the heart of the 'Deep South'. His main objective was to reinforce Grant's army in the advance on Richmond. The main threat of this campaign was that the enemy would see the gravity of the threat and form an army to oppose Sherman. There was a concern that Robert E Lee10 would send a large part of his army south to meet the new threat. It was even considered that Lee himself might lead them.

The great cities of Charleston and Augusta both lay near his line of march, but were far enough off his intended track that he left them alone, except for a few brief feints at each. The leading divisions reached Orangeburg, South Carolina11 on 11 February. The city was abandoned as they approached and his troops spent the night in secure quarters.

As the troops entered Columbia, the very place where the first resolution of secession had been passed by the legislature, Sherman had given strict orders for the conduct of his army. Public, industrial and railroad buildings were to be destroyed, all other private and institutional structures were to be spared. As the last of the Confederate troops abandoned the town, they are reported to have set fire to the cotton stores in the warehouses. The flames spread and soon engulfed much of the city. As the city burned most southerners blamed Sherman and his troops.

After hearing about the fall of Columbia the Confederates abandoned Charleston, fleeing north. Sherman had also decided to bypass Charlotte, North Carolina, as he thought it would delay his meeting with Grant. The threat was still severe enough that a large number of troops12 were kept there for defence. Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston was placed in overall command of the troops in the Carolinas – the two men had last faced each other on the approach to Atlanta.

As Sherman advanced into North Carolina, Lee reported that his troops were deserting by the hundreds every night. Most were from North Carolina; it is not hard to understand that they were more concerned with defending their homes than the Confederate capital.

By 23 March Sherman was close enough to Grant's position to begin joint manoeuvres. The path of the march behind him was covered with twisted railroads and smouldering military buildings. On the 25th Sherman met with Grant for the first time since Grant had headed east to take command of the armies. President Lincoln was also visiting his general, along with General Sheridan. The four men discussed the strategy for the next few weeks.

The two armies were only separated by 150 miles, close enough to put Lee strategically between them. The Confederate capital was abandoned. On 9 April, 1865, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House13. Although other units would continue to fight in the coming months, the war was effectively over.

On 15 April, 1865, President Lincoln died from the effects of an assassin's bullet. The major effect was in the attitude of the North against their surrendered foes. We cannot let this important event pass without mention.

Sherman received General Johnston's surrender, however he had added a condition that the men could surrender their arms to their own state armoury. This was rejected by the Federal Government and Sherman was forced to revise his agreement to match the terms of Grant at Appomattox. Johnston agreed and the campaign was ended.

On 24 May, 1865, Sherman joined President Johnson to watch his troops march past in the 'Grand Review'. For 6½ hours his men marched past the reviewing stand. The war was over.

The Years Following the War

On 25 July, 1866, Grant was promoted to the rank of 'General of the Army' and Sherman was given the rank of 'Lieutenant General' to fill the void left by Grant's promotion.

On 5 August, 1867, President Johnson demanded the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, giving Grant a temporary appointment to that office. This was a direct violation of the 'Tenure of Office Act' that had been passed by Congress in March, over Johnson's veto. On 24 February, 1868, the President was impeached14 by the House of Representatives and forced to stand trial in the Senate. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove him from office. Grant had locked his office and given the key to Sherman, who then returned it to Stanton.

Grant was elected President in 1869, with the automatic title 'Commander-in-Chief'; Sherman was given the rank of 'General of the Army'. He then moved his residence from St Louis to Washington DC to be available to his new responsibilities.

The Western Campaign

Sherman was appointed to a commission to bring peace to several Native American tribes in July 1867. He travelled into the west and met with several chiefs, promoting a plan to establish several large reservations, allowing the tribes to be segregated from white settlers. The plan was rejected by his government.

On 10 May, 1869, the Union and Central Pacific railroads joined their tracks at Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the transcontinental railroad. The biggest threat to commerce became the tribes of Native Americans who saw the influx of new settlers as a threat to their way of life.

Sherman directed his army against the Native Americans. Using a theory similar to his 'scorched earth' policy in Georgia, he supported the wholesale slaughter of the bison (American Buffalo) to force the Native Americans to rely on the government for sustenance. He began to enforce his Reservation system and he advocated the killing of any 'Indians' who were found off their assigned territory. Grant's election to the presidency had removed the earlier objections to the reservation system15

In 1875 Sherman published his 'Memoirs' detailing his wartime experiences. He revised these several times during his remaining years, adding corrections and expanding some of the points made in them.

In July 1877 Sherman set out on a 115-day tour through the west, meeting with the chiefs and recording his observations of the countryside. Considerable detail was recorded about Yellowstone National Park.

Senior Statesman

On 8 February, 188416, Sherman officially retired from the army and moved to New York City. He spent much of his time giving lectures and entertaining at dinner parties. Such was his popularity that rumours began to spread that he was sure to be the next presidential candidate for the Republican party.

If nominated I shall not run – if elected I will not serve.

Whether these sentiments were based on the scandals that had surrounded the office of his old friend Grant, or only his own resolution that he desired no higher office, they should remain a part of his legacy.

Sherman died during the winter of 1891. Among the honoured pallbearers who stood outside the church in the cold winter wind was 82-year-old General Joseph Eggleston Johnston17. When a friend warned Johnston that he may fall foul of the winter wind, Johnston replied: 'If I was in Sherman's place and he were standing in my place, he would not put his hat on.' Johnston died ten days later of pneumonia.

Legacy

In the months leading up to the United States entry into World War II the status of its military preparedness was closely investigated. One of the areas that need improvement was the development of armoured vehicles, particularly battle tanks. The 'M3' model was developed and named after General Grant, the commander of all US forces at the end of the US civil war. After many tests it was decided that a better tank could be developed by sacrificing armour thickness and the size of the main gun for greater speed and manoeuvrability, the model 'M4' was created to meet these needs. When the time came to give the new model its name, Grant's loyal second-in-command was chosen – it was officially called the 'General Sherman'. The Sherman Tank became the most popular tank of WWII among all Allied forces, including American, British, Canadian and Free French.

1Known today as San Francisco, California. 2Known today as Louisiana State University, or more commonly by its initials 'LSU'.3There was a second battle fought on the same site a year later that added the number.4A small rural church. In a strange twist of fate the name 'Shiloh' means 'place of peace' in Hebrew.5Located on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 200 miles (322km) north of New Orleans and 500 miles (805km) south of St Louis, Missouri. 6The defenders decided that the Union forces would be inclined to offer better terms on the holiday of their nation's independence. On a side note the residents refused to celebrate the holiday for the next 80 years.7This pass is marked today as the roadway of Interstate Highway 75. Almost every exit name reflects a battle or skirmish from this campaign. 8Hood was known for daring, perhaps reckless, moves in combat. He had already lost an arm and a leg and had to be strapped onto his horse.9Anyone who has watched the film Gone with the Wind might recognize this scene.10Probably the most respected general in the war, RE Lee had spent most of the war defending the Confederate Capital at Richmond, Virginia.11Located a short distance south-east of the capital at Columbia.12General Beauregard, in command at Charlotte, asked Lee to send him an additional 20,000 troops.13In a strange twist of fate the surrender was signed in the home of a man named McLean. A student of the war might notice that one of the opening skirmishes of the First Manassas battle was fought in the fields of the McLean Farm. Wilmer McLean had moved after his house had been damaged at the start of the war. He has been quoted as saying 'The Civil War started in my front yard, and ended in my front parlour.'14Impeachment is only demanding a trial to determine if a president can be removed from office. The trial itself is a separate matter.15These still exist today and have their own legal and legislative forces. Signs are posted that by entering a reservation you are subject to tribal law.16It was his 64th birthday.17A prominent Confederate officer who Sherman had faced as an opponent on the battlefield many times during the war.

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