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date: 29 June 2022

Sherman, William Tecumsehfree

(08 February 1820–14 February 1891)

Sherman, William Tecumsehfree

(08 February 1820–14 February 1891)
  • John F. Marszalek

William Tecumseh Sherman.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92344).

Sherman, William Tecumseh (08 February 1820–14 February 1891), soldier, was born in Lancaster, Ohio, the son of Charles R. Sherman, a state judge, and Mary Hoyt. His father died when Sherman was nine years old, leaving the family penniless. Sherman grew up in the family of Thomas Ewing (1789–1871), a noted politician, and Maria Boyle. At sixteen he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point through his foster father’s influence, graduating sixth out of a class of forty-one.

Though he chafed under the restrictive military academy environment, he came to see the army as his family, a substitute for the familial relationship he felt he had lost with the death of his father. He respected Ewing enormously and tried to gain his approval but always saw himself as only a poor orphan ward.

After graduation, Sherman served a variety of military assignments, mostly in the South. He participated in the difficult Seminole War in Florida from 1840 to 1842. At Fort Morgan in Mobile, Alabama (1842), and Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina (1842–1846), Sherman became intimately acquainted with southern people and geography, two areas of knowledge that were to influence his later military career.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Sherman was on recruiting duty in Pittsburgh, but he soon received orders for California. A 198-day sail around the Horn of South America brought him to Monterey, where he served until 1850. He experienced no combat, his main excitement being the famous gold rush.

Sherman was happy in 1850 to leave California for Washington, carrying military messages to President Zachary Taylor and to Winfield Scott, the army’s commanding general. His lack of combat experience still worried him, and his marriage that year to Ellen Ewing (with whom he had eight children) added to his burdens. Ellen, a staunch Catholic tied very closely to her family, insisted that he accept her religion (he expressed no denominational preference) and that he leave the army and find civilian occupation, but only in Lancaster, Ohio, where her parents still lived.

However, Sherman remained in the army until 1853, serving in St. Louis and New Orleans in the commissary service. Ellen spent as much time as she could in Lancaster, giving birth to two children there during these years. Sherman remained unhappy at their frequent separations and because of his concern that the army did not provide the financial security he believed his family needed if it were to avoid the disaster he had experienced as a child when his father had died. When a St. Louis banker friend and former military colleague in California, Henry S. Turner, offered him the management of a branch bank in San Francisco, Sherman accepted it hesitatingly. Ellen remained opposed to any move that took her far away from Lancaster and her family.

Sherman’s four-year stint (1853–1857) as a California banker was filled with financial problems, highlighted by a run on all San Francisco banks in 1855. He weathered the panic well, however, gaining the admiration of the city’s businessmen. In May 1856 he found himself in the middle of a vigilante crisis. Though he headed the local militia and had the support of the state’s governor, Sherman found himself helpless in the face of the determined extralegal movement. He had to stand by while vigilantes took over the city; he resigned his militia commission to try to protect his bank.

Sherman’s personal life was similarly unsettling. In return for Ellen’s departure for California, Thomas and Maria Ewing insisted that the older of the two Sherman children, the two-year-old Maria (Minnie), remain with them in Lancaster. Ellen thus found herself torn between California and Ohio, and she spent one seven-month period in Lancaster visiting father and daughter. Throughout the four California years, Sherman suffered sometimes incapacitating asthma attacks. Depression plagued him, the result of worry about his health, business, and family. In late 1856, because of their concern over Sherman’s increasingly pessimistic reports about his health and California’s financial climate, the St. Louis bankers decided to close their San Francisco branch.

Sherman accepted management of a new branch in New York City, but the panic of 1857 sank the St. Louis bank and forced the closing of the New York branch, too. Depression overwhelmed him, as he faced his greatest fear: inability, like his father, to support his family. He dreaded becoming Ewing’s poor ward again. Ellen’s happiness that events were driving him inexorably to Lancaster only made his depression worse.

Sherman thrashed around trying to discover some way out of his financial and personal abyss. He felt forced to accept Ewing’s offer to manage the family’s coal and saltworks in nearby Chauncey, Ohio. At the last minute, he gained a reprieve. His brothers-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr. (1829–1896), and Hugh Boyle Ewing, offered him a part in their legal and real estate business in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Business never materialized the way the three men had hoped, and young Tom Ewing, much to Sherman’s disgust, spent more time in antislavery politics than in real estate. In 1859, despaired of success in Kansas, Sherman tried to get back into the army. There were no openings, however, and he was not interested in managing a London bank in which the Ewings had an interest. At the last minute, thanks to some former army friends, he gained the position of superintendent of the newly established Louisiana Military Seminary (forerunner of Louisiana State University).

Sherman’s life in Louisiana from the fall of 1859 to February 1861 was one of the happiest periods in his life. Students, parents, and the state’s politicians were impressed with his accomplishments at the school and with his proslavery attitude. Ellen remained in Lancaster with their five children. She and her father kept telling Sherman that he should come home or, at least, accept the banking position in London. Sherman, growing in confidence everyday as he experienced a success he had seldom before felt in his life, insisted that he would stay in Louisiana.

Unfortunately, secession forced Sherman to a major turning point. After a hard struggle, he decided to leave Louisiana. He took a job as president of a street railway company in St. Louis, words of praise from Louisiana people still ringing in his ears. He witnessed the chaos created by Federal volunteer Home Guards in their clumsy attempt to rid the city of equally incompetent pro-Confederate state militia. He determined to stand aside until the Union war effort became more organized and orderly.

In May, owing to the influence of his brother and the Ewings, Sherman was offered and accepted the colonelcy of a regular army unit. Winfield Scott appointed him an inspector general, and on 30 June 1861 Sherman was made commander of the Third Brigade of the First Division in Irvin McDowell’s army preparing to invade Virginia. Sherman quickly whipped his volunteer unit into shape and led them admirably at the battle of Bull Run (Manassas). The Union debacle devastated him, however; all his fears about volunteer incompetence and Union disorganization were played out before his eyes. Press criticism reawakened his long-held animosity against reporters. He wondered if, once again, his hopes for success were to be dashed.

In August 1861 Abraham Lincoln named him Robert Anderson’s second in command of the Department of the Cumberland (Ky. and Tenn.), promising, as Sherman requested, that he would never be called upon to lead. The situation there proved even more chaotic than in Washington, and when Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter, broke under the pressure, Sherman was forced to take over, Lincoln’s promise notwithstanding. Sherman found the task overwhelming, exaggerating a bad situation until it appeared hopeless. He freely spoke of imminent Confederate victory and danger to bordering northern states. He demanded to be relieved of command, and the Lincoln administration sent Don Carlos Buell to replace him.

Sherman moved to Missouri under Henry W. Halleck’s command; he so vociferously continued expressing his pessimism about the war that Halleck sent him home to Lancaster for a rest. Newspaper reporters, angry at having been excluded from his camps, took advantage of the situation to label him insane. He developed such severe depression that he contemplated suicide. Sherman was given troop training duty at Benton Barracks, Missouri, but he did not rebound fully until he became associated with Ulysses S. Grant and saw that the Union cause was indeed not doomed. In April 1862 he distinguished himself at Shiloh. He received a hand wound as Confederates overran his position, but he maintained his composure and conspicuously rallied Union troops around him in the face of the hard-charging enemy, demonstrating to himself and to others that he was an excellent battlefield leader. Simultaneously he drew inspiration from Grant’s reversal of the Union debacle on the first day into the victory of the second. Participation in Halleck’s capture of Corinth in June 1862 increased this newfound optimism. He even talked Grant out of quitting in despair over his seeming demotion after Shiloh.

When Memphis fell into Union hands in June 1862, Sherman became its military governor. There he battled guerrillas more than Confederate regulars and came to recognize that this war was between two societies more than it was between two armies. He punished civilians when they harbored partisans or tried to sabotage Union forces or installations. He similarly inspired Union sentiment in Memphis, leaving the post for active field activity in the fall of 1862 pleased with his popularity and content that he had finally achieved the success that had so long eluded him.

This feeling of accomplishment quickly melted away when, in December 1862, Sherman failed to defeat Confederate troops at Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg. His troops valiantly battled the watery terrain and charged the entrenched enemy on the Walnut Hills but suffered a discouraging repulse with terrible casualties. Newspaper charges that he had made an insane attack reopened old wounds, and in reaction Sherman court-martialed Thomas Knox of the New York Herald, the only such proceeding against a reporter in American history.

The early months of 1863 continued to be frustrating. Sherman lost his command to political general John McClernand, who took credit for the successful capture of Arkansas Post in January 1863. Grant made repeated attempts to take Vicksburg and failed each time, Sherman sharing in the frustration. Sherman strongly advised Grant to return to Memphis and begin anew, but Grant saw the political suicide in such a retreat. Instead Grant ordered the brilliant but dangerous flanking of the city and the positioning of the Union troops between Joseph E. Johnston’s force in Jackson and John Pemberton’s (1814–1881) troops in Vicksburg. Sherman made an elaborate feint at Snyder’s Bluff above Vicksburg to try to shield Grant’s activities below the city. Having achieved his purpose, he raced his army to rejoin Grant’s force. He participated in chasing Johnston out of Jackson and destroyed its military capability. His troops were active participants in Grant’s May attack on Vicksburg, and then he organized the force Grant sent to the Big Black River east of Vicksburg to thwart any efforts by Johnston to break the Union siege of the city. When Grant forced Vicksburg into a 4 July surrender, Sherman shared the excitement. Once more he experienced success, but this time the death of his beloved son, Willie, during a family visit to the area in the fall of 1863 caused a wound that never healed.

In the fall of 1863, when Grant became overall head in the West, Sherman became commander of the Department of the Army of the Tennessee. He participated in the successful battle of Chattanooga and then returned to Mississippi to put into practice the concept of war he had been contemplating since Memphis. During the Meridian campaign in February 1864, Sherman cut a swath of destruction from Jackson to Meridian, Mississippi, utilizing property damage and warfare against the southern psyche to achieve the victory he believed the mayhem of battle could not accomplish as quickly or as effectively. When Grant was made general in chief of all Union armies in March 1864, Sherman became commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, head of all military operations in the West.

Grant and Sherman now planned coordinated military activities throughout all the theaters of the war. On 5 May 1864, as Grant began his movement against Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Sherman departed from Chattanooga and moved against Johnston and his Army of Tennessee in Georgia. For the next four months, in a series of flanking movements that required not only tactical, but logistical skill, Sherman pushed Johnston back toward Atlanta. He almost crushed the Confederates at Snake Creek Gap near Resaca in the opening days of the campaign, but the failure of General James B. McPherson to follow up his advantage prevented this success. Sherman failed at several other flanking movements, pushing Johnston back but unable to land a killing blow. Exasperated, he unwisely made a frontal attack at Kennesaw Mountain, only to be severely repulsed with large losses. He went back to his flanking activities and forced Johnston into the Atlanta defenses. At this time Confederate president Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood. The aggressive Hood went on the offensive, but Sherman successfully repulsed each of his attacks and took command of the city in September 1864, just in time to help salvage the presidential reelection of Lincoln.

Despite initial opposition from Lincoln and Grant, Sherman implemented his philosophy of psychological warfare and property destruction. He saw pillage as a preferable substitute for the continued carnage of battle. He did not want to kill southerners, people he still considered his friends; he wanted to convince them to stop the war. Beginning in early November 1864, he marched through Georgia to the sea at Savannah, and in early 1865 he marched through the Carolinas. He had his soldiers live off the land, taking what they needed and destroying anything associated with slavery and the Confederate war effort. Private homes were not normally destroyed, but Sherman’s men (as well as Confederate cavalry, deserters from both sides, and fugitive slaves) frequently looted these dwellings. Sherman preached the doctrine of hard war and soft peace. Once the Confederates stopped their war effort, he promised, he would support their return into the Union with no further punishment. This psychological warfare worked. Casualties to military men and civilians were small on the marches; property destruction was widespread. Confederate desertions increased, and the people’s will to continue fighting deteriorated.

When General Johnston approached him in April 1865 about ending the fighting, Sherman jumped at the offer. In fulfillment of his hard war, soft peace doctrine, he agreed to terms that were so generous to the defeated Confederates that Washington politicians and the nation’s newspapers, reeling from Lincoln’s assassination, accused him of treason. Sherman was forced to renegotiate the treaty. He was so angered to see himself defamed once more that, during the Grand Review of Union Armies in Washington in May 1865, he snubbed his chief critic, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, on the reviewing stand.

Sherman came out of the war with the success he had always craved. He enjoyed his popularity but wanted only to go back to the army and society as he remembered them before secession. However, the war had changed the United States, and the Reconstruction following the war was a difficult time. Sherman supported the old-line leaders in the South. Though he knew slavery was dead, he thought that the freed people should be kept in a subordinate status. When Andrew Johnson tried to use him in his battle with Congress, Sherman refused to become involved, insisting that the only answer to the imbroglio was a return to the prewar years.

When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman succeeded him as commanding general, a post he was to keep until his retirement. He found the job frustrating. Grant did not support him in his battle with the secretary of war over command jurisdiction, causing a rupture in their friendship that was never totally healed. He was regularly upset as Congress continually cut army strength and military salaries. Politicians ignored his military counsel, even when it came to waging the difficult American Indian wars. As a result, Sherman left Washington whenever he could, spending a year on tour in Europe and the Middle East (1871–1872) and another eighteen months (1874–1876) in St. Louis. He particularly enjoyed visiting the West, and in 1879 he received a friendly welcome when he revisited scenes of his wartime exploits in the South. In 1875 he published his memoirs and weathered the criticism he received from Union friends and Confederate foes for his interpretation of wartime events. His major imprint on the postwar army was improving military education, including the establishment of a school for officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

When he officially retired in 1884, Sherman continued attending veterans’ gatherings, and he was president of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee from the late 1860s until his death. He was one of the most popular after-dinner speakers in the nation, still “Uncle Billy” to his aging soldiers and the esteemed approachable Civil War hero to the nation’s civilians. He saw himself as defender of the history of the Union cause, writing articles and giving speeches insisting on the moral superiority of the Unionists and defending his own and his army’s role in the war. In the process, he engaged in numerous feuds, notably in the late 1880s with Jefferson Davis. In 1880 Sherman coined the phrase that was shortened to “war is hell,” and when in 1884 he refused, yet again, to run for the presidency, he said, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

Sherman was crushed when his oldest son, Tommy, became a Jesuit priest. Ellen’s health grew increasingly worse, and she became a near recluse, dying in 1888 in the New York City house he had bought for her that same year. Sherman maintained an active social life. He loved the theater and was a favorite among New York’s actors and actresses. He regularly rode the elevated trains with ordinary citizens and enjoyed taking his visiting grandchildren to the circus, wild west show, or Central Park. He gained a reputation for kissing young women, and he sought feminine companionship every chance he had. The sculptor Vinnie Ream Hoxie was a particular favorite.

When Sherman died in New York City, the outpouring of national mourning expressed the public’s admiration for him. It was only in later years that the growth of the southern Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War created his reputation as a villain who practiced senseless barbaric destruction. In truth, Sherman was a pioneer of purposeful psychological and total war, one of the major figures in American military history.


Sherman’s papers are located in libraries and manuscript depositories all over the nation. The most important papers are found in the Library of Congress, the Archives of the University of Notre Dame, and the Ohio Historical Society. See also Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (2 vols., 1875 and 1886; new ed., 1990). Joseph H. Ewing, ed., Sherman at War (1992), is a collection of Civil War letters. A modern biography is John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (1993); it contains a complete listing of Sherman’s papers. Dated but still worthwhile are Lloyd Lewis, Sherman, Fighting Prophet (1932); Basil H. Liddell-Hart, Sherman, Soldier, Realist, American (1929; repr. 1958); and James M. Merrill, William Tecumseh Sherman (1971). On total war, see Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson and the Americans (1991). An insightful study of Sherman’s soldiers is Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (1985). A study of Sherman’s hostile relationship with newspaper reporters is Marszalek, Sherman’s Other War: The General and the Civil War Press (1981). A critical assessment of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign is Albert Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992). John B. Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War (1973), is severely hostile to Sherman’s psychological warfare, while Charles Edmond Vetter, Sherman, Merchant of Terror, Advocate of Peace (1992), views his subject more objectively. A front-page obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Feb. 1891. Literary Digest, 21 Feb. 1891, pp. 20–21, provides synopses of a host of obituaries in the nation’s press.