William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891)

Written By Mathew Shaeffer

William Tecumseh Sherman was born on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. His father, Charles, was a member of Ohio’s Supreme Court but died in 1829. Sherman was sent to live with his father’s close friend Thomas Ewing. Ewing became a U.S. Senator in 1830 and later the Secretary of the Treasury. In 1836, Ewing appointed Sherman to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Sherman was popular and developed numerous friendships including one with North Carolina native Braxton Bragg. Sherman was a bright strategist but not a particularly disciplined soldier. Sherman’s poor behavior and disregard for protocol almost resulted in his expulsion from the academy, but in the end, Sherman graduated sixth in the Class of 1840.

After graduating, Sherman was stationed in Florida. There he saw limited action in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). He was transferred to Georgia and then South Carolina and developed numerous friendships and a lasting fondness for the South. The connections developed would guide his actions during the Atlanta and Carolinas Campaigns. During the Mexican War in 1846, Sherman was primarily assigned commissary duties in California. After the conflict, Sherman was transferred to Missouri and placed under the command of Braxton Bragg. He married his foster sister, Ellen Ewing, in 1850 and moved to New Orleans and worked for the Commissary Department. In 1853, Sherman resigned from the army and moved back to California.

Sherman’s life outside of the military was disappointing. He tried his hand at business and banking but was unsuccessful and the money he invested for his army friends, like Braxton Bragg, was all lost. Even though he was not obligated to do so, Sherman vowed to pay back all the investors and eventually reimbursed all debts. Sherman moved to Kansas and became a lawyer, but he only tried one case and lost. In 1860 Sherman caught a break when Major Don Carlos Buell, a friend from the army, provided him the job as the superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana. Sherman enjoyed and excelled at the job, and he was well respected by the students and staff. However, Sherman was a Union loyalist and felt forced to resign when Louisiana seceded from the Union.

Sherman resigned on January 18, 1861 and moved back north. Sherman’s brother, a U.S. Senator, advised him to come to Washington and see President Lincoln. In Washington, Sherman developed a dislike for politicians and declined multiple appointments from Lincoln before finally accepting a commission as colonel of the Thirteenth Regular Infantry.

On July 21, 1861, Sherman fought gallantly at the Battle of Bull Run and received minor injuries. Lincoln, aware of Sherman’s performance, promoted Sherman to brigadier general of volunteers and transferred him to Kentucky. When the commanding officer at his new post resigned, the command duties fell to Sherman.  Command in Kentucky proved too much for Sherman, and he suffered from a nervous breakdown. He was denounced by the newspapers and was deemed unfit for duty.

After a short leave, Sherman was transferred to Missouri. Ulysses S. Grant recognized Sherman’s strategic talent and requested that Sherman be placed under his command. Sherman’s confidence was restored after an exemplary performance at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, where he continued to fight even after being wounded. Grant promoted Sherman to the rank of major general and placed him in command of the District of West Tennessee.

In Tennessee, Sherman’s views on warfare changed. Originally he believed noncombatant populations and private property should be respected. However, guerrilla activity, civilian resistance, and the Confederate Army’s reliance on civilian supplies made Sherman realize civilian populations were vital to success in war. Wanting to find the fastest solution to end the war, he adopted the belief of total war. Sherman tried to demoralize the South by targeting economic support structures that enabled the war to continue. He wanted to destroy the South’s will to fight but maintained he would support the South when it laid down its arms; a claim validated by his actions after the war.  

From late 1862 through 1863, Sherman experimented with his controversial philosophy in Tennessee and Mississippi. Sherman and Grant succeeded in Mississippi and captured Vicksburg. After the defeat of Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Chattanooga, Grant was transferred to be general-in-chief of the Federal Army and Sherman took over command of the forces of Mississippi. On April 4, 1864, Sherman received orders to defeat Joseph E. Johnston, who replaced Bragg, and proceed into the heart of the South.

Sherman began his Atlanta Campaign on May 5, 1864. He constantly battled Johnston, but Johnston kept tactically retreating thus preventing total victory. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who personally disliked Johnston, replaced him with Lieutenant General John Bell Hood on the eve of the siege of Atlanta. Hood attacked Sherman, sustained heavy losses, and lost Atlanta on September 2, 1864. Instead of fortifying the city at the cost of numerous men, Sherman ordered the civilian population to be removed and the vital parts of the city were destroyed.

After leaving Atlanta, Sherman commenced his March to the Sea.  Sherman left General George Henry Thomas’s division to defend the rear and keep Hood occupied. He moved east through Georgia. Cut off from supplies, Sherman’s army was forced to live off the land. While Thomas occupied Hood, Sherman implemented total war. His army devastated a sixty-mile swath of land as it marched through Georgia. Sherman’s success made him extremely popular and some felt he should replace Grant. However, Sherman maintained deep sense of loyalty to the man gave him a second chance when everyone thought he was crazy. On December 21, 1864, Sherman took control of Savannah, Georgia and presented it to Lincoln as a Christmas present. To keep the soldiers in line, Sherman issued a standing order to shoot anyone behaving unsoldierly. Sherman made sure the civilian population was provided food and protected the families of Confederate officers. When Grant approved Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign, Sherman’s forces departed north toward South Carolina 

Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign devastated South Carolina. On February 17, 1865 Sherman’s forces took control of Columbia, South Carolina and large sections of the city were burned to the ground. Controversy exists over who started the fire, but Sherman spent the night preventing looting and putting out fires.  Sherman then moved into North Carolina on March 3, 1865 and continued his destructive march. Sherman’s cavalry, led by General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, clashed with the Confederates on March 10 at the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads. After being surprised and routed in the early morning hours, Kilpatrick successfully regrouped and counterattacked. Monroe’s Crossroads delayed the Federals march and allowed the Confederates to cross the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville. Fayetteville suffered because the bridges were destroyed, delaying Sherman’s march toward Goldsboro. The cavalry clashed again at the Battle of Averasboro on March 15 and 16, which ended in a Confederate retreat. The Battle of Bentonville from March 19 to March 21, 1865 was the last major conflict of the Civil War. Confederate forces achieved a morale victory but were forced to retreat. Sherman secured Goldsboro and united the three separate Federal armies in the South.

After General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. Sherman marched his forces to Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh surrendered before the Union army arrived and Raleigh was spared from destruction. Sherman even made measures to save the city from destruction after Lincoln’s assassination. Sherman met with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, on April 17 and 18 at Bennett’s Place just outside of Durham’s Station, North Carolina. The Confederate surrender at Bennett’s Place was controversial. Sherman’s terms were too generous and were rejected by Washington officials and he was lampooned by the press and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Sherman met again with Johnston on April 26 to negotiate an acceptable terms of surrender. These terms were accepted and all Confederate forces in the South officially surrendered.

Sherman remained widely popular after the war. Since his initial terms to Johnston were exceedingly generous, the South respected Sherman and looked to him for support during reconstruction. Sherman was an opponent of the Radical Republican Party and thought it was “Corrupt as Hell.” He helped his friends in the South and was vital in getting former Louisiana governor Thomas O. Moore’s plantation returned after it was confiscated. David French Boyd, founder of Louisiana State University, wrote to Sherman on September 22, 1865 and stated, “You were mainly instrumental in our discomfiture; yet the very liberal terms you proposed to grant us thro’ Joe Johnston and your course since have led the people of the South to expect more from you than any of the high northern officials.”

Following the war, Sherman was given command of the newly created Military Division of Missouri, which included the entire army west of the Mississippi River. Sherman was the commanding officer of the Indian Wars and carried over the strategy of total war. The Indians were faced with the decision of moving to the reservation or extermination. When Grant became General of the Army on July 25, 1866, Sherman was promoted to lieutenant general. After Grant became President of the United States in 1869, Sherman became commanding general of the United States Army. Sherman served as the commanding general until he retired on November 1, 1883. In 1875 he published a Memoirs (2 volumes) recounting his life and military career. When talk began of electing Sherman as president, Sherman, disgusted with politics, responded, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” He spent the last few years of his life in New York City and died on February 14, 1891.