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3.when Generals Sue
Westmoreland and Sharon embarked on costly lawsuits to justify their battlefield judgments. They might have done much better to listen to Mrs. William Tecumseh Sherman.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Sherman was convinced that he was a victim of the base purposes of traducing newspapermen. He was probably right. His brother and his father-in-law thought he should bring a suit for damages against the “scoundrels who have libeled you.” Yet he never employed a lawyer to gain his vindication or to seek revenge. He contented himself, as best he could, by writing (along with friends and comrades) long and categorical letters refuting newspaper charges, branding their “every material paragraph false.” In letters and wires to the War Department (his employer, essentially), he expressed his “dissatisfaction” with newspaper accounts of his conduct and disposition; he objected to these accounts being “construed to my prejudice” and referred to slandering newspapers as “engines of vilification.”
He offered explanations and justifications when time and war permitted, and he specifically addressed charges of derangement that were developed from his assessments of troop strength and needs: “Do not conclude as before that I exaggerate the facts. They are as stated and the future looks as dark as possible. It would be better if some more sanguine mind were here, for I am forced to order according to my convictions…. Our forces are too small to do good, and too large to be sacrificed.”
Sherman’s wife, who believed that the press had joined in a conspiracy to discredit her husband, had encouraged him to sacrifice some pride for cunning. Even though she believed there was a plot behind the “scandalous and slanderous newspaper attacks,” she asked her husband to reconsider his dealings with the press: “Why can’t you keep on good terms with them? They are very useful if you allow them to be, but if not they have a power for evil that no one can stand against.”
He saw newsmen as “pests,” if not “spies,” and she saw them as “tools,” whose work could be “cruel” or positive. In another letter to her embattled husband she again counseled appeasement: “You cannot stand up against newspaper power, alone, as you do, without being engulfed in the abuse. Instead of resisting it, why not use it? John Sherman [the general’s brother, who was a lawyer and U.S. senator] uses the newspapers and takes pains to conciliate them. … You must endure reporters.”
Sherman never really learned how to publicize his rebuttals. And while he objected to being disgraced by the press, he did not seek its praise, despite his wife’s advice.
He believed (in 1863, at least) that “personalities in a newspaper are wrong and criminal. … It is enough for the world to know that I live and am a soldier.” As for posterity and the press, his words of 1879, when he was commanding general of the army, are consistent: “I think we understand what military fame is—to be killed on the field of battle and have our names spelled wrong in the newspapers.”
William Westmoreland and Ariel Sharon contend that CBS and Time , respectively, are traducers that, while spelling their names correctly, got their stories wrong. If there is any truth to these allegations, then surely here were stories that other television networks and newsmagazines would want to pursue.
After the war Sherman wrote his Memoirs and presented them in 1875 humbly, not as history but as a recollection of events. When these recollections were characterized by a columnist for the Cincinnati Gazette as “intensely egotistical, unreliable, and cruelly unjust” and as the work of an “erratic General who thrusts his pen recklessly through reputations which are as dear to the country as his own,” Sherman offered his recollection of the columnist’s work during the war. He told the Cleveland Leader that this writer would “do anything for money” and would “slander his own mother for a thousand dollars.” The columnist threatened to sue for libel. Sherman stood by his assessment and wrote to the would-be plaintiff, “This is a hard thing to say of any man, but I believe it of you.”
Still, it was not his Memoirs but time that salvaged Sherman’s reputation. The reclamation actually began as early as 1861, when the Louisville Journal wrote that “in his dauntless heroism he is the equal of Richard the Lion-heart. His deportment at the battle of Bull Run … was worthy of the greatest hero of any age.” On a most sensitive and controversial matter, the Louisville paper asserted: “Sherman’s mind is probably unsurpassed in power and comprehensiveness by that of any military man of our country. … He has been deemed insane only by those who could not comprehend him.” Over the ensuing twenty-five years he was to find himself mentioned frequently as a possible presidential candidate.