July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
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.
William Tecumseh Sherman,” announced The New York Times near the end of the Civil War, “has surpassed all newspaper correspondents in writing about military affairs … for conciseness, perspicacity and comprehensiveness with brevity he is the perfect model.” One Associated Press reporter went so far as to say that the man would have been an even better war correspondent than a general.
But most newspapermen knew Sherman as a relentless enemy. As late as April 1865, a New York Tribune correspondent wrote that “a cat in hell without claws is nothing to a reporter in General Sherman’s army.”
From the First Battle of Bull Run to the end of the war, Sherman believed far more harm than good was done the Union cause by war correspondents. They were “dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan.” They were “spies and defamers.” They were “infamous lying dogs.”
Hostility at this level pulses through a collection of twenty-four previously unpublished letters written by Sherman in the midst of the Civil War to my greatgrandfather, Thomas Ewing, who was Sherman’s foster father, and to my grandfather, Philemon B. Ewing, who was Sherman’s boyhood companion. One of them, a three-thousand-word jeremiad, is the longest and most revealing discourse he ever composed on the subject.
This letter and its companions lay for forty years or more in the bottom of a wooden box in my family’s attic in Roselle, New Jersey, unseen by biographers or historians, although my father inventoried them and handled them with scholarly care. After his death I put the collection in a safe, where it remained generally undisturbed for another thirty years. If such benign neglect is considered an affront to the writing of history, I comfort myself with the thought that the letters at least have been preserved. The collection also includes an additional five letters written by Philemon Ewing to Sherman during the war and such miscellaneous items as a letter from Sherman’s mother to the War Department assenting to her son’s appointment to the United States Military Academy, a letter from the sixteen-year-old Sherman acknowledging his appointment, and an extract from the academy’s conduct reports for February 1839 showing that the young cadet had received four demerits during the month.
The earliest letter in this collection is one from “Cump” Sherman, aged twelve, to Thomas Ewing, who in 1832 was serving in Congress as a U.S. senator from Ohio. It shows that the boy Sherman already had acquired the art of conciseness that was to mark his writing as a man, although he has yet to master the rules of capitalization and punctuation.
[Lancaster, Ohio] March 4, 1832
I am well our school was up yesterday they have got no one appointed to teach school now we have fine weather only we had a little rain but I think that will soon go the people are making sugar now it is good weather Ellen received her book she thinks it is very pretty she loves those plays and riddles and we got ours of Asia it is good I like it as well as any other of them Ellen is writing to you now James is here yet he thought he was agoing to Cincinnati last month but he did not go and Grandma is here yet and she is well she thinks she will stay all spring and summer but she does not know Rachel is very much pleased with her book that Book that you mentioned a great while ago for Philemon I suppose you have not sent it yet for we have not got it that is all I have to say.
I remain yours affectionately Wm T Sherman
Thomas Ewing had taken Sherman into his home to be raised with his own children when the boy’s father, Charles R. Sherman, a judge of the supreme court of Ohio and one of Ewing’s closest friends, died leaving his wife with eleven children. This was in 1829, when Cump, as his family always called him, was nine. For the next seven years he lived in the Ewing home in Lancaster, Ohio, only a few doors up the street from the house in which he had been born and in which his mother continued to live with the youngest Sherman children. The Ewing son closest in age to Cump was Philemon, and the two boys were together constantly until 1836, when Cump, following the guidance of his foster father, left Lancaster for West Point.
After graduating from West Point, Sherman served in the Army for thirteen years, his tour of duty taking him to Florida, South Carolina, California, Missouri, and Louisiana. In 1850 he married Ellen Boyle Ewing, one of Senator Ewing’s daughters, who had grown up from childhood in the same house with him. Three years later he resigned his commission to enter upon successive careers in banking, law, business, and education. In his impressionable years at West Point, Sherman had absorbed much of the academy’s aristocratic tradition and, in his close association with Southerners thereafter as both an officer and a civilian, he acquired a generally Southern outlook on life. Yet he remained a staunch Union man. In 1860 Sherman agreed to become the first superintendent of the newly established Louisiana State Seminary, but when Louisiana seceded in 1861, he departed for the North in deep distress. By July he was commanding a brigade of Gen. Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Potomac as it marched south toward Manassas, Virginia, for the first major clash of the war.
The cause of Sherman’s enmity toward the press is simple: Northern newspapers repeatedly and in great detail alerted the South that an attack was imminent. The telegraph, the railroad, and the daily press had made it possible to disseminate information at a rate and in quantities undreamed of a generation before, but the newspapermen still saw their job in the old, simple terms: get out the story. That the story could now be gotten out with a speed that put its subjects’ lives at hazard was not immediately apparent. Sherman was among the first—and was certainly the most vocal—of the military men who had to cope with the fact that the Industrial Revolution had overtaken the Bill of Rights. The dimensions of the problem became clear to him even before he went into battle.
On July 17, 1861, The New York Times reported: “The army in Virginia today took up the line of march for Richmond, via Fairfax and Manassas. The force starting today was fully fifty thousand strong … about three thousand Regular Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery, and fifty thousand Volunteers. …” On the same day, the Washington Star provided a detailed order of battle: “The column on the extreme right is commanded by Gen. Tyler. That consists of the following excellent troops, viz: the Maine Second, the First, Second and Third Connecticut regiments; the New York Second, the First and Second Ohio. …”
The First Battle of Bull Run ended catastrophically for the North, and whether or not the newspapermen were to blame, the indiscretion of the press before the battle still burned in Sherman’s mind two years later when he wrote his foster father: “Now in these modern times a class of men has been begotten & attend our camps & armies gathering minute information of our strength, plans & purposes & publishes them so as to reach the enemy in time to serve his purposes. Such publications do not add a man to our strength, in noways benefit us, but are invaluable to the enemy. You know that this class published in advance all the plans of the Manassas Movement [which] enabled [Gen. Joseph E. Johnston]… to reinforce Beauregard whereby McDowell was defeated & the enemy gained tremendous strength & we lost in comparison. …”•
•Portions of this and all the following letters that Sherman wrote in the field—some with many abbreviations and repetitions—have been edited for the sake of clarity.
If Sherman had little patience with the press after Bull Run, however, the press soon would have no patience with him.
After his first fight, Sherman wrote of the “shameless flight of the armed mob we led into Virginia,” and he expected to be discharged along with all the other leaders of the battle. But two weeks later the War Department announced the promotion of various colonels, “all of whom,” Sherman wrote in his Memoirs , had “shared the common stampede.” His name was among them. Now a brigadier general of volunteers, he was ordered west to Kentucky, to the newly formed Department of the Cumberland as second-in-command to Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson, the much-acclaimed hero of Fort Sumter.
When Kentucky, although a slave state, finally made up its official mind to remain in the Union, the Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston advanced his Rebel troops into the state and began pushing toward Louisville. Against this invasion there was little at hand of organized military manpower, but Sherman was able to set out a defensive position using available home guards and volunteers. As he explained to Senator Ewing, his command made him most uneasy:
“I never did like to serve with volunteers, because instead of being governed they govern. … The volunteers … with their unbridled will are killing hogs, cattle, fence rails, and taking hay and wheat, all calculated to turn the people against us.
“I have no authoritative information of what our Enemy is doing, but I know Buckner and G. A. Smith who command, and take it for granted that they see at a glance the weakness of my position, and Buckner was raised in this neighborhood and knows the ground perfectly. … If the reinforcements designed for us are delayed I cannot foresee the consequences, for the country is all ambush—Woods envelop us with roads & paths familiar to them and strange to us and we are tied down.
“I have a telegraph from Anderson saying he is compelled to divert some reinforcements coming to us to another quarter and so I suppose I must meet the shock with whatever I have, viz about 5000 volunteers dwindling daily by sickness and causes peculiar to them.”
Soon thereafter General Anderson, whose health was not good, said he no longer could take the “mental torture” of command and resigned his post, leaving the Department of the Cumberland in Sherman’s charge. The mental torture now rested on Sherman’s head, and it soon increased. Many years after Sherman had become one of the nation’s most experienced generals, he remained convinced that if Albert Sidney Johnston had pressed his advantage in 1861, “He could have walked into Louisville.” All the while Northern newspapers continued to advertise the actual weakness of the Union position by revealing Sherman’s operations. The New York Tribune on October 17, 1861, reported from Louisville that “Gen. Sherman now has at least twenty thousand men in the various camps between this city and Green River, and reinforcements arrive almost daily.” There followed a list of recent reinforcements—“the Indiana 29th, 30th and a remnant of the 6th … the Ohio 15th” and so on. When a copy of the paper came to Sherman’s attention, he proclaimed that all reporters were henceforth banished from his lines.
Then, less than two weeks after taking over from Anderson, Sherman was paid an official visit by U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, on his way back to Washington after a tour of the Western Department at St. Louis. With Cameron was Samuel Wilkerson of the New York Tribune , who was not identified as a reporter to Sherman and so was allowed to sit in on a discussion of the military situation in Kentucky. Sherman said he needed sixty thousand troops to drive the enemy from Kentucky, and two hundred thousand to carry the war clear to the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently Secretary Cameron understood the two hundred thousand figure as that deemed necessary for the defense of Kentucky. He considered the figure absurd but promised some additional men.
The official report of the Secretary of War’s tour of Missouri and Kentucky, which Wilkerson was believed to have had a large hand in writing, appeared in the New York Tribune on October 30. This was not a leak. The report actually was released to the paper by Secretary Cameron, and there followed after the report an order of battle entitled “Exhibit No. 14,” explaining Union Army strength in Kentucky, which, incredibly, was carried by the Tribune in full:
As for Sherman personally, the report clearly insinuated that his mind was unstable and that he could not safely be entrusted with any important command. For some weeks, in fact, Sherman’s officers and men had noticed that the general brooded day and night, that he lapsed into long silent moods, smoked incessantly, and paced up and down by the hour. It had begun to be whispered even before Secretary Cameron’s visit that Sherman was suffering from depression. In any event, the October 30 report that appeared in the New York Tribune said specifically that on being asked what force he deemed necessary to defend Kentucky, Sherman “promptly replied 200,000 men. … The Secretary of War replied that … he thought Gen. Sherman over-estimated the number and power of the rebel forces; that the Government would furnish troops … but that he [the Secretary] was tired of defensive war … he begged Gen. Sherman to assume the offensive and to keep the rebels hereafter on the defensive . … ”
It was clear that while Cameron was prepared to send additional troops to Kentucky, he was not about to entrust them to Sherman. A couple of weeks later Gen. Don Carlos Buell was ordered to replace Sherman as commander of the Department of the Cumberland, an event greatly welcomed by the newspapermen there. The correspondent for the Chicago Tribune wrote that “Anderson was a gentleman of no mind. Sherman is possessed of neither mind nor manners. We are thankful now that we have a man who combines both.”
Sherman was ordered to inspect troops near St. Louis in the Department of the Missouri. Newspapers, however, kept alive the story that his mind was unbalanced, and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the department commander, placed him on a twenty-day leave of absence, which Sherman spent in Lancaster, Ohio, with his wife and children. He was there when, on December 11, 1861, the Cincinnati Commercial announced some “painful intelligence”: “Gen. William T. Sherman, late commander of the Department of the Cumberland, is insane. It appears that he was at the time while commanding in Kentucky, stark mad . "… The harsh criticisms that have been lavished on this gentleman, provoked by his strange conduct, will now give way to feelings of deepest sympathy for him in his great calamity.”
The story was picked up in papers across the country. Only time and success would dispel Sherman’s mortification. After rumors circulated about Grant’s drunkenness at the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman was able laughingly to attest to the friendship between them: “You see, Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk.”
Returned to duty as commander of Benton Barracks, near St. Louis, Sherman wrote to his foster brother Philemon Ewing:
“I have no doubt I have been much biased by my association with Southern people and that in consequence I have overrated their power. I certainly have not their temper and purpose—There is not power enough in this country to change that. …”
In a letter written to Thomas Ewing more than two months later, Sherman still was professing his lack of interest in any important future command:
“The enemy is at Corinth [Mississippi] … with strong detachments along the Rail Road as far east as Tuscumbia [Alabama]: also with strong Cavalry and Infantry pickets toward us almost to our very Camp. These men are mere vedettes [sentinels] that fall back whenever we show ourselves, designed simply to carry notice back of an advance in front on our part. … I keep [my men] pretty well employed and think they are gaining consistency … but when Glory is to be gained I suppose [Gen. John A. McClernand] or some newspaper favorite must go ahead. I still think there is no need of haste … all will have their fill of fighting—as much as they want. …
“The issues involved in this war are so momentous that I shrink from the responsibilities which others seem to court, and much prefer the subordinate role I now play.”
But behind those “mere vedettes,” Albert Sidney Johnston’s army was already on the march northward to Shiloh, and a titanic battle was just two days away.
Immediately after Grant’s capture in February 1862 of Fort Henry, just below the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Sherman had been ordered from St. Louis to Paducah to expedite operations on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The following month President Lincoln placed all Union armies in the West under the command of General Halleck in St. Louis. Halleck promptly ordered Buell to join Grant in Tennessee in order to advance against Johnston at Corinth, Mississippi. The Confederates learned of this plan and determined to strike Grant before Buell could join him. The Battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest in North America up to that time, ended with the Confederates driven from the field after two days of heavy fighting. When it was over, Sherman knew he had done well. Halleck wrote the Secretary of War: “It is the unanimous opinion here that Brig. Gen. W. T. Sherman saved the fortune of the day on the 6th instance, and contributed largely to the glorious victory on the 7th. He was in the thickest of the fight on both days, having 3 horses killed under him and being wounded twice. …”
Shortly afterward, Thomas Ewing, in a fatherly letter, suggested that Sherman might have exposed himself unnecessarily to danger and that perhaps the battle dress of officers could be modified to make it less distinctive and therefore less hazardous. Sherman replied:
“I do not think I exposed myself at Shiloh more than was necessary from the shape of the ground and the nature of my men. I had under me no men of either practical or theoretical knowledge of war, and had to give orders that usually devolve on Colonels, Captains, and even Corporals. I had even to instruct Gunners how to cut the fuzes of their Shells. Therefore at times I had to be in the range of artillery that otherwise I would have avoided.
“The experience of that day convinces me that officers should wear their Uniform—but not epaulettes and chapeau but the undress with shoulder straps, cap with number & letter. In general appearance it does not differ much from the soldier dress, and the story of picking off officers I discredit. The proportion of officers killed & wounded was not excessive. I am not conscious that I was a special mark but twice—viz, early Sunday when I rode in advance of my left, the weakest part, when my orderly was killed. That shot was meant for me, as also the volley, but I doubt if they knew who I was, except any officer could have judged me to be a General officer from my position with a staff following. Again about 2 PM same day when my horse was killed dead. I was there when grape, canister & shells were flying thick & fast, with bullets from several regiments converging on a spot where the men were down on the ground & aiming true & well.
“The undress uniform should be worn that we may recognize each other with rank and corps without questioning. We are strangers to each other till the melee brings us in contact … a change of uniform is a matter of time. Our wardrobes at best are not heavily stocked & I have been trying without success even to get a pair of shoes from St. Louis.
[In this letter Sherman also praises the abilities of General Halleck, a man to whose memory history has not been especially kind:]
“Naturally a good strong mind and a head as strongly marked as Webster’s. I have known him since 1836 as a hard student. In our voyage round Cape Horn [in 1846 en route to California] many a time when others were struggling to kill time, he was using it in hard study. When the sea was high & ship rolling, the sky darkened so that daylight did not reach his state room, he stood on a stool, his book and candle on the upper berth and a bed strap round his middle secured to the frame to support him in the wild tossing of the ship. In such a man the country must have confidence. I am willing to repose in his strategy all confidence, and I think the other Generals, not politicians [commanders appointed because of their political connections], will do the same. … If Halleck cannot handle 100,000 men in a campaign, no one can. …”
During June and July, while the 5th Division under his command was rebuilding railroad trestles and bridges destroyed by the retreating Rebels and fighting off enemy cavalry, Sherman wrote a letter to Phil Ewing touching on many subjects:
”… the enemy far outnumbers us in cavalry. I have 8 companies of 4th Illinois—420 on paper, about 350 in camp—but to save my life I cannot even get 250 in the Saddle. Sick, extraduty, wagoneers, cooks &c &c. Hurlbut has 8 cos 5th Ohio with about the same results. His men have pistols & no carbines and are afraid of the Southern Cavalry armed with the fine Double Barrelled guns. …
“The people should know that this war will consume 300,000 men per year for a long time. … To allow our armies to run down in the face & country of the enemy invites defeat and prolongs the strife. We have all to conceal even from ourselves the awful mistakes of the war in not preparing men by drill and organization all last summer, fall and winter. It may be the government could not collect men & arms faster, but I think few comprehended the vast task before us. …
“Buell [who replaced Sherman in Kentucky] is our best soldier. Halleck the ablest man—Grant very brave but not brilliant. [Gen. George Henry] Thomas slow, cool & methodic. I dont think much of [Gen. John] Pope or [the politically appointed Gen.] McClernand. …”
Late in July 1862 Sherman took over the District of Memphis, retaining command as well of his 5th Division, and that winter he led the first Union assault against Vicksburg—and thereby became embroiled, unintentionally, in a dramatic battle with Western war correspondents.
The massive Confederate battery at Vicksburg controlled the long southern sweep of the Mississippi from below Memphis to New Orleans. Sherman embarked his troops downriver on December 19. Grant was to have taken part in the operation, but he withdrew at the outset when Rebel cavalry destroyed his supply base. Sherman went in alone and suffered seventeen hundred casualties in a fruitless attempt to gain the Chickasaw Bluffs north of the city.
Ignoring Sherman’s specific orders, an undetermined number of reporters had been aboard the Army transports. They now wrote their separate accounts of the disaster and mailed them to intermediaries in Memphis and Cairo, Illinois, for forwarding to their respective papers. However, Sherman’s regional superintendent for the U.S. Army mails noticed these suspiciously fat envelopes and intercepted them. Not to be deterred, the correspondent for the New York Herald , Thomas W. Knox, angrily rewrote his account and then steamed upriver to Cairo, where he filed his dispatch without interference. In the New York Herald of Sunday, January 18, 1863, Knox’s sixcolumn story charged Sherman with gross, even criminal, negligence and confusion. “General Sherman was so exceedingly erratic,” the story concluded, “that the discussion of a twelvemonth ago with respect to his sanity was revived with much earnestness. … Insanity and inefficiency have brought their result. Let us have them no more.”
When Sherman saw the story, he immediately ordered Knox seized. He had the story read aloud to the reporter and demanded the source of each assertion. In a burst of honesty Knox declared, “Of course, General Sherman, I have no feeling against you personally, but you are regarded as the enemy of our set and we must in self-defense write you down.” Sherman directed that papers be drawn up for Knox’s court-martial.
On February 6 he wrote Senator Ewing about the press coverage of the Union defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs:
”… I am in battle & was pushed forward, catching all the path of the balls & bullets in front, and then the curses & malediction of the nonthinking herd behind. The Newspapers declare me their inveterate Enemy, and openly say they will write me down. In writing me down are they not writing the Cause and the Country down? Now I know and every officer knows that no army or detachment moves or can move that is not attended by correspondents of hundreds of newspapers. …
“They encumber our transports, occupy state rooms to the exclusion of officers on duty, they eat our provisions, they swell the crowd of hangers on, and increase the impedimenta. They publish without stint positive information of movements past & prospective, organizations, names of commanders, and accurate information which reaches the enemy with as much regularity as it does our People. They write up one class of officers and down another, and fan the flames of discord and jealousy. Being in our very midst, catching expressions dropped by officers, clerks, and orderlies, and being keen expert men they detect movements and give notice of them. So that no matter how rapidly we move, our enemy has notice in advance. To them more than to any other cause do I trace the many failures that attend our army. While they cry about blood & slaughter they are the direct cause of more bloodshed than fifty times their number of armed Rebels. Never had an enemy a better corps of spies than our army carries along, paid, transported, and fed by the United States.”
Then, less than two weeks later, with torrential rains hammering down on his camp, Sherman composed his fullest treatise on the villainy of the press in wartime. It is an eleven-page letter more vehement and more eloquent than any previously known statement by Sherman on the subject.
“As I have more leisure than usual now I will illustrate by examples fresh in the memory of all, why I regard newspaper correspondents as spies & why as a servant of an enlightened government I feel bound in honor and in common honesty to shape my official conduct accordingly. A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us. One who bears into a Fortress or Camp a baleful influence that encourages sedition or weakens us. He need not be an enemy, is often a trader woman or servant. Such characters are by all belligerents punished summarily with the extremest penalties, not because they are of themselves filled with guilty thought or intent but because he or she endangers the safety of an army, a nation, or the cause for which it is contending. André carried no intelligence back to Genl Clinton but was the mere instrument used to corrupt the fidelity of an officer holding an important command. Washington admitted the high and pure character of André but the safety of the cause demanded his punishment. It is hard to illustrate my point by reference to our past history, but I wish to convey the full idea that a nation & an army must defend its safety & existence by making acts militating against it criminal regardless of the mere interest of the instrument. We find a scout surveying our camp from a distance in noways threatening us but seeking information of the location strength and composition of our forces. We shoot him of course without asking a question. We find a stranger in our camp seeking a stray horse & find afterwards he has been to the enemy: We hang him as a spy because the safety of the army & the cause it fights for is too important to be risked by any pretext or chance. … I know the enemy received from the [press] … notice of our intended attack on Vicksburg & thwarted our well laid schemes. I know that Beauregard at Corinth received from the same source full details of all troops ascending the Tennessee and acted accordingly. I know that it was by absolute reticence only that Halleck succeeded in striking Forts Henry & Donaldson and prevented their reinforcement in time to thwart that most brilliant movement. And it was only by the absence of newspapers that we succeeded in reaching the post of Arkansas before it could be reinforced.
“I know that the principal northern papers reach the enemy regularly & promptly & I know that all the vigilance of our army cannot prevent it & I know that by this means the enemy can defeat us to the end of time. …
“Another view of the case. The Northern Press either make public opinion or reflect it. By gradual steps public opinion instead of being governed governs our country. All bow to it & even military men who are sworn officers of the Executive Branch of the Government go behind & look to public opinion. The consequence is & has been that officers instead of keeping the Executive Branch advised of all movements, events, or circumstances that would enable it to act advisedly & with vigor communicate with the public direct through the Press so that the Government authorities are operated on by public opinion formed too often on false or interested information. This has weakened the Executive and has created jealousies, mistrust, & actual sedition. Officers find it easier to attain rank, renown, fame, and notoriety by the cheap process of newspapers. This cause has paralyzed several fine armies & by making the people at home mistrust the ability of Leaders, Surgeons, & Quarter Masters has even excited the fears of parents so far that many advise their sons and brothers to desert until desertion & mutiny have lost their odious character. I’ll undertake to say that the army of the Potomac has not today for battle one half the men whom the U.S. pays as soldiers & this is partially the case with the army of the Tennessee & here.
“In all armies there must be wide differences of opinion & partial causes of disaffection—want of pay, bad clothing, dismal camps, crowded transports, hospitals rudely formed, & all the incidents of war. These cannot be entirely avoided & newspapers can easily charge them to negligence of commanders & thereby create disaffection. I do not say the Press intends this but they have done this and are doing it all the time. Now I know I made the most minute and careful preparation for the sick & wounded on the Yazoo, plenty of ambulances & men detailed in advance to remove the wounded—four of the largest transports prepared & set aside before a shot was fired & that every wounded man was taken from the field dressed & carefully attended immediately & yet I know that the Press has succeeded in making the very reverse impression & that many good people think there was criminal negligence. The same naked representations were made at Shiloh & I saw hundreds of Physicians come down & when our Surgeons begged & implored their help they preferred to gather up trophies and consume the dainties provided for the wounded & go back and represent the cruelty of the Army Surgeons & boast of their own disinterested humanity. I know this & that they nearly ruined Dr. Hewitt, one of the hardest working Surgeons in any army. I see similar attempts—less successful however—against Dr. McMillan. Not a word of truth, not even a pretense of truth, but it is a popular & successful theme & they avail themselves of it. What is the consequence? All officers of industry who stand by at all times through storm & sunshine find their reputations blasted & others—usually the most lazy & indolent—reaping cheap glory & fame through the correspondents of the Press.
“I say in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord & discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies. Shall we succumb or shall we meet and overcome the evil? I am satisfied they have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars & brought our country to the brink of ruin & that unless the nuisance is abated we are lost.
“Here we are in front of Vicksburg. The attack direct in front would in our frail transports be marked by the sinking of Steamers loaded with troops, a fearful assault against the hills fortified with great care by a cunning enemy. Every commander who has looked at it says it cannot be done in front—it must be turned. I tried it but newspaper correspondents had sent word in advance & ample preparations were made & [enemy] reinforcements double my number had reached Vicksburg. McClernand was unwilling to attack in front. Grant ditto. Then how turn the position? We cannot ascend the Yazoo to where our men can get a footing. We cannot run our frail transports past the Vicksburg Batteries, so we resolve to cut a channel into the Yazoo at the old pass near Delta above & into the Texas by way of Lake Providence. Secrecy & dispatch are the chief elements of success. The forces here are kept to occupy the attention of the enemy, two steamers are floated past the Batteries to control the River below & men are drawn secretly from Helena & Memphis to cut the canals & levees & remove all the inhabitants so that the enemy could not have notice till the floods of the Mississippi could finish the work of man. But what avail? Known spies accompany each expedition & we now read in the Northern papers … that our forces here are unequal to the direct assault but we are cutting the two canals above. The levees are cut & our plans work to a charm but the enemy now knows our purposes & hastens above, fells trees into the narrow headstreams, cuts the side levees, disperses the waters & defeats our well conceived plans.
“Who can carry on a war thus? It is terrible to contemplate: & I say that no intelligent officer in this or any American army now in the field but would prefer to have his opponent increased twenty—Yea, fifty percent—if the internal informers & spies could be excluded from our camps … if the people could only see as I see the baleful effects of this mischievous practice they would cry aloud in indignant tones. We may in self defense be compelled to take the law into our own hands for our safety or we may bend to the storm and seek a position where others may take the consequences of this cause. I early foresee this result & have borne the malignity of the Press—but a day will come & that not far distant when the Press must surrender some portion of its freedom to save the rest else it too will perish in the general wreck. …
“I know I could have easily achieved popularity by yielding to … outside influences but I could not do what I see other popular officers do: furnish transportation at government expense to newspaper agents & supply them with public horses … [and] give access to official papers which I am commanded to withhold to the world till my Employer has benefit of them. I could not do these things & feel that I was an honest man & faithful servant of the Government, for my memory still runs back to the time when … an officer would not take a government nail out of a keg on which to hang his coat or feed his horse out of the public crib without charging its cost against his pay. …
“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!”
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:]
“Grant dont like Rosecrans. He found great fault with him here at Iuka a year ago, and though he is disposed to yield to any body who will make some show of sacrifice I doubt if Rosecrans will take it kindly. Rosecrans may be Grant’s superior in intellect, but not in sagacity, purity of character, and singleness of purpose. Rosecrans is selfish & vainglorious. Grant not a bit so. He would never appropriate the just fame of another. He & I have been always perfect friends. I confide in him my innermost thoughts, and when we think differently—which we have on many minor occasions—each respects the motive of the other. I would rather serve under Grant than Rosecrans, for in an extended country like this any one of us may be worsted. Grant would stand by his friend, but Rosecrans would sacrifice his Brother if he stood in the way of his popular renown. …
“Since poor Willy’s death I have felt more than ever my natural desire to stride out into obscurity. The Constant wear & tear of mind & body will make me old & feeble before my time, & yet the moment I cast about to see how I could get away it seems impossible, for all naturally & by habit come to me for orders & instructions. Without being aware of it, I seem to possess a knowledge of men & things, Rivers, Roads capacity of trains, wagons, &c that no one near me even professes to have. And yet I see Buell & McClellan & Porter & others of greater Rank and more fame hugging fine hotels and Summer resorts.”
In March 1864, when Grant was ordered to Washington to assume command of all the Union armies, he turned over to Sherman the huge Military Division of the Mississippi, embracing the departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Arkansas. The following month Sherman wrote Phil Ewing from Nashville:
“My whole thoughts now are on concentrating on the Tennessee, and in getting forward the supplies that will enable me at the right time to move forward against Joe Johnston, entrenched in the Mountain Gorge of Georgia. So many men want a furlough, and it is like drawing teeth to get them back, but next month for better or worse. I am sorry to see the people settling down to the belief that this year will end the war. That is impossible. Full 300,000 of the bravest men of this world must be killed or banished in the South before they will think of peace, and in killing them we must lose an equal or greater number, for we must be the attacking party. Still we as a nation have no alternative or choice. It must be done whether we want or not. …”
From Nashville Sherman moved on to Chattanooga, and from there, in May 1864, he marched south to begin the invasion of Georgia. By mid-July, having fought, flanked and pursued Joe Johnston for nearly two months, his army stood close to Atlanta. He wrote to Phil in Lancaster to report on his situation:
“As to this campaign I have now driven my adversary wholly across the Chattahoochee. … Atlanta is in full sight 9 miles off. I have brought a hundred thousand men from Chattanooga 120 miles, and driven a well commanded & well organized [Confederate] Army of 60,000 from the fortified positions at Dalton, Resaca, Cassville, Allatoona, Kenesaw, Smyrna and the Chattahoochee taking his only nitre [for making gunpowder] country, his vast iron works, & lode of ore, and lastly the most extensive cotton & woolen manufactures of Georgia. We had sixty days of Continuous Combat, with several pretty smart battles interspersed. I don’t believe there are ten men in the United States other than those here who appreciate and measure the vast labor of mind & body consumed in accomplishing these results and I may be at fault for discouraging flattering descriptions because I prefer at the end, or rather at some pause in the Grand drama, to paint a connected whole rather than scattering it piecemeal to satisfy the greedy curiosity of a gaping public. I think in crossing the Chattahoochee as I have, without loss of a man, I have achieved really a creditable deed. Thomas told me he dreaded it more than any one thing ahead and when he learned that I had Schofield across, fortified & with two pontoon bridges laid only 3 miles above where Johnston lay entrenched on this bank, he could not believe it. … If I can take Atlanta without too large a sacrifice I may then allow my friends to clamor for another Kind of General, for I have given daily directives to 200,000 men on distant fields with a full hundred thousand under my own eye.
“My health is good, I live out of doors under a tent fly, have good rations, & ride a good deal. Indeed my lines are always over ten miles long & at the moment full twenty, but my office labors are not great as the details fall upon Army Commanders. …”
Three weeks after the fall of Atlanta on September 1, Sherman again wrote Phil.
“So smoothly and harmoniously have things worked on this line … that the soldiers and officers will follow me into any enterprise however hazardous. … The capture of Atlanta and its Line of Railroads gives me a fine opening for another still more decisive move in war, but we must have our regiments filled up. War is costly in life, but it is thrust on us and we must meet it in all its magnitude.”
On actually commencing his famous march from Atlanta to the sea, Sherman severed his contacts with the North, breaking all railroad and telegraph communications with the rear. Early in November, before setting out, Sherman wrote to Phil from Kingston, Georgia:
“We are not fighting [Jefferson] Davis alone, but all the elements of Anarchy, which have organized resistance to an attempted civilized and compact Government. … If my name must go to History, I prefer it should not as the enemy to the South or any … system of labor which however objectionable has cleared the Forest & cornbrakes and developed a Wealth otherwise latent, but against mobs, vigilance committees and all the other phases of sedition and anarchy which have threatened and still endanger the country which our children must inhabit.”
A month after his army had captured Savannah and on the eve of his northward march into the Carolinas, Sherman wrote Phil from his headquarters just across the Georgia line.
“I have been wanting to write you for a month but have let days & weeks pass by and now find myself on the edge of civilization about to cut loose to attempt another of those Grand Schemes of War that make me stand out as a Grand Innovator. Of course I know better, that I have done nothing wonderful or new, [taken] in our risks proportioned to the ability to provide for them. The Dutch & Greek navigators clung to the land, but others struck out across the ocean depending on the compass, and now who clings to the land is deemed the less safe sailor. So in war. Who clings to a base or defends it is less at ease than one who makes his army strong and doesnt dissipate it by detachments. But let the world draw its own conclusions. I know my enemy and think I have made him feel effects of war that he did not expect. And he now learns how the Power of the United States can reach him in his innermost recesses …
“I am at this instant at a Plantation house near Pocotaligo around which I am assembling men & materiel of war for the invasion of South Carolina, where I spent so many years. The rice fields look familiar, the … Forests and rows of live oaks, but the People are all gone—Negroes & Whites—and desolation is supreme, i know that at some point I will meet a desperate set who look upon me as a renegade, one who enjoyed their hospitality and now thanks them with fire & sword. Their devotion is wonderful. Men of immense estates of income of 30 to 50,000 dollars have given up all and now serve as common soldiers in the Ranks. Why cannot we inspire our people with the same ardor, whereas they seem more intent on getting Negroes and vagabonds to take the place of soldiers. … I have been writing by twilight and got off these Lines, but will dress up now that Candles are lighted. … My Right wing is now here, draws its supplies from the head of Port Royal. My Left Wing is over on the Savannah River near Sisters Ferry. I expect to be all ready on the 30th when I will again cut loose and penetrate the State, trusting to our strong army to cut our way out. I have pretty clearly marked out in my mind my course, which does not touch Charleston, but it will face that place to extremity and the enemy may give it up, but it makes little difference, as it does us little harm now, and is not worth the time of a siege. You may not hear from me for a month and then on the North Carolina coast. Keep this to yourself, and breathe not a syllable, for it is only by keeping my own counsels that I have succeeded.”
Referring to a bill in Congress to create a new office of lieutenant general for himself, Sherman said he would not accept the new rank and that he did not approve, either, a proposal to make Grant a full general. “My rank is now enough for legal purposes,” he wrote from Pocotaligo, ”… and additional rank would confer no title. I am now a General in Command of an army as large as possible, indeed my command now runs from the Mississippi to the Atlantic and in fact I command wherever I go and … it is impossible to confer more. … Indeed the fact that such perfect harmony exists between me and all commanders gives me as much influence in the military world as I could ask.”
Sherman recently had received an appeal for special consideration from one of his foster brothers, Brig. Gen. Hugh Ewing, who had fought with great spirit at Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge. At the approach of winter 1863-64, Hugh had requested a transfer from the field to a city. Sherman had given him the transfer but in the spring would not restore him to his old command. After the fall of Savannah, Hugh had appealed again without success. Of this Sherman wrote to Phil:
”I have no doubt Hugh is offended with me. He wrote me for a command in this Army. I offered him a Division at Nashville but he declined & now to give him place I would have to remove some General who has stood by his command through both the Atlanta and Savannah Campaigns. I foresaw it at Nashville and told him so, but he knew better & now I cannot remedy it. A man might as well sit on the banks of the Mississippi and complain that he did not get down the River fast. A man of war must go with events. If he steps to one side for a moment he is drifted into an eddy and can never recover the channel. In the same way Charley [Col. Charles Ewing] should not hope for a Generals Commission unless he gets a Regiment & takes the time necessary. It is now too late to expect those accidents by which Generals were made at the beginning of the War. Actual experience in Command on the Field of Battle is the only proper title to promotion. It is pitiful now to see the Brigadiers kicked about in search of a command. I will not displace one of my faithful officers for another who has the same commission. Congress should rectify this whole matter by expunging the list and commissioning only such as exercise the Command. I am told that at Cincinnati, New York, and Washington you entertain more Generals than you do in my Camp.”
This communication from Pocotaligo is the last in our collection of unearthed letters, a small fraction of all those written by Sherman during the war. His letter production during those four years, even under unfavorable field conditions, was enormous. There still were months of fighting ahead for Sherman, and once he was in communication again with the North, he again had to deal with the indiscretion of the press. He had written to Phil Ewing from Pocotaligo: “I still threaten the newspaper men with instant death as spies and they give me a wide berth. They manage to go along, but not in that dictatorial way they used to. They are meek and humble enough. …”
But soon thereafter the New York Tribune provided significant and timely intelligence to the Confederate general W. J. Hardee when the paper announced to its readers that Sherman next would be heard from about Goldsboro, North Carolina, because his supply vessels from Savannah were known to be rendezvousing at Morehead City, North Carolina. Because of this, Sherman was forced to fight a battle at Goldsboro he had hoped to avoid. It was said that he later refused an introduction to Horace Greeley, publisher of the Tribune , reminding him that his paper was responsible for the Union casualties suffered at Goldsboro.
An exhaustive study in The American Historical Review many years after the Civil War confirmed what the generals knew all along—that “copy for the papers underwent no sifting to eliminate contraband news, for we find casualty lists with full data as to the location of military units, statements of expected reinforcements, revelations of the amount of force commanded by various generals, speculations as to plans, reports of the location and strength of batteries. …”
Henry Villard, the Civil War correspondent who gained a respected reputation in his long career as a journalist and publisher, has left us a surprising assessment of Sherman’s wartime stand against the press. In his memoirs, published almost forty years after the war, Villard wrote: “I did not, of course, agree with him at the time as to my own calling, but candor constrains me to say that I had to admit in the end that he was entirely right. For what I observed … must lead any unprejudiced mind to the conclusion that the harm certain to be done by war correspondents far outweighs any good they can possibly do. If I were a commanding general I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.”
The Civil War had already been over for ten years when D. Appleton & Co. brought out in two volumes Memoirs of General William T. Sherman by Himself . It became a best seller. In all this voluminous work Sherman devoted a scant fifteen lines to the press; they revealed no significant change in the opinions he held during the war. Writing of the harm done by newspapermen, he concluded: “Yet so greedy are the people at large for war news, that it is doubtful whether any army commander can exclude all reporters, without bringing down on himself a clamor that may imperil his own safety. Time and moderation must bring a just solution to this modern difficulty.”