Skip to main content

The Way Of General Sherman

March 2023
2min read

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”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February 1957"

Authored by: Roger Burlingame

In an era that condoned smuggling and lawbreaking the transition from privateer to pirate was easy

Authored by: Perry Miller

Margaret Fuller very possibly spoke the truth, and the literary men of the age both admired and shied away from her

Authored by: William B. Catton

John W. Garrett turned the pioneer Baltimore & Ohio into a great instrument for tapping the treasure of the West

"The current was too strong, the demagogues too numerous, the fall elections too near"

Authored by: Stanley Vestal

To Stanley Vestal, the old Sioux warrior White Bull describes the day when he counted his greatest coup

Authored by: Ralph Whitney

An enterprising Yankee briefy ruled Atlantic sea lanes but a chain of disasters dogged his great steam packets

Did the mysterious Portuguese sea captain help plot Lincoln’s assassination, or was he an informer?

Authored by: Fred J. Cook

From the dark hold of the Amistad sprang a bold band who sailed her into history

Authored by: George F. Scheer

Participants describe the opening of the American Revolution

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.