Skip to main content

Sherman—modern Warrior

June 2024
18min read

More than any other Civil War general, says a distinguished British critic, he grasped the possibilities and requirements of warfare in the modern age

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.

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.”

As soon as it became clear that no immediate Confederate advance on Washington was likely, Sherman was sent westward to help in organizing Union forces in Kentucky. He considered that this area was of crucial importance defensively, and that offensively “the Mississippi River will be a grand theater of war … I think it of more importance than Richmond” but he soon found that raising troops in Kentucky was an even harder job than rallying them near Washington. The next few months proved the most exasperating period of his life. His immediate superior collapsed under the strain, leaving Sherman, who took over from him reluctantly, to deal with both the military and the political difficulties.

His outbursts of temper in trying to inject some discipline into the motley collection of volunteers had already led them to nickname him “Old Pills,” and he now came into bitter conflict with the local politicians and press. He also had a clash with Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who came to Louisville on a short visit. Sherman, pointing out that he had only 20,000 men to cover a frontage of 300 miles, argued that at least 60,000 were needed for the immediate purpose, and 200,000 for an effective offensive down the Mississippi—a moderate estimate compared with the strength eventually expended. But the Secretary of War described it as an “insane” demand, and this careless phrase was exploited by Sherman’s political and press critics, who now depicted him as a lunatic.

Such a blaring press campaign made his position impossible, so he suggested that it might be better if he were relieved of his command. His suggestion was promptly accepted, and he was transferred to a subordinate place under General Henry W. Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. But the stories about his insanity had preceded him, and he was looked at askance in many quarters, so that his own depression became acute. Relief came with the launching of the Union offensive in the West, which diverted the attention of the press to a fresh topic.

The offensive opened on January 19, 1862, when George H. Thomas broke the right end of the Confederate line by his victory at Mill Springs, Kentucky. It took on full momentum a few weeks later with the capture, by a spearhead force under Ulysses S. Grant, of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. In the next stage of the advance up the Tennessee, Sherman commanded a division under Grant, and his performance in the confused and seesaw Battle of Shiloh drew a special tribute from Grant to his “great judgment and skill on the management of his men.” Halleck reported that Sherman had saved the situation and recommended that he be promoted to the rank of major general, which was done.

The Union offensive subsequently fizzled out as a result of diverging efforts, sluggish movements, and Confederate raids on its railroad lines of supply. But the comradeship which linked Sherman and Grant from Shiloh on, and the intuitive teamwork they developed, bore good fruit in the 1863 campaign-after the too-cautious Halleck had been shifted to Washington as general in chief and Grant had taken his place in the West. Sherman, now given command of a corps, was Grant’s right hand in the bold strategic maneuver that, after a series of failures, brought about the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and thereby gained complete control of the Mississippi. The Confederacy was thus deprived permanently of reinforcements and supplies from the trans-Mississippi states—with effects more far-reaching than the repulse of Lee at Gettysburg, which took place at the same moment.

Grant’s approach to Vicksburg had started in midApril when Union gunboats and transports, loaded with supplies, ran the gantlet of the Confederate batteries under cover of night to establish a new base some thirty miles south of the fortress. Grant then filtered two of his three corps down there by a newly made road on the west bank of the Mississippi, and crossed to the east bank with little opposition, helped by a distraction which Sherman created above Vicksburg. When Sherman’s corps rejoined him, bringing a large wagon train with fresh supplies, Grant cut loose from his new base and marched northeastward on May 7 to place his army astride Vicksburg’s line of supply and reinforcement from the east and drive Confederate General John C. Pemberton and his army back into Vicksburg. Although the Confederate garrison of Vicksburg beat off his assaults, its isolation and growing starvation produced its surrender six weeks later.

There was no immediate strategic exploitation of the Vicksburg victory, and the next move was delayed by prolonged arguments in Washington as to where and how Grant’s army should be employed. The arguments were settled fortuitously, and in the end fortunately, by the misfortune that General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland suffered in Tennessee. Its southward advance in September met a heavy defeat at Chickamauga, and it became bottled up at Chattanooga. In this emergency Grant was given over-all command in the West, and Sherman succeeded to the command of his army. Grant moved to the rescue of Rosecrans and after a tough fight drove back the investing army. This victory opened the gateway into Georgia, the granary of the Confederacy, and thence into the eastern states as a whole. But in the following year, 1864, the Union came near to forfeiting the ultimate victory that appeared to be strategically assured. For the people of the North were growing weary under the prolonged strain of the struggle, and the peace party was gaining strength. The presidential election was due in November, and Lincoln was in danger of being ousted in favor of a President pledged to seek a compromise peace. He urgently needed to provide the people with clear evidence that there was good hope of early victory, and to this end he sent for Grant to take over the supreme command. Sherman was then appointed chief commander in the West; the “lunatic” now had 219,907 men, of whom about 100,000 were available for offensive operations in northern Georgia. For the coming campaign in the East, the main theatre, Grant chose the old direct overland approach southward from the Rappahannock River toward Richmond, counting on his greatly superior weight of numbers to smash Lee’s army, or at least to wear it down by a “continuous hammering.”

His own “will to conquer,” however, did not bring success. He failed to smash Lee’s army, while the strength of his own had withered in the fierce battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. The only strategic advantage gained—that of having worked close to the rear of Richmond—looked like a stalemate. The northern people were discouraged, and at the end of the summer Lincoln doubted that he could be re-elected. Yet when the outlook seemed darkest, it suddenly lightened, and in the November elections Lincoln was returned to power. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September was the saving factor.

There was deep mutual understanding between Grant and Sherman, but there was also a significant contrast in outlook. Grant’s success as a commander had been largely due to the way he applied “horse sense” unfettered by the harness of military doctrine and custom, but he had no marked originality of concept. Sherman was a man of vision, but started the war with the handicap of being too well versed in prevailing military theory and tactical manuals, and it was only when war experience helped to break this crust that his capacity for original thought had full play.

By 1864 the difference between the two men became apparent. While Grant’s primary objective was the enemy’s army, Sherman’s was the seizure of strategic points. Atlanta, the base of the Confederate army opposing him in Georgia, was not only the junction of four important railways but also the source of vital supplies. As Sherman pointed out, it was “full of foundries, arsenals, and machine shops,” as well as being of great importance psychologically as a symbol, and he held that “its capture would be the death knell of the Confederacy.”

In the advance to Atlanta, Sherman’s skill in maneuver was all the more notable because, by contrast to Grant in Virginia, he was tied to one railway line for his supplies. Moreover his starting point at Chattanooga was about 150 miles from his Nashville base and 330 miles from Louisville, the main source of supplies. That long line of supplies, lengthening as he advanced, was under threat everywhere from the raids of enemy cavalry and guerrillas. Yet, rather than commit his troops to a direct attack on an opponent well placed to block him, Sherman cut loose temporarily even from this supply line.

His ability to maneuver had been aided by the drastic way in which he cut down transport before starting. Each division and brigade was allotted only enough wagons to carry food and ammunition, and every man brought five days’ rations on his person or horse. Apart from these supply trains, only one wagon and one ambulance was allowed to each regiment, with a pack mule for the mess kit and baggage of the officers of each company. Tents were forbidden, except for the sick and wounded and one for each headquarters as an office. Clerical work in the field was reduced to a minimum by the use of permanent offices in the rear for the transaction and transmission of all routine correspondence. This made possible a severe restriction of the size of the various headquarters staffs.

Sherman’s own habit of living “rough” made his troops more ready to follow his example, while his lack of regard for outward appearance and the trappings of dignity strongly appealed to such pioneer types. So did his air of restless energy and constant alertness. At night he would often be seen prowling around the camp with his feet in old slippers, his legs covered only by a pair of red flannel drawers, his tall, spare body wrapped in a travel-worn dressing gown, with sometimes a short blue cape or cloak over all as a concession to convention. He was the lightest sleeper in his army, and by four o’clock in the morning liked to be up and about, thinking or listening—for that, he said, was “the best time to hear any movement at a distance.” While his eccentricities endeared him to the troops, his alertness inspired their confidence, and “There’s Uncle Billy. All’s right,” became a common saying.

More forgiving than most commanders where tactical errors occurred, knowing that the enemy’s resistance and counteraction is the most incalculable factor in war, Sherman would rarely tolerate excuses for delays in the movement of supplies, believing that, by due foresight, preparation, and initiative, material obstacles could always be overcome. Those who obstructed or clung to the letter of regulations suffered sharply from his tongue. One officer who made difficulties was spurred to overcome them by the vehement retort, “If you don’t have my army supplied, and keep it supplied, we’ll eat your mules up, sir—eat your mules up.” Later in the advance, when there was urgent need to replace a burnt railroad bridge and the chief engineer estimated that he would require four days for the task, Sherman is credited with the reply, “Sir, I give you forty-eight hours or a position in the front ranks.”

When he had taken Atlanta, Sherman took a much bolder course, which carried greater strategic risks but diminished tactical risks. He felt sure that if he could march through Georgia and wreck its railway system, and then continue in the same way through South and North Carolina, the psychological impact of this strategic thrust into the heart of the South, coupled with the material effect of stopping the northward flow of supplies to Richmond and Lee’s army, would produce the collapse of the Confederacy’s resistance. So, ignoring Hood’s army, which he had forced to evacuate Atlanta, he abandoned his own line of supply and set out on his famous “march to the sea” through Georgia—moving with the minimum of transport and living on the country while destroying its railways. Starting from Atlanta in mid-November, he reached the outskirts of Savannah within four weeks and there reopened his communications, this time by sea. A discerning Confederate commander and historian, General E. P. Alexander, wrote that “the moral effect of this march … was greater than would have been the most decided victory.”

At the beginning of February, 1865, Sherman moved northward through the Carolinas toward Lee’s rear. By mid-March, after reaching North Carolina, he heard from Grant that Lee’s army “is now demoralized and deserting very fast, both to us and to their homes.” Yet Grant’s own army was still immobilized in the trench lines round Petersburg and Richmond, where it had been brought to a halt the previous summer. It was not until the beginning of April that Grant resumed his advance. This now had a quick and dramatic success—retreating from Richmond, Lee’s army was headed off and forced to surrender within a week.

Sherman’s conduct of operations during the cam»3 paigns of 1864 and 1865 showed that the North had found a strategist who had diagnosed the causes of the prevalent paralysis and developed a remedy for it.

The increased facility of supply that came with the development of railroads had led commanders to build up increased numbers of troops at the railhead, without pausing to consider the hampering effect on their own power of maneuver. Thus the first result of the new means of strategic movement was, paradoxically, to reduce strategic mobility. The railroad fostered the expansion of armies—it could forward and feed many more than could operate effectively. It also tended to inflate their wants and demands, so that they became more closely tied to the railhead.

A further result was that their own strategic vulnerability increased because their sustenance and progress “hung on a thread”—the long stretch of rail line behind them, which could be all too easily cut by a small force maneuvering in such wide spaces. The Northern armies, accustomed to more plentiful rations, were more susceptible to paralysis than their opponents. That became increasingly evident in 1864, when, with growing strength, they pushed deeper into hostile territory. In the western theater the precarious situation of such rail-fed masses was exploited by the mobile raids of such brilliant Confederate cavalry leaders as Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan.

Sherman grasped the problem and produced a solution—the only one then technically possible. The enemy had struck him through his rail communications; he would strike at theirs, while immunizing himself. He saw that to regain and secure mobility he must free himself from dependence on a fixed line of supply. So he organized a force that was self-contained as to supplies, carrying the necessary minimum along with it and supplementing this by foraging from the countryside through which it passed. He then cut loose from his own railway.

Having shown in the march through Georgia how light an army could travel, Sherman now proved that it could move lighter still. Before starting northward through the Carolinas, he sought to convert his army “into a mobile machine willing and able to start at a moment’s notice and to subsist on the scantiest of food.” Although it was winter, officers as well as men were now made to bivouac in pairs under a strip of canvas stretched over sticks or boughs; all tents and camp furniture were discarded. Once again, as in his march on Atlanta, Sherman took a deceptive line between alternative objectives so that, time after time, his opponents could not concentrate their forces effectively to stop him.

Sherman’s flexible organization of his army contributed almost as much as his variability of direction to his continuous progress. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five, or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on. The opposing forces became so jumpy that they repeatedly gave way to the psychological pressure and fell back before they felt any serious physical pressure. The mere shout, “We’re Bill Sherman’s raiders, you’d better git,” sometimes sufficed to make opposing detachments retreat.

Sherman’s strategy, and grand strategy, foreshadowed the aim that was pursued in the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War. But that bombing offensive was too gradual in development to produce a quickly decisive effect, while it offered no such good opportunity for the opposing troops and people to escape from their leaders’ grip by desertion and surrender—for it is not possible to surrender to an attacker who stays aloft in the sky. A closer parallel to, and fulfillment of, Sherman’s strategy is to be found in the paralyzing and demoralizing shock effect, on the opposing armies and peoples simultaneously, of the blitzkriegs of 1939-41 carried out by the Germans, who combined deep thrusting armored forces with air attack.

Since General Heinz Guderian, the creator and leader of the panzer forces, has stated that he derived this new technique from my writings, it may be of historical interest to mention that the concept developed in my mind partly in studying the course and effect of Sherman’s operations.

This was the first war between modern democracies, and Sherman saw clearly that the resisting power of a democracy depends even more on the strength of the people’s will than on the strength of its armies. His unchecked march through the heart of the South, destroying its resources, was the most effective way to create and spread a sense of helplessness that would undermine the will to continue the war.

The havoc that his march produced in the Deep South left a legacy of bitterness in later years—more than in the immediate postwar years. That has recoiled on Sherman’s historical reputation. But it is questionable whether that bitterness or the impoverishment of the South would have been prolonged, or grave, if the peace settlement had not been dominated by the vindictiveness of the northern extremists who gained the upper hand after Lincoln’s assassination.

For Sherman himself bore in mind the need of moderation in making peace. That was shown in the generous terms of the agreement he drafted for the surrender of Johnston’s army—an offer for which he was violently denounced by the government in Washington. Moreover, he persistently pressed the importance, for the future of the forcibly reunited nation, of reconciling the conquered section by good treatment and help toward its recovery. His vision extended beyond the horizon of war to the peace that would follow.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.