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The New Sherman Letters
Extraordinary correspondence, never published before, takes us inside the mind of a military genius. Here is William Tecumseh Sherman in the heat of action inventing modern warfare, grieving the death of his little boy, struggling to hold Kentucky with levies, rolling invincibly across Georgia, and—always—battling the newspapermen whose stories, he believes, are killing his soldiers.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
William Tecumseh Sherman,” announced The New York Times near the end of the Civil War, “has surpassed all newspaper correspondents in writing about military affairs...for conciseness, perspicacity and comprehensiveness with brevity he is the perfect model.” One Associated Press reporter went so far as to say that the man would have been an even better war correspondent than a general.
But most newspapermen knew Sherman as a relentless enemy. As late as April 1865, a New York Tribune correspondent wrote that “a cat in hell without claws is nothing to a reporter in General Sherman’s army.”
From the First Battle of Bull Run to the end of the war, Sherman believed far more harm than good was done the Union cause by war correspondents. They were “dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan.” They were “spies and defamers.” They were “infamous lying dogs.”
Hostility at this level pulses through a collection of twenty-four previously unpublished letters written by Sherman in the midst of the Civil War to my great-grandfather, Thomas Ewing, who was Sherman’s foster father, and to my grandfather, Philemon B. Ewing, who was Sherman’s boyhood companion. One of them, a three-thousand-word jeremiad, is the longest and most revealing discourse he ever composed on the subject.
This letter and its companions lay for forty years or more in the bottom of a wooden box in my family’s attic in Roselle, New Jersey, unseen by biographers or historians, although my father inventoried them and handled them with scholarly care. After his death I put the collection in a safe, where it remained generally undisturbed for another thirty years. If such benign neglect is considered an affront to the writing of history, I comfort myself with the thought that the letters at least have been preserved. The collection also includes an additional five letters written by Philemon Ewing to Sherman during the war and such miscellaneous items as a letter from Sherman’s mother to the War Department assenting to her son’s appointment to the United States Military Academy, a letter from the sixteen-year-old Sherman acknowledging his appointment, and an extract from the academy’s conduct reports for February 1839 showing that the young cadet had received four demerits during the month.
The earliest letter in this collection is one from “Cump” Sherman, aged twelve, to Thomas Ewing, who in 1832 was serving in Congress as a U.S. senator from Ohio. It shows that the boy Sherman already had acquired the art of conciseness that was to mark his writing as a man, although he has yet to master the rules of capitalization and punctuation.
[Lancaster, Ohio] March 4, 1832
I am well our school was up yesterday they have got no one appointed to teach school now we have fine weather only we had a little rain but I think that will soon go the people are making sugar now it is good weather Ellen received her book she thinks it is very pretty she loves those plays and riddles and we got ours of Asia it is good I like it as well as any other of them Ellen is writing to you now James is here yet he thought he was agoing to Cincinnati last month but he did not go and Grandma is here yet and she is well she thinks she will stay all spring and summer but she does not know Rachel is very much pleased with her book that Book that you mentioned a great while ago for Philemon I suppose you have not sent it yet for we have not got it that is all I have to say.
I remain yours affectionately Wm T Sherman
Thomas Ewing had taken Sherman into his home to be raised with his own children when the boy’s father, Charles R. Sherman, a judge of the supreme court of Ohio and one of Ewing’s closest friends, died leaving his wife with eleven children. This was in 1829, when Cump, as his family always called him, was nine. For the next seven years he lived in the Ewing home in Lancaster, Ohio, only a few doors up the street from the house in which he had been born and in which his mother continued to live with the youngest Sherman children. The Ewing son closest in age to Cump was Philemon, and the two boys were together constantly until 1836, when Cump, following the guidance of his foster father, left Lancaster for West Point.
After graduating from West Point, Sherman served in the Army for thirteen years, his tour of duty taking him to Florida, South Carolina, California, Missouri, and Louisiana. In 1850 he married Ellen Boyle Ewing, one of Senator Ewing’s daughters, who had grown up from childhood in the same house with him. Three years later he resigned his commission to enter upon successive careers in banking, law, business, and education. In his impressionable years at West Point, Sherman had absorbed much of the academy’s aristocratic tradition and, in his close association with Southerners thereafter as both an officer and a civilian, he acquired a generally Southern outlook on life. Yet he remained a staunch Union man. In 1860 Sherman agreed to become the first superintendent of the newly established Louisiana State Seminary, but when Louisiana seceded in 1861, he departed for the North in deep distress. By July he was commanding a brigade of Gen. Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Potomac as it marched south toward Manassas, Virginia, for the first major clash of the war.