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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
“Abrupt I am, & all military men are.”
“In all armies there must be wide differences of opinion & partial causes of disaffection—want of pay, bad clothing, dismal camps, crowded transports, hospitals rudely formed, & all the incidents of war. These cannot be entirely avoided & newspapers can easily charge them to negligence of commanders & thereby create disaffection. I do not say the Press intends this but they have done this and are doing it all the time. Now I know I made the most minute and careful preparation for the sick & wounded on the Yazoo, plenty of ambulances & men detailed in advance to remove the wounded—four of the largest transports prepared & set aside before a shot was fired & that every wounded man was taken from the field dressed & carefully attended immediately & yet I know that the Press has succeeded in making the very reverse impression & that many good people think there was criminal negligence. The same naked representations were made at Shiloh & I saw hundreds of Physicians come down & when our Surgeons begged & implored their help they preferred to gather up trophies and consume the dainties provided for the wounded & go back and represent the cruelty of the Army Surgeons & boast of their own disinterested humanity. I know this & that they nearly ruined Dr. Hewitt, one of the hardest working Surgeons in any army. I see similar attempts—less successful however—against Dr. McMillan. Not a word of truth, not even a pretense of truth, but it is a popular & successful theme & they avail themselves of it. What is the consequence? All officers of industry who stand by at all times through storm & sunshine find their reputations blasted & others—usually the most lazy & indolent—reaping cheap glory & fame through the correspondents of the Press.
“I say in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord & discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies. Shall we succumb or shall we meet and overcome the evil? I am satisfied they have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars & brought our country to the brink of ruin & that unless the nuisance is abated we are lost.
“Here we are in front of Vicksburg. The attack direct in front would in our frail transports be marked by the sinking of Steamers loaded with troops, a fearful assault against the hills fortified with great care by a cunning enemy. Every commander who has looked at it says it cannot be done in front—it must be turned. I tried it but newspaper correspondents had sent word in advance & ample preparations were made & [enemy] reinforcements double my number had reached Vicksburg. McClernand was unwilling to attack in front. Grant ditto. Then how turn the position? We cannot ascend the Yazoo to where our men can get a footing. We cannot run our frail transports past the Vicksburg Batteries, so we resolve to cut a channel into the Yazoo at the old pass near Delta above & into the Texas by way of Lake Providence. Secrecy & dispatch are the chief elements of success. The forces here are kept to occupy the attention of the enemy, two steamers are floated past the Batteries to control the River below & men are drawn secretly from Helena & Memphis to cut the canals & levees & remove all the inhabitants so that the enemy could not have notice till the floods of the Mississippi could finish the work of man. But what avail? Known spies accompany each expedition & we now read in the Northern papers...that our forces here are unequal to the direct assault but we are cutting the two canals above. The levees are cut & our plans work to a charm but the enemy now knows our purposes & hastens above, fells trees into the narrow headstreams, cuts the side levees, disperses the waters & defeats our well conceived plans.
“Who can carry on a war thus? It is terrible to contemplate: & I say that no intelligent officer in this or any American army now in the field but would prefer to have his opponent increased twenty—Yea, fifty percent—if the internal informers & spies could be excluded from our camps … if the people could only see as I see the baleful effects of this mischievous practice they would cry aloud in indignant tones. We may in self defense be compelled to take the law into our own hands for our safety or we may bend to the storm and seek a position where others may take the consequences of this cause. I early foresee this result & have borne the malignity of the Press—but a day will come & that not far distant when the Press must surrender some portion of its freedom to save the rest else it too will perish in the general wreck....
“I know I could have easily achieved popularity by yielding to...outside influences but I could not do what I see other popular officers do: furnish transportation at government expense to newspaper agents & supply them with public horses...[and] give access to official papers which I am commanded to withhold to the world till my Employer has benefit of them. I could not do these things & feel that I was an honest man & faithful servant of the Government, for my memory still runs back to the time when … an officer would not take a government nail out of a keg on which to hang his coat or feed his horse out of the public crib without charging its cost against his pay....