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‘We Were As Brothers’
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
And each was in the other’s debt. “He stood by me when I was crazy,” Sherman once said of Grant, “and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now we stand by each other always.” Grant’s memoirs never touch upon alcohol or the rumors about his fondness for it. (Mark Twain privately lamented he’d never told the General, “Put the drunkenness in the memoirs—and the repentance and reform. Trust the people.”) Sherman dutifully recalls his fury at the newspaper stories declaring him “crazy, insane and mad” that nearly destroyed his career in 1861, although he is less than forthcoming about the genuine nervous collapse that lay behind them.
In any case, each man bolstered the other’s confidence. Sherman first won Grant’s gratitude by the selflessness with which he supported him during his siege of Fort Donelson. “At the time he was my senior in rank,” Grant remembered, “and there was no authority of law to assign a junior to command a senior of the same grade. But every boat that came up with supplies or reinforcements brought a note of encouragement from Sherman, asking me to call upon him for any assistance he could render and saying that if he could be of service at the front I might send for him and he would waive rank.” Grant’s victory at Donelson, in turn, provided Sherman with hope of an eventual Union triumph, what he called “the ray of light which I have followed ever since.”
The two men stood together at Shiloh, and in the aftermath, when Grant resolved to leave the Army after Henry Halleck had relegated him to the empty post of second-in-command, it was Sherman who talked him out of it: “… you could not be quiet at home for a week when the armies were moving.”
No one moved armies more relentlessly than Grant, but even Sherman quailed when, after repeated failures in the Vicksburg campaign, Grant resolved to plunge into enemy territory, cutting himself off from his base of supply and risking attack from hostile forces whose size he could not estimate. Sherman privately urged retreat. Grant gently overruled him. “The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory,” Grant recalled. “No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.” They did go on. Sherman kept his qualms to himself and, when the Rebel stronghold fell, made sure everyone knew that “Grant is entitled to every bit of the credit for the campaign; I opposed it.”
“He stood by me when I was crazy,” Sherman said, “and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now we stand by each other always.”
“The chief characteristic in your nature is the simple faith in success you have always manifested,” Sherman told Grant, “which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in his Saviour… I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got into a tight place you would come—if alive.”
Lincoln brought Grant east to take overall command, saying, “[He] is my man and I am his the rest of the war.” Together, Grant and Sherman took on the task of completing the Confederacy’s dismemberment. This time it was Grant’s turn to back his lieutenant’s plan for a march from Atlanta to the sea, a plan so daring that even Lincoln was timorous for a time. “I never had a doubt of the result,” Grant told Sherman when he reached Savannah, and he ended his letter, “I subscribe myself, more than ever, if possible, your friend, U. S. Grant.”
In offering his “many, many thanks” for the same victory, Lincoln said, “The honor is all yours,” went on to ask, “But what next?” then cheerfully answered his own question: “I suppose it will be safe if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide.”
Sherman’s account of the war is less successful than Grant’s, he stops and starts, offers too much detail about some things and too little about others, and too often reins in his distinctive prose. But the authentic Sherman—implacable, agitated, at his most eloquent when most angry—is still present in the letters and dispatches with which he frequently interrupts his narrative. His response to a letter from the city fathers of Atlanta, who had dared protest his order that the city’s inhabitants leave their homes, is characteristic—and expressed Grant’s views as well as his own: “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride. … I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.”
In the end success came later—and at far greater cost—than either Sherman or Grant would have liked. But without Grant’s belief in the inevitability of that success, without Sherman’s belief in Grant—and without Lincoln’s self-confident willingness to let these two friends fight the war as they saw fit—it might never have come at all.