February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Few Americans seem less mystical, on the surface, than General William Tecumseh Sherman, who sacked Atlanta and Columbia and in his old age remarked succinctly that war is hell. But in his own odd way Sherman, too, was a man given over to a vision, and after the Civil War ended he landed in the precise spot where he could do something to help make it come true.
First he was commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, which meant that he was in charge of everything the army did in the Great Plains region in the late 1860’s, and then he was commanding general of the whole army; and for eighteen years he was responsible for keeping the peace (or as much of it as could be kept) in the great West at the exact moment when the expanding republic was elbowing the red man out of the last of his ancestral preserves. Few soldiers have ever had a more thankless task.
America was of two minds about the red man in those years. The settlers held that the only good Indian was a dead one and talked loudly about the need for outright extermination; a favorite panacea offered at the time was the suggestion that the government offer a high bounty for Indian scalps and let nature take its course. At the same time, people in the East were beginning to feel that the Indian had been the victim of atrocious injustice, and were insisting that he had rights which white folk ought to respect. The army stood in the middle, damned by westerners for being too gentle with the restless tribes, criticized by easterners for being too rough. It did not begin to have enough men or money to do the job it was supposed to do—which, in substance, was to clear the plains for white settlement—and it was up to Sherman to do the best he could with an extremely sticky situation.
What Sherman did is described by Robert G. Athearn in a stimulating work, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West , and it sheds an interesting light on the final chapter of America’s great pioneer period.
It was a different sort of pioneering that was going on, in the post-Civil War years on the Great Plains. Now the railroad and the telegraph line were preceding the settlers; they were inexorably depriving the Indian of the space in which he could operate, even before the pioneers themselves were laying hands on the Indian’s land. As a good soldier, Sherman devoted his inadequate forces to the task of guarding the construction projects; when these at last were finished, the Indian empire was doomed. What Cortes and his swordsmen began on the causeways in Lake Texcoco was finished by the huskies who hammered down the spikes for the Union Pacific.
Sherman clung to this strategic concept in the face of widespread criticism, and it is interesting to note that he was possessed, from the beginning, by the ageold vision of what lay ahead of America as a whole. He was not fighting Indians—they were only an incident; he was helping America break the bonds of space and distance, and as surely as any American leader he kept his eyes on the future. Talking to railroad men and townsfolk in Laramie, Wyoming, in the fall of 1880, he tried to put it into words:
“We are not yet done, boys; you are just barely on the threshold of the future, and if we can keep togather—the north and south, east and west—there is no man wise enough to tell what America is to become.”
William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West, by Robert G. Athearn. University of Oklahoma Press. 371 pp. $5.
There still is no man wise enough, for the process is unended, perhaps unending. And this, when you stop to think of it, is what finally comes down from that golden dawn of the long ago: this belief in infinite possibilities, this knack for looking beyond the present and seeing everything that is done in the light of its effect on what will be done later on. There is the true explosive quality in the American heritage … “in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we—we did not even number four hundred soldiersl”