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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
“I have no doubt I have been much biased by my association with Southern people and that in consequence I have overrated their power. I certainly have not their temper and purpose—There is not power enough in this country to change that. …”
In a letter written to Thomas Ewing more than two months later, Sherman still was professing his lack of interest in any important future command:
“All will have their fill of fighting.”
“The enemy is at Corinth [Mississippi] … with strong detachments along the Rail Road as far east as Tuscumbia [Alabama]: also with strong Cavalry and Infantry pickets toward us almost to our very Camp. These men are mere vedettes [sentinels] that fall back whenever we show ourselves, designed simply to carry notice back of an advance in front on our part. … I keep [my men] pretty well employed and think they are gaining consistency … but when Glory is to be gained I suppose [Gen. John A. McClernand] or some newspaper favorite must go ahead. I still think there is no need of haste … all will have their fill of fighting—as much as they want. …
“The issues involved in this war are so momentous that I shrink from the responsibilities which others seem to court, and much prefer the subordinate role I now play.”
But behind those “mere vedettes,” Albert Sidney Johnston’s army was already on the march northward to Shiloh, and a titanic battle was just two days away.
Immediately after Grant’s capture in February 1862 of Fort Henry, just below the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Sherman had been ordered from St. Louis to Paducah to expedite operations on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The following month President Lincoln placed all Union armies in the West under the command of General Halleck in St. Louis. Halleck promptly ordered Buell to join Grant in Tennessee in order to advance against Johnston at Corinth, Mississippi. The Confederates learned of this plan and determined to strike Grant before Buell could join him. The Battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest in North America up to that time, ended with the Confederates driven from the field after two days of heavy fighting. When it was over, Sherman knew he had done well. Halleck wrote the Secretary of War: “It is the unanimous opinion here that Brig. Gen. W. T. Sherman saved the fortune of the day on the 6th instance, and contributed largely to the glorious victory on the 7th. He was in the thickest of the fight on both days, having 3 horses killed under him and being wounded twice. …”
Shortly afterward, Thomas Ewing, in a fatherly letter, suggested that Sherman might have exposed himself unnecessarily to danger and that perhaps the battle dress of officers could be modified to make it less distinctive and therefore less hazardous. Sherman replied:
“I do not think I exposed myself at Shiloh more than was necessary from the shape of the ground and the nature of my men. I had under me no men of either practical or theoretical knowledge of war, and had to give orders that usually devolve on Colonels, Captains, and even Corporals. I had even to instruct Gunners how to cut the fuzes of their Shells. Therefore at times I had to be in the range of artillery that otherwise I would have avoided.
“The experience of that day convinces me that officers should wear their Uniform—but not epaulettes and chapeau but the undress with shoulder straps, cap with number & letter. In general appearance it does not differ much from the soldier dress, and the story of picking off officers I discredit. The proportion of officers killed & wounded was not excessive. I am not conscious that I was a special mark but twice—viz, early Sunday when I rode in advance of my left, the weakest part, when my orderly was killed. That shot was meant for me, as also the volley, but I doubt if they knew who I was, except any officer could have judged me to be a General officer from my position with a staff following. Again about 2 PM same day when my horse was killed dead. I was there when grape, canister & shells were flying thick & fast, with bullets from several regiments converging on a spot where the men were down on the ground & aiming true & well.
“The undress uniform should be worn that we may recognize each other with rank and corps without questioning. We are strangers to each other till the melee brings us in contact … a change of uniform is a matter of time. Our wardrobes at best are not heavily stocked & I have been trying without success even to get a pair of shoes from St. Louis.
[In this letter Sherman also praises the abilities of General Halleck, a man to whose memory history has not been especially kind:]