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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
Sherman thanked Grant for handling Knox’s request as he had. The court’s decision had been less than a clear-cut victory in Sherman’s eyes, but he satisfied himself with the realization that the trial and then banishment of Knox had a sobering effect on other correspondents, some of whom voluntarily abandoned the Vicksburg area. Sherman went on to play a prominent role in the campaign, his 15th Corps carrying out prodigious forced marches. In the final push against Vicksburg, Sherman’s corps occupied the right flank of the encircling Federal army. The indiscretion of the press would cause Sherman no serious harm again until the campaign in North Carolina.
After Vicksburg’s surrender on July 4, Sherman looked forward to a brief respite from combat and made arrangements for Ellen and the children to visit him. He furnished Phil and the Lancaster family with a happy description:
“I keep the Battalion of Regulars near me as a Guard. We are camped in a beautiful oak grove, with large abandoned fields to the front, as handsome a place as you would wish to see. We live in tents of course and have all our mess arrangements complete, with our horses close at hand, perfectly independent of all the world....Nothing is left between Vicksburg and Jackson, so that I can have peace here...I have a healthy camp and have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”
Before leaving on her journey to Vicksburg, Ellen wrote to her “dearest Cump,” “God grant that nothing may occur to mar the happiness we anticipate.” Ellen brought their four children with her: Minnie, twelve, Lizzie, eleven, Willy, nine, and Tom, six, and their stay at Sherman’s camp on the Big Black River was a happy one. Willy was the great favorite of the soldiers, learning the manual of arms, and attending the parades and guard mounts; the men made him a sergeant. But the visit came to a precipitate end when Sherman received orders to march his corps to the relief of Gen. William S. Rosecrans, then under siege at Chattanooga. On the Mississippi steamer carrying the Sherman family on the first leg of its return trip to Lancaster, Willy took sick, and the Army doctors aboard recognized the symptoms of typhoid fever. When the boat reached Memphis, the boy was carried to the Gayoso Hotel, where the best medical efforts were unable to rescue him. He died the next evening, with Sherman, Ellen, and the children at his bedside.
Three weeks later, en route to Chattanooga, Sherman spoke of his grief in a letter to Phil Ewing.
“Somehow by the accidents of life that have buffeted me about, this boy seemed to me more a part of myself than any other human being, & though all my children at times seem to fill some missing part of an existence, Willy was to me the one I looked to to inherit all I could learn on earth. Yet Ellen & I did for him all that mortals could, and although at times a feeling of reproach comes over me for want of judgement or proper feeling in calling for my family to go to that country in that dread season, yet again it was the only lull I could foresee in the long bloody future before me. Now I would recall the act, but it is too late. It was wonderful, the avidity with which he gathered all the details of my army, every division, Brigade, Regiment, battery. Everything belonging to my corps became as well known to him as to me, and he seemed to inherit an instinct I have of going across the country direct to the object regardless of water roads or paths. Alone & with the full confidence of a man, seemingly without fear would he ride everywhere & engage in manly conversation with anybody. It may be his nervous organization was too sensitive for the intense excitement he endured at Big Black though we were all seemingly at the utmost rest, but his mind followed every scout or picket that came to my tent for orders or to make reports....But I must not dwell on this topic. I feel in my heart that we all loved & Cherished him in Life as he deserved and that in his Death we are the losers.
“[Then turning once more to the war that ruled him, he wrote:] Grant has been ordered to command the Armies of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee. So after two long years of a most discordant war the Govt has arrived at the very conclusion I made at the outset. We have one vast field of battle extending from the Atlantic to the Plains. As in all armies the proper natural subdivision is Right, Center, Left & Reserve.—Now as I understand...Grant has the Center, Meade the left & Schofield the Right, all facing South. The Reserve is still in the militia & People. Better and more economical in the end to organize the Reserve at once, and the draft mercilessly enforced is the quickest & best mode....
[Grant had ordered the removal of Rosecrans from command of the Army of the Cumberland, and of this Sherman wrote:]