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More than any other Civil War general, says a distinguished British critic, he grasped the possibilities and requirements of warfare in the modern age
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
The American Civil War produced nobody quite like William Tecumseh Sherman, the world’s first modern “man of war.” Not only was he a great commander; he also evolved fresh strategic techniques, and concepts developed from study of his operations had a tar-reaching influence in the Second World War.
Sherman showed both the qualities and characteristics of genius. He was tall, lean, angular, loose-jointed, careless and unkempt in dress, with a restlessness of manner emphasized by his endless chain-smoking of cigars, and an insatiable curiosity, a raciness of language, and a fondness for picturesque phrases. But he was a blend of contrasting qualities. His dynamic energy went along with philosophical reflectiveness. He had faith in his own vision but a doubt of his own abilities that could only be dispelled gradually by actual achievement. He combined democratic tastes and manners with a deep and sardonic distrust of democracy. His rebelliousness was accompanied by a profound respect for law and order. His logical ruthlessness was coupled with compassion.
In generalship, he was brilliant, yet what made him outstanding was the way he came to see and exploit the changing conditions of warfare produced by mechanical and scientific developments.
The Civil War started with old-fashioned military concepts and weapons, but also with some very new instruments whose influence had not yet been realized. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the means ol: movement had been unchanged throughout the ages. Armies marched on foot or horseback, and their supplies were carried in vehicles drawn by horses or oxen. At sea, they moved on sailing ships dependent on the wind. Even in the Napoleonic era the smoothbore musket and cannon were little more effective than the medieval bow and the ancient catapult. Means of communication were limited to messengers on horseback.
But by the time of the Civil War, new mechanical means of movement and communication hail become available. This was the first war in which the railroad, the steamship, and the electric telegraph played an important part. Weapons had not changed so much, but the war speeded their development. The muzzleloadeil smoothbore musket was gradually replaced by a muzzle-loaded ride, which was much more accurate. Breech-loading rifles came into use before the end of the war, and the increasing range anil effect of fire made attack more difficult and costly. Troops were forced to take shelter in trenches or behind breast-works. Tactical movement, on the battlefield, easily became stagnant.
Meanwhile the large-scale transportation facilities offered by the railroads led commanders and governments to mass at the railheads larger forces than could be fed if the enemy cut the lines. These forces tended to become too massive to be maneuverable. Thus strategic movement was also inclined to become stagnant.
The combination produced a state of deadlock—even in the West, where space was wide and appeared to oiler ample scope for maneuver. In 1862 and again in 1863, successive efforts by the Union forces to push southward were blocked or paralyzed by Confederate cavalry raids on the rail lines of supply.
A better way of tackling the problem was initiated by Grant’s indirect approach to Vicksburg in the spring of 1863. Grant cut off this key point on the Mississippi by a wide circuit eastward and then northward, during which he momentarily cut loose from his line of supply. Sherman, then his principal executive, learned most from the bold experiment, becoming the first commander to show a clear grasp of the new conditions of warfare. At the start of the war he was still conventional in military outlook, but his civilian experience during the immediate prewar years, his unconventional character, and the experience of this Vicksburg campaign helped him to shake off the shackles of orthodoxy.
He could also see the significance of another important change—the growth of population and industrialization. This brought increased dependence on supplies, on manufactured weapons, and on means of communication—among which were newspapers, as well as transport and telegraph. This increased both the economic target and the moral target, and made both more vulnerable. This in turn increased the incentive to strike at the sources of the opponent’s armed power instead of striking at its shield—the armed forces.
Sherman’s grasp of this is very clearly shown in his letters and in his plans. Viewed in retrospect, it is evident that he was startlingly ahead of his time. Nearly half a century before the development of aircraft, his operations in the last year of the Civil War foreshadowed the aim and course pursued by the bomber offensive of World War II.
The dual influences of heredity and environment can be clearly traced in the molding of Sherman’s character and outlook. He came from a Puritan family which had left England about 1634 to seek freedom of conscience and wider opportunity in the New World. The family moved first to Connecticut, and then to Ohio, where Charles Robert Sherman became a judge. Developing a deep admiration for the Indian chief Tecumseh, he had his third son, born on February 8, 1820, christened William Tecumseh Sherman.