Sherman, William T. (1820-1891)
William T. Sherman (1820-1891)
“War is Hell.” Near the end of the Civil War, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman perfected an offensive strategy that foreshadowed twentieth-century total war. Marching from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, in the fall of 1864, Sherman directed his army to destroy everything of military significance. Sherman hoped to break civilian support for the war by marching through the Georgia countryside and instilling an air of insecurity among the inhabitants. Scorching a sixty-mile swath across Georgia, Sherman’s army of sixty thousand men leveled almost everything in their path while being careful not to abuse the rural people physically. Major cities such as Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina, went up in flames. In Columbia the anticipated fear of Sherman’s arrival caused fleeing Confederate soldiers to burn cotton bales in the streets and, subsequently, start the fire which nearly burnt the entire capital to the ground. The events instituted a psychological warfare in which the mere mention of his name caused panic. Sherman’s marauders focused their attention on destroying the Southern infrastructure to impede enemy troop movements. Their main target was railroad tracks, which they heated and then twisted around trees. Even though his orders called for restraint, some Northern troops known as “bummers” (so named because they straggled from the line of march) looted and burned plantations, farms, and fields, effectively forcing many white and black Southerners to flee their lands. As a result Southern morale broke and Sherman’s scorched-earth strategy facilitated a faster end to the war. Although many Southerners hated Sherman for his “march to the sea” and viewed him as a brute, the native Ohioan insisted that he only sought a quick end to the war. Indeed, during a graduation address at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, the general publicly mocked those who glorified his destructive strategy. “War is at best barbarism… Its glory is all moonshine,” he despondently remarked. “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
Early Life. Sherman was born on 8 February 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio. His father, an Ohio Supreme Court justice and local politician, named him Tecumseh after the famous Shawnee tribal leader. Sherman was orphaned in 1829 when his father died unexpectedly. Thomas Ewing, a close friend of the elder Sherman and a national political figure, took the young Sherman into his home. Ewing’s wife named the boy William, preferring an Anglican name over the Indian cognomen. In 1836, Ewing, now a U.S. senator, used his influence to provide the sixteen-year-old Sherman an appointment at West Point. Sherman graduated sixth in a class of forty-three in 1840.
Military Career. For the next six years Sherman served in duty stations in the South. During the Mexican War he was sent to California but saw no action. When the war ended in 1848 Sherman ridiculed the lenient terms handed to the Mexican government and proposed that the United States burn Mexico City and other key towns to teach America’s southern neighbor the futility of any future confrontation with the United States. Sherman resigned his commission in 1853 and failed miserably at various civilian jobs. In 1859 he returned to the South to head a military academy (later Louisiana State University). The Ohioan basked in the Southern lifestyle and shined in his role as superintendent. When secession divided the nation, however, Sherman clung to his Northern heritage and accepted a commission as a colonel in the Union army.
The War. Sherman saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, commanding a brigade that suffered heavy casualties. Shocked by the experience, he submitted his resignation. President Abraham Lincoln refused his request and instead sent him to Kentucky, where he was promoted to brigadier general. While in the Western theater he suffered from depression over conflicting emotions about his failure at Bull Run, his decision to leave the South to fight against his friends, and the North’s underestimation of a highly motivated and united Southern army. To add to his woes, unwarranted rumors that Sherman was insane and incompetent spread throughout the Northern states and deeply hurt his reputation as a commander. On the brink of losing his command and suffering another failure, Sherman was sent to assist Ulysses S. Grant to help prepare the offensive against Forts Henry and Donelson. The two Ohioans instantly developed a strong friendship that would carry beyond the war. Despite suffering several setbacks, Sherman distinguished himself under Grant and participated in many key western engagements, including the Battle of Shiloh (1862) and the siege of Vicksburg (1863). After Grant moved east to command all Union armies in 1864, Sherman assumed command of the entire Western theater.
March to the Sea. Three years of fighting Confederates in the west influenced Sherman’s strategy to break the Southern determination to fight. After facing tenacious enemy guerrillas in Tennessee and Missouri, Sherman surmised that Southerners would never accept defeat as long as civilians kept sending soldiers into battle and supporting irregulars at home. Thus, as he proposed in Mexico, Sherman was determined to make Southerners “feel the war” in order to crush civilian resistance. He abandoned his supply lines in the fall of 1864 and boldly marched on Atlanta and then Savannah. He remarked upon leaving Atlanta: “We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or anything you have, but we do want and will have just obedience to the laws of the United States.” By making war so terrible, Sherman terrorized the populace. In the end his strategy of psychological warfare worked, as the destructive trek changed the hearts and minds of the Confederate civilian population and shattered their will to fight. The fear of destruction caused many mothers and wives to call their men back home, and many deserted.
Postwar Years. Following the Civil War, Sherman rose to celebrity status in the North and turned down several invitations to run for president. However, he did stay in the military, becoming general and commander of the army in 1869. He retired in 1884 and died seven years later. In the South, Sherman was hated well into the twentieth century as the embodiment of Northern aggression and brutality.
Henry Hitchcock, Marching With Sherman, edited by M. A. DeWolfe Howe, revised edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995);
John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldiers Passion for Order (New York: Free Press, 1993);
Bill Sell, Leaders of the North and South (New York: Metro Books, 1996).
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