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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
“Again the habit of indiscriminate praise & flattery has done us harm. Let a stranger read our official reports & he would blush at the praise bespattered over Regiments, Divisions, and Corps for skirmishes & actions where the dead & wounded mark no serious conflict....
“I have departed from my theme. My argument is that newspaper correspondents and camp followers, writing with a purpose & with no data, communicate facts useful to the enemy and useless to our cause & calculated to impair the discipline of the army & that the practice must cease. We cannot appeal to Patriotism because news is a salable commodity & the more valuable as it is, the more pithy and damaging to our cause....The law gives me the means to stop it & as an army we fail in our duty to the Government, to our cause, & to ourselves when we do not use them.”
The newspapers had upbraided Sherman not only for incompetence and insanity but also for what they considered a disregard for his men and a willingness to sacrifice them heartlessly. Nothing incensed Sherman more than this. “Among all the infamous charges,” he wrote to friends in St. Louis, “none has given me more pain than the assertion that my troops were disaffected, mutinous, and personally opposed to me. This is false, false as hell. My own division will follow me anywhere....” As indeed Sherman’s troops were to prove to the nation time and again. To Senator Ewing, in his long letter of February 17, Sherman wrote:
“Every soldier of my command comes into my presence as easy as the highest officer. Their beds & rations are as good as mine & certainly no General Officer moves about with as little pomp as I. They see me daily, nightly, hourly along the picket line afoot, alone, or with a single orderly or officer, whilst others have their mighty escorts and retinue. Indeed I am usually laughed at for my simplicity in this respect....Many a solitary picket has seen me creeping at night examining ground before I ordered...[the men] to cross it & yet other lazy rascals ignorant of the truth would hang behind sleep or crouch around the distant campfire till danger was passed, and then write how Sherman with insane rashness had pushed his brave soldiers into the jaws of death....When I praise I mean it & when troops fall into disorder I must notice it, but you may read my reports in vain for an instance when troops have kept their ranks and done even moderately well but I have encouraged them to a better future....I know that in trouble, in danger, in emergencies the men know I have patience, a keen appreciation of the truth of facts & ground equalled by few, and one day they will tell the truth....”
Throughout the war Sherman, like all in high command, was besieged by petitioners appealing for all manner of benefits. He disappointed many, cutting them short, which probably prompted the Cincinnati Commercial to judge him proud and haughty. From this charge, too, Sherman defended himself to his foster father:
“Abrupt I am, & all military men are. The mind jumps to its conclusions & is emphatic, & I can usually divine the motive of the insidious cotton speculator, camp follower, & hypercritical humanity seeker before he discloses his plans & designs. An officer who must attend to the thousand & one wants of thirty thousand men besides the importunities of thousands of mischievous camp followers must need be abrupt unless the day can be made more than twenty-four hours long. A citizen cannot understand that an officer who has to see to the wants and necessities of an army has no time to listen to the usual long perorations & I must confess I have little patience with this class of men....”
Two days after delivering his deposition against the press, Sherman learned that a military court had found Thomas Knox not guilty of the charge of giving intelligence to the enemy, or of being a spy. The court did find him guilty of willfully disobeying Sherman’s order by accompanying the army down the Mississippi (although it “attaches no criminality thereto”) and of causing his dispatch to be printed in the New York Herald without the sanction of the general in command (as required by War Department General Order No. 67, August 26, 1861). Accordingly Knox was sentenced “to be sent without the lines of the army, and not to return under penalty of imprisonment.”
The New York Herald was among the strongest supporters of Lincoln’s administration, and the paper appealed at once to the President, who countermanded the sentence on the condition that Grant, Sherman’s superior, agreed. Grant would not. He told Knox that only if Sherman himself gave his consent would Knox be allowed to remain. Knox therefore was forced to appeal directly to the man he had defamed. He was proud and formal: “I should be pleased to receive your assent in the present subject matter,” adding an expression of his “regret at the want of harmony between portions of the Army and the Press....”
Sherman must have taken some pleasure in writing his answer. “Come with a sword or musket in your hand, prepared to share with us our fate...and I will welcome you as a brother and associate; but come as you now do, expecting me to ally the reputation and honor of my country and my fellowsoldiers with you as the representative of the Press which you yourself say makes so slight a difference between truth and falsehood and my answer is Never!”