The New Sherman Letters

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”I have no doubt Hugh is offended with me. He wrote me for a command in this Army. I offered him a Division at Nashville but he declined & now to give him place I would have to remove some General who has stood by his command through both the Atlanta and Savannah Campaigns. I foresaw it at Nashville and told him so, but he knew better & now I cannot remedy it. A man might as well sit on the banks of the Mississippi and complain that he did not get down the River fast. A man of war must go with events. If he steps to one side for a moment he is drifted into an eddy and can never recover the channel. In the same way Charley [Col. Charles Ewing] should not hope for a Generals Commission unless he gets a Regiment & takes the time necessary. It is now too late to expect those accidents by which Generals were made at the beginning of the War. Actual experience in Command on the Field of Battle is the only proper title to promotion. It is pitiful now to see the Brigadiers kicked about in search of a command. I will not displace one of my faithful officers for another who has the same commission. Congress should rectify this whole matter by expunging the list and commissioning only such as exercise the Command. I am told that at Cincinnati, New York, and Washington you entertain more Generals than you do in my Camp.”

This communication from Pocotaligo is the last in our collection of unearthed letters, a small fraction of all those written by Sherman during the war. His letter production during those four years, even under unfavorable field conditions, was enormous. There still were months of fighting ahead for Sherman, and once he was in communication again with the North, he again had to deal with the indiscretion of the press. He had written to Phil Ewing from Pocotaligo: “I still threaten the newspaper men with instant death as spies and they give me a wide berth. They manage to go along, but not in that dictatorial way they used to. They are meek and humble enough....”

But soon thereafter the New York Tribune provided significant and timely intelligence to the Confederate general W. J. Hardee when the paper announced to its readers that Sherman next would be heard from about Goldsboro, North Carolina, because his supply vessels from Savannah were known to be rendezvousing at Morehead City, North Carolina. Because of this, Sherman was forced to fight a battle at Goldsboro he had hoped to avoid. It was said that he later refused an introduction to Horace Greeley, publisher of the Tribune, reminding him that his paper was responsible for the Union casualties suffered at Goldsboro.

An exhaustive study in The American Historical Review many years after the Civil War confirmed what the generals knew all along—that “copy for the papers underwent no sifting to eliminate contraband news, for we find casualty lists with full data as to the location of military units, statements of expected reinforcements, revelations of the amount of force commanded by various generals, speculations as to plans, reports of the location and strength of batteries....”

Henry Villard, the Civil War correspondent who gained a respected reputation in his long career as a journalist and publisher, has left us a surprising assessment of Sherman’s wartime stand against the press. In his memoirs, published almost forty years after the war, Villard wrote: “I did not, of course, agree with him at the time as to my own calling, but candor constrains me to say that I had to admit in the end that he was entirely right. For what I observed...must lead any unprejudiced mind to the conclusion that the harm certain to be done by war correspondents far outweighs any good they can possibly do. If I were a commanding general I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.”

The Civil War had already been over for ten years when D. Appleton & Co. brought out in two volumes Memoirs of General William T. Sherman by Himself. It became a best seller. In all this voluminous work Sherman devoted a scant fifteen lines to the press; they revealed no significant change in the opinions he held during the war. Writing of the harm done by newspapermen, he concluded: “Yet so greedy are the people at large for war news, that it is doubtful whether any army commander can exclude all reporters, without bringing down on himself a clamor that may imperil his own safety. Time and moderation must bring a just solution to this modern difficulty.”

 

THE LETTERS IN PERSPECTIVE

IN LATE APRIL OF 1863, POISED FOR A TWO-corps crossing of the Mississippi forty roundabout miles below Vicksburg, Grant suggested to Sherman, whose corps had remained north of the objective to mislead its defenders as to where the blow would land, that the deception would be far more effective if he would stage a “heavy demonstration” against the Chickasaw Bluffs—a threat that, if successful, would give the attackers a clear shot at the city just beyond. “But I am loth to order it,” Grant added, explaining that the newspapers would be likely to “characterize it as a repulse,” much as they had done when Sherman first tried it, back in December, and was raked over the journalistic coals for the fruitless loss of 1,776 men in the attempt. “I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration,” the message ended.