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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
“Naturally a good strong mind and a head as strongly marked as Webster’s. I have known him since 1836 as a hard student. In our voyage round Cape Horn [in 1846 en route to California] many a time when others were struggling to kill time, he was using it in hard study. When the sea was high & ship rolling, the sky darkened so that daylight did not reach his state room, he stood on a stool, his book and candle on the upper berth and a bed strap round his middle secured to the frame to support him in the wild tossing of the ship. In such a man the country must have confidence. I am willing to repose in his strategy all confidence, and I think the other Generals, not politicians [commanders appointed because of their political connections], will do the same....If Halleck cannot handle 100,000 men in a campaign, no one can....”
During June and July, while the 5th Division under his command was rebuilding railroad trestles and bridges destroyed by the retreating Rebels and fighting off enemy cavalry, Sherman wrote a letter to Phil Ewing touching on many subjects:
“...the enemy far outnumbers us in cavalry. I have 8 companies of 4th Illinois—420 on paper, about 350 in camp—but to save my life I cannot even get 250 in the Saddle. Sick, extraduty, wagoneers, cooks &c &c. Hurlbut has 8 cos 5th Ohio with about the same results. His men have pistols & no carbines and are afraid of the Southern Cavalry armed with the fine Double Barrelled guns....
“The people should know that this war will consume 300,000 men per year for a long time....To allow our armies to run down in the face & country of the enemy invites defeat and prolongs the strife. We have all to conceal even from ourselves the awful mistakes of the war in not preparing men by drill and organization all last summer, fall and winter. It may be the government could not collect men & arms faster, but I think few comprehended the vast task before us....
“Buell [who replaced Sherman in Kentucky] is our best soldier. Halleck the ablest man—Grant very brave but not brilliant. [Gen. George Henry] Thomas slow, cool & methodic. I dont think much of [Gen. John] Pope or [the politically appointed Gen.] McClernand....”
Late in July 1862 Sherman took over the District of Memphis, retaining command as well of his 5th Division, and that winter he led the first Union assault against Vicksburg—and thereby became embroiled, unintentionally, in a dramatic battle with Western war correspondents.
The massive Confederate battery at Vicksburg controlled the long southern sweep of the Mississippi from below Memphis to New Orleans. Sherman embarked his troops downriver on December 19. Grant was to have taken part in the operation, but he withdrew at the outset when Rebel cavalry destroyed his supply base. Sherman went in alone and suffered seventeen hundred casualties in a fruitless attempt to gain the Chickasaw Bluffs north of the city.
Ignoring Sherman’s specific orders, an undetermined number of reporters had been aboard the Army transports. They now wrote their separate accounts of the disaster and mailed them to intermediaries in Memphis and Cairo, Illinois, for forwarding to their respective papers. However, Sherman’s regional superintendent for the U.S. Army mails noticed these suspiciously fat envelopes and intercepted them. Not to be deterred, the correspondent for the New York Herald, Thomas W. Knox, angrily rewrote his account and then steamed upriver to Cairo, where he filed his dispatch without interference. In the New York Herald of Sunday, January 18, 1863, Knox’s six-column story charged Sherman with gross, even criminal, negligence and confusion. “General Sherman was so exceedingly erratic,” the story concluded, “that the discussion of a twelvemonth ago with respect to his sanity was revived with much earnestness....Insanity and inefficiency have brought their result. Let us have them no more.”
When Sherman saw the story, he immediately ordered Knox seized. He had the story read aloud to the reporter and demanded the source of each assertion. In a burst of honesty Knox declared, “Of course, General Sherman, I have no feeling against you personally, but you are regarded as the enemy of our set and we must in self-defense write you down.” Sherman directed that papers be drawn up for Knox’s court-martial.
On February 6 he wrote Senator Ewing about the press coverage of the Union defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs:
“...I am in battle & was pushed forward, catching all the path of the balls & bullets in front, and then the curses & malediction of the nonthinking herd behind. The Newspapers declare me their inveterate Enemy, and openly say they will write me down. In writing me down are they not writing the Cause and the Country down? Now I know and every officer knows that no army or detachment moves or can move that is not attended by correspondents of hundreds of newspapers....