William Tecumseh Sherman was a Unionist general during the American Civil War and possibly the most controversial. By the time the American Civil War ended in April 1865, Sherman held one of the highest ranks in the US Army and was feted in the North as a highly skilled tactician who had done a great deal to bring the American Civil War to an end. However, it was his tactics during the ‘March Through Georgia’ that have made Sherman probably the most controversial figure from the civil war and some historians have argued that it was his treatment of the South that did a great deal to undermine post-war ‘Reconstruction’.


William Sherman was born at Lancaster, Ohio, on February 8th 1820. His father was a wealthy lawyer who worked on Ohio’s Supreme Court. However, he died when Sherman was just 9 and left his widow with 11 children to bring up and very little money. A neighbour and family friend, Thomas Ewing, brought up Sherman. Ewing was an Ohio senator and he used his connections to get Sherman a place at the West Point Military Academy in 1836. He excelled at his academic studies at West Point but failed to impress the authorities there with his attitude, especially his nonchalant approach to wearing his uniform and his general appearance. Sherman graduated sixth in his class in 1840. He later claimed he would have been fourth had it not been for the number of demerits handed out to him.


Sherman joined the 3rd US Artillery. The only ‘action’ he was involved in was in Florida where he fought in the Second Seminole War. Other than this, he was involved in administrative work and worked in California at the time of the Gold Rush. In 1853, Sherman resigned his commission and became he manager of a bank in San Francisco. Life in this area of California could be volatile, as the gold rush had attracted a variety of people to the region. In 1856, Sherman served as a major general in the California militia – an organisation that protected the honest citizens of San Francisco but hunted out those who had come to the area for less honest reasons.


When his bank closed in 1857 as a result of the unpredictable financial situation in California, Sherman relocated to New York. However, the ‘Panic of 1857’ also led to this bank closing down.


After unsuccessfully trying a career in law, Sherman used his connections in 1859 to become Superintendent of Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy based in Pineville. This would later become Louisiana State University. Sherman gained a very good reputation for the work he did.


As relations between North and South become more hostile, Sherman made it clear to those around him in Louisiana that he was against secession. He resigned from his post and returned to the North where he became president of the St. Louis Railroad – a streetcar company. It was hardly the type of work that Sherman wanted and he resigned after just a few months. In May 1861 Sherman used family connections – his brother John was a senator – to get a commission in the regular army. On May 14th 1861, Sherman was appointed a colonel in the 13th US Regiment.


However, the regiment existed on paper only and Sherman was given command of a brigade of Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Three Months Volunteers’. Many politicians in Washington DC believed that the war would last only months – a belief Sherman ridiculed. As a result of this belief, President Lincoln called for men to volunteer to serve for three months. It was commanding these volunteers that Sherman had what was in effect his first major military combat experience – the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861). The battle ended with a defeat for the North and one of the few Union commanders in the field who showed any ability was Sherman, who was wounded in the knee and shoulder. Lincoln promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers. Following this Sherman was appointed commander of the Army of the Cumberland – a position that he did not want. Sherman’s main responsibility was the state of Kentucky. For a man who was to achieve so much fame and success, his first ‘taste’ as a senior military commander ended when he asked to be relieved of his command. In December 1861, Sherman was put on leave and classed as “unfit for duty”. It is possible that Sherman experienced a ‘nervous breakdown’ at this point and certainly the correspondence of his wife to Sherman’s brother, John, indicated her concern at his state of mind. To add to Sherman’s troubles, the media made what was happening very public when the ‘Cincinnati Commercial’ stated that he was “insane”.


Whatever troubles Sherman was experiencing at this time seem to have gone by mid-December. He returned to duty under the command of General Henry Halleck but remained in the background to start with concerning and involved himself with logistics.   


Sherman’s fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862) with distinction – so much so that he was promoted to Major General in charge of volunteers. He later referred to his experiences at Shiloh, where he was wounded twice, that it “gave me new life”. Sherman developed a positive friendship with General Ulysses Grant; so much so that he felt confident enough to criticise Grant’s strategy at the start of the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863.


Sherman’s record during the American Civil War was not one of consistent success. In December 1863 he lost the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. In bygone years, such a defeat may have triggered another episode of mental fragility. However, such a defeat only served to spur on a newly emboldened Sherman. He served with success during the Vicksburg Campaign and after it was over (July 1863) he was promoted to Brigadier General in the regular army and given command of the Army of the Tennessee. When Grant was made overall commander of the Union Army, Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi. It was now that Sherman develop his plan to bring the war to an early conclusion – a drive south to the vital Confederate city of Atlanta and then a move east to Savannah and then to drive north to link up with Union forces near Richmond – the so-called ‘March Through Georgia’.


Much has been written about the ‘March Through Georgia’ and it remains one of the more controversial episodes of the American Civil War. Sherman invaded Georgia in the spring of 1864. The Confederate armies at this time were suffering from acute shortages and while the fighting spirit was there, much vital equipment was not. Against the Confederate soldiers in Georgia, Sherman had slightly less than 100,000 men in three armies.


The campaign did not start well as Sherman’s armies had to move through terrain more favourable to the Confederates. Sherman lost the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain when his large armies found it difficult to manoeuvre in the passes. But he was far more successful when his armies fought in the open. However, it was issues outside of the actual fighting that caused great anger in the South.


Sherman’s approach from a military point of view was very successful and that was the sole criteria he used, as he believed that a successful conclusion to the ‘March Through Georgia’ would bring the American Civil War to an early end and therefore, the end justified the means. However, the impact of these tactics on civilians was huge and made Sherman a figure of hate in the South.      


Wary that he might be attacked in the rear, Sherman ordered that all buildings that might be of use to the Confederate Army should be destroyed as his armies advanced through Georgia. This took away from the South potential stores and accommodation for troops. It also meant that many homes were destroyed. Those who supported Sherman claimed that he only meant government and military buildings and that homes and shops were destroyed by over-enthusiastic troops. However, the end result was that many non-military and non-governmental buildings were destroyed. Atlanta in particular suffered much damage. It is said that only about 400 buildings survived Sherman’s attack with between 3,000 and 5,000 being destroyed. To Southerners, Sherman was merely being vindictive and cruel. To some he was trying to destroy the ‘Southern way of life’ and his detractors point to something Sherman wrote to Grant – that he wanted to “make Georgia howl.” Sherman himself estimated that his men did $100 million worth of damage to property in the South. While no accurate figures exist, it is thought that while material damage to the South was great, the number of civilians who died was small.


To many in the North, what happened made commonsense from a military point of view and many in the North believed that the South had brought it on itself. The British military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, claimed that Sherman’s approach made him the first “modern general” while Sherman himself referred to his approach as being “hard war”. It is possible that he would have agreed with Oliver Cromwell who used the phrase “cruel necessity” to justify his actions.


From Savannah, Sherman embarked on the next stage of him plan – a move up the east coast to link up with Grant in his campaign against Lee. His tactics remained the same. A fire destroyed Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in February 1865. Whether this was the result of an accident or not is not known. Again, many in the South saw it as a direct consequence of Sherman’s orders. After all, South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the Union – was this its punishment for doing so?


Surrounded by the huge forces of Grant and Sherman, Lee surrendered his force at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Sherman negotiated what were viewed as generous terms of surrender for the South but was later told that he had no right or authority to do so and was publicly berated by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The government refused to accept the terms negotiated by Sherman. This was very much a case of politicians ensuring that military commanders ‘knew their place’. While Sherman had no love for Stanton, his fame was such among the people of Washington DC that Sherman led his men in the ‘Grand Review of the Armies’ held in the capital on May 24th 1865 and to many in the North he was a hero.


Sherman remained in the US Army after the end of the American Civil War. He was promoted to Lieutenant General in July 1866 and in 1869 with Grant now US President, Sherman was made General of the Army. He resigned this position on November 1883 and left the army in early 1884.


He spent his retirement giving speeches and painting.


William Tecumseh Sherman died on February 14th 1891.

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