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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
Soon thereafter General Anderson, whose health was not good, said he no longer could take the “mental torture” of command and resigned his post, leaving the Department of the Cumberland in Sherman’s charge. The mental torture now rested on Sherman’s head, and it soon increased. Many years after Sherman had become one of the nation’s most experienced generals, he remained convinced that if Albert Sidney Johnston had pressed his advantage in 1861, “He could have walked into Louisville.” All the while Northern newspapers continued to advertise the actual weakness of the Union position by revealing Sherman’s operations. The New York Tribune on October 17, 1861, reported from Louisville that “Gen. Sherman now has at least twenty thousand men in the various camps between this city and Green River, and reinforcements arrive almost daily.” There followed a list of recent reinforcements—“the Indiana 29th, 30th and a remnant of the 6th … the Ohio 15th” and so on. When a copy of the paper came to Sherman’s attention, he proclaimed that all reporters were henceforth banished from his lines.
“You see, Grant stood by me when I was crazy.”
Then, less than two weeks after taking over from Anderson, Sherman was paid an official visit by U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, on his way back to Washington after a tour of the Western Department at St. Louis. With Cameron was Samuel Wilkerson of the New York Tribune, who was not identified as a reporter to Sherman and so was allowed to sit in on a discussion of the military situation in Kentucky. Sherman said he needed sixty thousand troops to drive the enemy from Kentucky, and two-hundred thousand to carry the war clear to the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently Secretary Cameron understood the two hundred thousand figure as that deemed necessary for the defense of Kentucky. He considered the figure absurd but promised some additional men.
The official report of the Secretary of War’s tour of Missouri and Kentucky, which Wilkerson was believed to have had a large hand in writing, appeared in the New York Tribune on October 30. This was not a leak. The report actually was released to the paper by Secretary Cameron, and there followed after the report an order of battle entitled “Exhibit No. 14,” explaining Union Army strength in Kentucky, which, incredibly, was carried by the Tribune in full:
As for Sherman personally, the report clearly insinuated that his mind was unstable and that he could not safely be entrusted with any important command. For some weeks, in fact, Sherman’s officers and men had noticed that the general brooded day and night, that he lapsed into long silent moods, smoked incessantly, and paced up and down by the hour. It had begun to be whispered even before Secretary Cameron’s visit that Sherman was suffering from depression. In any event, the October 30 report that appeared in the New York Tribune said specifically that on being asked what force he deemed necessary to defend Kentucky, Sherman “promptly replied 200,000 men....The Secretary of War replied that...he thought Gen. Sherman over-estimated the number and power of the rebel forces; that the Government would furnish troops...but that he [the Secretary] was tired of defensive war...he begged Gen. Sherman to assume the offensive and to keep the rebels hereafter on the defensive....”
It was clear that while Cameron was prepared to send additional troops to Kentucky, he was not about to entrust them to Sherman. A couple of weeks later Gen. Don Carlos Buell was ordered to replace Sherman as commander of the Department of the Cumberland, an event greatly welcomed by the newspapermen there. The correspondent for the Chicago Tribune wrote that “Anderson was a gentleman of no mind. Sherman is possessed of neither mind nor manners. We are thankful now that we have a man who combines both.”
Sherman was ordered to inspect troops near St. Louis in the Department of the Missouri. Newspapers, however, kept alive the story that his mind was unbalanced, and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the department commander, placed him on a twenty-day leave of absence, which Sherman spent in Lancaster, Ohio, with his wife and children. He was there when, on December 11, 1861, the Cincinnati Commercial announced some “painful intelligence”: “Gen. William T. Sherman, late commander of the Department of the Cumberland, is insane. It appears that he was at the time while commanding in Kentucky, stark mad....The harsh criticisms that have been lavished on this gentleman, provoked by his strange conduct, will now give way to feelings of deepest sympathy for him in his great calamity.”
The story was picked up in papers across the country. Only time and success would dispel Sherman’s mortification. After rumors circulated about Grant’s drunkenness at the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman was able laughingly to attest to the friendship between them: “You see, Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk.”
Returned to duty as commander of Benton Barracks, near St. Louis, Sherman wrote to his foster brother Philemon Ewing: