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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 boy was left fatherless at the age of nine, but he was taken into the home of a friend, Senator Thomas Ewing, who helped him get an appointment to West Point when Sherman became sixteen. The four years there were purgatory, and it is evident that Sherman shared the feelings of Ulysses Grant, who wrote that the years “seemed about five times as long as Ohio years.” Looking back, Sherman caustically remarked: “At the Academy I was not considered a good soldier, for at no time was I selected for any office. … Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity, were the qualifications for office…” In studies Sherman ranked among the best, but he got so many demerits for nonconformity that he was in sixth place in the final class list.
Upon graduation, Sherman became an officer in the 3rd Artillery, in Florida, and he soon saw active service against the Seminole Indians. His letters to Ellen Ewing, the childhood playmate whom he subsequently married, show how much he enjoyed the excitement of the chase, but they also reveal his underlying sympathy with the chased, as well as his love of reading and of painting, his gift for writing, and his insatiable thirst for knowledge. They must sometimes have wearied a young girl thirsting for a more sentimental kind of communication.
Sherman missed the main action of the Mexican War, to his keen disappointment, through a posting to California, which he felt was a military backwater. But this widened his experience and eventually led to his being asked to return there, in 1853, as a working partner in a San Francisco banking house. He had married Ellen Ewing, and he was anxious to improve his family’s prospects, so he quitted the Army at the age of thirty-three.
The boom was already subsiding, however, and many banks soon collapsed. In 1857 the parent bank in St. Louis was driven to suspend payment. That ended Sherman’s banking career. He then joined a law firm at Leavenworth, Kansas, where his flair for topography made him valuable in surveying new areas and roads. But legal disputes were not to his taste, and in 1859 he jumped at a chance to become head of a new “Seminary and Military Academy” in Louisiana.
The new post provided ample scope for his energy and organizing power. He gained an impressive ascendancy over the hot-blooded southern cadets and also over the diverse elements among the board of supervisors. His personal popularity was the more remarkable because his brother John, who had been elected to Congress some years before, was regarded throughout the South as a “black Republican” and “awful abolitionist.” Among his most staunch supporters were two of his future opponents on the battlefield, Braxton Bragg and P. G. T. Beauregard, who—by an irony of history—helped to dissuade him from accepting a tempting offer to go to England to represent a Cincinnati banking house in London, which would have removed the prospect of his playing a decisive part in the Civil War.
Sherman’s letters in the summer of 1860 forecast that however “reasonable and moderate” Abraham Lincoln might be, in the South his name was like a red rag to a bull, so that his election to the Presidency would make civil war likely—”reason has very little influence in this world; prejudice governs.” As Sherman saw it, the basic objection to secession was the danger to the economy of the North that would arise from southern free trade and hostile control of the Mississippi.
On January 10, 1861, the United States Arsenal at Baton Rouge was surrounded—and surrendered—although Louisiana had not yet seceded. Sherman promptly resigned his office, but on returning to the North he was shocked by the complacency that prevailed. Disgusted with the politicians on both sides, Sherman felt inclined to stand aside and leave them to get out of the mess they had produced. He turned down an offer to make him Assistant Secretary of War, and when Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months, Sherman’s comment was: “You might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.” He wrote: “I think it is to be a long war—very long—much longer than any politician thinks.” At the same time, he urged to his brother that “the questions of the national integrity and slavery should be kept distinct, for otherwise it will gradually become a war of extermination—a war without end.”
It was only when Lincoln decided to increase the Regular Army and called on men to volunteer for three years of duty that Sherman offered his services. He was given command of a brigade in the hastily improvised force of 30,000 men that marched out from Washington in July to tackle the Confederates at the First Bull Run. When this battle ended in a Union defeat, Sherman distinguished himself in covering the disorderly retreat and checking the pursuers. But as the retreat continued, even his regiments dissolved into the general stream of fugitives, and he bitterly reported that the whole army “has degenerated into an armed mob.”
When the President drove round the camps, Sherman pointedly asked him to discourage all cheering, and told him that “what we needed were cool, thoughtful, hard-fighting soldiers—no more hurrahing, no more humbug.” Lincoln took the rebuke in good part. When one of the officers complained that Sherman had threatened to shoot him for defiance of orders, Lincoln replied with a twinkle: “Well, if I were you and he threatened to shoot, I wouldn’t trust him, for I believe he would do it.”