After Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to General-in-Chief of the Union armies, he replaced him with his chief subordinate and friend, William Tecumseh Sherman as commander of the Western Theater. Technically, Sherman became commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of all Union troops in the Western Theater of the war.
Sherman, like Grant, was a West Pointer who resigned his commission to become at first a banker and eventually a lawyer. From 1859 until January 1861, he was the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy. In January 1861, Sherman was required to accept receipt of arms surrendered to the State Militia by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent and returned to the North, declaring to the governor of Louisiana, “On no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile … to the … United States.”
At the start of the war Sherman sought a commission which he eventually received with the aid of his brother, Senator John Sherman. Sherman was commissioned as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment, effective May 14, 1861. He was one of the few Union officers who distinguished himself at the First Battle of Manassas. He so impressed Lincoln that he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. He was transferred to Department of the Cumberland under General Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame.
Sherman succeeded Anderson in October 1861. It was during this assignment that Sherman experienced some type of mental breakdown. He was releved of command at his own request and went home to recover. He returned to active duty in December and had rear-echelon positions under General Henry W. Halleck. It was in this position that he first encountered Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman commanded Gran’t logistical efforts in the capture of Fort Donelson.
Sherman was formally transferred to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division. in March 1862. At Shiloh, Sherman like most other Union commanders was taken by surprise by the Confederate attack. Despite being caught unprepared by the attack, Sherman rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout.
Meeting Grant at the end of the first day’s fighting, he had a memorable conversation with his commanding officer. Sherman said simply: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” After a puff of his cigar, Grant replied calmly: “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
Sherman proved instrumental to the successful Union counterattack of April 7, 1862. At Shiloh, Sherman was wounded twice—in the hand and shoulder—and had three horses shot out from under him. His performance was praised by Grant and Halleck and after the battle, he was promoted to major general of volunteers, effective May 1, 1862.
Grant was kicked upstairs to a meaningless position as Halleck second-in-command. After the capture of the undefended city of Corinth, Mississippi Sherman persuaded Grant not to leave his command, despite the serious difficulties he was having with Halleck. Within a short period of time Grant was reinstated, Halleck was promoted to General-in-Chief and Sherman became military governor of Memphis, Tennessee.
By early 1863 Sherman was in command of the XV Corps. He suffered a severe repulse at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg. He was involved in in the successful assault on Arkansas Post. He then joined Grant for the assaults around Vicksburg. Sherman was not in favor of Grant’s strategy but carried it out superbly.
After the fall of Vicksburg, Sherman succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee. His army was part of the relief of Chattanooga and the subsequent assault on Missionary Ridge.
Subsequently, Sherman led a column to relieve Union forces under Ambrose Burnside thought to be in peril at Knoxville. In February 1864, he led an expedition to Meridian, Mississippi, to disrupt Confederate infrastructure. After his elevation to command of the Western Theater Sherman would lead his army to the successful capture of Atlanta. By then his troops had taken to calling him “Uncle Billy.”