William Tecumseh Sherman: Uncle Billy to his troops

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Uncle Billy at AtlantaUnlike his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman was successful in almost every endeavor that he embarked upon. Sherman’s father was a successful lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court. But Charles Sherman died when Sherman was about leaving a widow and eleven children with inadequate financial resources.

Sherman was raised by a neighbor and family friend Thomas Ewing, a prominent member of the Whig Party who served as senator from Ohio and as the first Secretary of the Interior. At the age of 16 Sherman, Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1840 ranking as number 6 in his class and excelling in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery and fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida and Georgia. Sherman spent the Mexican War in the captured territory of California.

Despite his promotion to captain, Sherman was disappointed about his lack of a combat assignment. In 1850 Sherman married the daughter of his patron, Eleanor Boyle (“Ellen”) Ewing. They went on to have 8 children. In 1853 Sherman resigned from the army and became manager of the San Francisco branch of the St. Louis-based bank, Lucas, Turner & Co.

Sherman’s San Francisco branch closed in May 1857, and he relocated to New York on behalf of the same bank. When the bank failed during the financial Panic of 1857, he closed the New York branch. In early 1858, he returned to California to wrap-up the bank’s affairs there. Later in 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he tried his hand at law practice.

The following year, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, which would later become Louisiana State University (LSU). Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, the brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared that “if you had hunted the whole army, from one end of it to the other, you could not have found a man in it more admirably suited for the position in every respect than Sherman.”

Sherman resigned from his position in January of 1861 rather than compromise his integrity by cooperating with a secessionist state government. He took a position in St. Louis but after several months his brother, Senator John Sherman, secured him a commission as as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment, effective May 14, 1861.

Sherman was one of the few officers to distinguish himself at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, where he was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder. Sherman began to question his abilities but Abraham Lincoln thought better and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (effective May 17, 1861, with seniority in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander).

He was assigned to serve under General Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame in the Department of the Cumberland but Anderson resigned but in October Anderson resigned and Sherman moved up to his spot. But Sherman who was always afraid of failing had what many consider a nervous breakdown and was put on leave to recover.

Upon his return to active duty in December, Sherman was assigned rear-echelon duties where he became acquainted with Ulysses S. Grant who had just captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

Sherman got his wish to serve under Grant when he was assigned on March 1, 1862, to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division. His first major test under Grant was at the Battle of Shiloh. Sherman was surprised by the Confederate assault but he rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout.

Meeting Grant who was sitting under a tree calmly smoking a cigar, Sherman said: “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. Sherman was wounded twice 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.

Sherman’s military record in 1862–63 was mixed. In December 1862, forces under his command suffered a severe repulse at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Soon after, his XV Corps was ordered to join Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand in his successful assault on Arkansas Post, generally regarded as a politically motivated distraction from the effort to capture Vicksburg.

Before the Vicksburg Campaign in the spring of 1863, Sherman expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of Grant’s unorthodox strategy, but he went on to perform well in that campaign under Grant’s supervision.

Command in the West was unified under Grant (Military Division of the Mississippi), and Sherman succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee. Under his leadership, the Army of the Tennessee fought at Chattanooga, Knoxville, Meridian, Mississippi and the long Atlanta Campaign. The latter culminated in the capture of that key rail center on September 2, 1864.

With Grant’s promotion to General-in-Chief in March 1864, Sherman was appointed to succeed Grant as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi. In essence, he was in command of all Union troops in the Western Theater: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield.

After the burning Atlanta, Sherman and the 62,000-man strong army began his famous March to the Sea. He moved from Atlanta to the port city of Savannah causing by his own estimation $100 million in damage. His troops captured Savannah on December 21, 1864. Sherman then dispatched a famous message to Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present.

“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

Rather than leapfrog to Virginia by steamer, Sherman convinced Grant to allow him to march north through the Carolinas. Upon capturing the South Carolina capital of Columbia, a Union soldier said to his comrades, “Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!” No one knows who started the fires but by the morning most of the central city was destroyed.

Sherman’s forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19 to March 21, 1865. On April 26, 1865, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman.

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