||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Sherman, William Tecumseh (February 8, 1820 – February
William Tecumseh Sherman was a career army officer who was an aggressive,
successful Union general during the Civil War, best known for his capture of
Atlanta and the subsequent March to the Sea. He is one of the most important
figures in American military history. His brother was John Sherman, a
congressman, senator, and secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
William Tecumseh Sherman was born on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio, to
Mary Hoyt Sherman and Charles R. Sherman, a state judge. After the death of his
father in 1829, young William was raised by Thomas Ewing, whose daughter he
would later marry. He entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he
was 16, later graduating sixth out of 41 cadets in his class. Sherman’s
military assignments were mainly in the South—such as at Fort Morgan in Mobile,
Alabama, and Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina—and included duty in
the Second Seminole War (1840–1842) in Florida. The army transferred him to
California when the War with Mexico erupted, but he saw no action. After the
war, he was stationed in St. Louis and New Orleans while in the commissary
He married Ellen Ewing in 1850; the couple later had eight children. In
order to provide greater financial security for his growing family, Sherman
resigned from the army to accept a management position with a San Francisco bank
(1853–1857). When financial problems caused the bank to close, he took a
similar position with a branch bank in New York City, only to have it fold
during the economic panic of 1857. He next joined the real–estate and legal
firm of two of his brothers–in–law in Leavenworth, Kansas. Dissatisfied,
Sherman accepted a post as superintendent of the new Louisiana Military Seminary
(today, Louisiana State University) in 1859. He thoroughly enjoyed the position
and gained respect for both his achievements in establishing the school on a
sound foundation and for his proslavery views.
When Louisiana seceded from the Union two years later, Sherman made the
difficult decision to resign his job and leave the state, taking a position in
St. Louis as president of a streetcar company. He rejoined the U.S. army in May
1861 at the rank of colonel and on June 30 was promoted to brigade commander
under General Irvin McDowell in Virginia. In August, he became second in
command of the Department of the Cumberland (Kentucky and Tennessee), but soon
had to take over for the commander, Robert Anderson, who suffered a nervous
breakdown. At his own request, Sherman was soon relieved of his duties, then
transferred to the Missouri theater to serve under General Henry Halleck.
Since the beginning of the war, Sherman had been worried about the Union’s
chances for success and was continually vocal about his pessimism.
Consequently, Halleck ordered Sherman to take leave to rest with his family in
Lancaster, Ohio. The press, with whom Sherman already had a bad relationship,
reported that he was insane. While untrue, his lifelong depression was
exacerbated to the point that he considered suicide. A few months later he
returned to the army, first training troops in Missouri, then in March 1862 as
division commander. His performance at the battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862)
earned him the praise of Halleck and General Ulysses S. Grant, while serving
with Grant gave him hope for the Union cause.
In June 1862, Sherman was named military governor of Union–occupied Memphis.
His experience there, dealing with guerrilla and civilian Confederates, led him
to view the war as one between entire societies rather than as just a military
clash. Returning to the combat zone in the fall, Sherman suffered some
battlefield losses and resultant negative press, provoking him to court–martial
a New York Herald reporter, Thomas Knox (the only court–martial of a
member of the news media in American history). Sherman and his men participated
with Grant during the siege of Vicksburg (March 29 – July 4, 1863), helping to
drive the Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston out of the area.
In the fall of 1863, Sherman was named to command the Department of the Army of
In March 1864, Grant became the Union’s general–in–chief and Sherman was
tapped to head operations in the Western theater. As Grant maneuvered
Confederate General Robert E. Lee into a corner in Virginia, Sherman marched his
troops from Chattanooga into Georgia, capturing Atlanta in September—a major
victory which lifted Union spirits and helped ensure President Lincoln’s
reelection. Sherman’s tactics, which Lincoln and Grant had originally opposed,
involved massive property destruction aimed at undermining the will of the
general populace in the Confederacy. Those tactics, controversial to this day,
often appear ruthless, but were motivated by a desire to minimize battle carnage
and to force an end to the long, bloody, and destructive war. Sherman and his
men proceeded in the “March to the Sea” (November 15 – December 21, 1864) to
Savannah, Georgia, before turning northward in the Carolinas Campaign (January –
April 14, 1865). Although the property destruction was extensive, the number of
casualties was low.
After fighting an aggressive war, Sherman favored a lenient peace. His
charitable terms to surrendering Confederate General Johnston sparked harsh
criticism, including charges of treason, from the press and some administration
officials, compelling him to revise his offer. Except for the extinction of
slavery, Sherman favored returning to the status quo ante bellum. He refused,
however, to allow Andrew Johnson to make him a pawn in the president’s struggle
with Congress over control of the reconstruction process.
Upon Grant’s inauguration as president in March 1869, Sherman took over as
general–in–chief of the U.S. army. He was frustrated by Congressional
downsizing of the military, the failure of political leaders to heed his advice,
and squabbling with Secretary of War William Belknap over military authority.
Sherman departed from the Washington scene whenever possible, touring Europe and
the Middle East (1871–1872) and staying in St. Louis for 18 months (1874–1876).
As general–in–chief, he established an officers–training school at Fort
Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1880, he said, “War is all Hell,” which became famous
in a shortened version, “War is Hell.” He retired in 1884 and became a popular
after–dinner speaker. That same year, he declined encouragement to run for the
presidency by stating that “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if
elected.” He died in New York City on February 14, 1891.
Sources consulted: John F. Marszalek, “Sherman, William Tecumseh,”
American National Biography (online); Mark Boatner, The Civil War