The Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Northern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

General William T. ShermanWilliam Tecumseh Sherman is perhaps the most controversial Union general of the American Civil War. His philosophy of total war was reflected in the actions of the Union Army from mid-1863 to the end of the war. His memoirs reflect the type of commander that he actually was; a decisive commander who believed that the shortest course through the war was always the best course.

Sherman began the war as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment. In reality he commanded a 3-regiment brigade of 90-day volunteers. He was one of the few Union commanders who distinguished himself at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas as the Confederates named it). He was wounded twice in the battle. He questioned his own abilities to lead troops but President Lincoln thought otherwise and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers.

Sherman was assigned to the Department of the Cumberland where he succeeded to command by October 1861. Sherman complained bitterly about shortages in men and equipment. By November he was relieved at his own request. Transferred to the Department of Missouri, he was he was put on leave by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the department, who considered him unfit for duty.

He returned home to recuperate. Some historians consider Sherman’s state of mind as a nervous breakdown. Sherman later wrote that the concerns of command “broke me down,” and he admitted contemplating suicide. His problems were compounded when the Cincinnati Commercial described him as “insane.”

Within a short period of time he returned to duty in St. Louis, mostly in rear-echelon assignments in the area of logistical support. It was during this period that he became acquainted with General Ulysses S. Grant and although his senior in rank, he wrote: “I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities [the Confederates] have of concentration by means of the River and R Road, but [I] have faith in you — Command me in any way.”

Sherman commanded a division at the Battle of Shiloh and like most other Union commanders was caught by surprise when the Confederates attacked. However, Sherman rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout. On the evening of the first day, he met Grant under a tree smoking a cigar.

Their conversation is one that set the tone for their relationship. 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 was wounded twice more and had three horses shot out from under him but was instrumental in the Union victory. After the battle he was promoted to major general of volunteers.

Sherman went on to command a corps at Vicksburg and the Army of the Tennessee after Grant was promoted to command of the Western Theater. When Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief he appointed Sherman (by then known to his soldiers as “Uncle Billy”) to succeed him as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of Union troops in the Western Theater of the war.

Sherman conducted a masterful campaign to take Atlanta in early-September 1864 and followed that campaign with the March to the Sea and the March through the Carolinas. Sherman ended his war by accepting the surrender of the General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee on April 17 at the Bennett Place near Durham Station, North Carolina.

After the war Sherman served in a St. Louis as the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi and later the Military Division of the Missouri. After changes, his command covered territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains.  When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army.

In 1875 Sherman published his memoirs in two volumes. According to critic Edmund Wilson, Sherman had a trained gift of self-expression and was, as Mark Twain says, a master of narrative.

[In his Memoirs] the vigorous account of his pre-war activities and his conduct of his military operations is varied in just the right proportion and to just the right degree of vivacity with anecdotes and personal experiences. We live through his campaigns […] in the company of Sherman himself. He tells us what he thought and what he felt, and he never strikes any attitudes or pretends to feel anything he does not feel.

Around 1868, Sherman began to write a “private” recollection for his children about his life before the Civil War, identified now as his unpublished “Autobiography, 1828–1861”. This manuscript is held by the Ohio Historical Society. Much of the material in it would eventually be incorporated in revised form in his memoirs.

Sherman published his memoirs in 1875, becoming one of the first Civil War generals to do so. His Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. By Himself, published by D. Appleton & Co., in two volumes, began with the year 1846 (when the Mexican War began) and ended with a chapter about the “military lessons of the [civil] war”.

They were controversial to say the least but none other than President Grant later remarked that others had told him that Sherman treated Grant unfairly but “when I finished the book, I found I approved every word; that … it was a true book, an honorable book, creditable to Sherman, just to his companions — to myself particularly so — just such a book as I expected Sherman would write.”

In 1886, after the publication of Grant’s memoirs, Sherman produced a “second edition, revised and corrected” of his memoirs with Appleton. The new edition added a second preface, a chapter about his life up to 1846, a chapter concerning the post-war period (ending with his 1884 retirement from the army), several appendices, portraits, improved maps, and an index.

Sherman refused to revise his original text on the ground that “I disclaim the character of historian, but assume to be a witness on the stand before the great tribunal of history” and “any witness who may disagree with me should publish his own version of [the] facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested.” However, Sherman did add the appendices, in which he published the views of some others.

Subsequently, Sherman shifted to the publishing house of Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher of Grant’s memoirs. The new publishing house brought out a “third edition, revised and corrected” in 1890. This difficult-to-find edition was substantively identical to the second (except for the probable omission of Sherman’s short 1875 and 1886 prefaces).

After Sherman died in 1891, there were dueling new editions of his memoirs. His first publisher, Appleton, reissued the original (1875) edition with two new chapters about Sherman’s later years added by the journalist W. Fletcher Johnson.

Meanwhile, Charles L. Webster & Co. issued a “fourth edition, revised, corrected, and complete” with the text of Sherman’s second edition, a new chapter prepared under the auspices of the Sherman family bringing the general’s life from his retirement to his death and funeral, and an appreciation by politician James G. Blaine (who was related to Sherman’s wife). Unfortunately, this edition omits Sherman’s prefaces to the 1875 and 1886 editions.

In 1904 and 1913, Sherman’s youngest son, Philemon Tecumseh Sherman, republished the memoirs, ironically with Appleton (not Charles L. Webster & Co.). This was designated as a “second edition, revised and corrected”. This edition contains Sherman’s two prefaces, his 1886 text, and the materials added in the 1891 Blaine edition. This virtually invisible edition of Sherman’s memoirs is actually the most comprehensive version.

Sherman’s Memoirs can be purchased in a variety of formats with a number of different pricing levels. Some are purely copies while others have annotations to put them in context. This is simply one suggestion.

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