Unconventional: William Tecumseh Sherman

William T. Sherman Courtesy Library of Congress

On February 8, 1820 William Tecumseh Sherman was born in Lancaster Ohio. Sadly when ‘Cump’ was nine his father died. His mother, Mary could never dream of caring for all of the children (there were 11 in all) and the family was promptly split up. Some set out on their own, another married and others were adopted by other families. Sherman was one of the latter, having been adopted by the Ewing family. Thomas and Maria Ewing along with their children accepted the boy, although Maria would not allow Sherman into the family unless he was first made a Catholic.

When the time came, Sherman entered West Point. It had been his father’s wish that his son go on to become a sailor or a soldier. At West Point, Sherman although a favorite with other cadets, earned a hefty amount of demerits by not abiding by the regulations. In 1840 Sherman graduated with a commission of second lieutenant. The next year he was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to Fort Moultrie near Charleston, South Carolina. There he would remain fighting off boredom until 1846 when the Mexican War erupted.

After failed attempts to get to the war front, in June 1846 Sherman was finally aboard the Lexington and headed off to war. It was a long and tediously boring trip. Unfortunately for Sherman, upon arriving in Monterey, California he learned that the war was over. The dismayed Sherman became adjutant to Colonel Richard Mason. During the California Gold Rush, Sherman and other officers were finding it hard to get by on their salaries. Prices had risen quickly with the influx of fortune-seekers. So Sherman and a few other officers opened a store, making enough profits to keep them alive.

In 1850 Sherman married Ellen Ewing, daughter of Thomas and Maria. He had proposed in 1843, but she had refused. Ellen wanted him to leave the army and go to work for her father, as well as become a Catholic. Sherman was independent. He didn’t want to have to rely on the Ewings, he needed to make his own way through life. The way he saw it the army was the best thing doing.

By September 1853 Sherman had left the army and reluctantly taken a banking job in San Francisco. Ellen was unenthusiastic, at first remaining behind in Lancaster. Later she followed Sherman to San Francisco. Still Ellen could not be satisfied with anything but Lancaster, Ohio. She hated San Francisco. Much to Ellen’s disgust Sherman was doing well. Even when hard times hit the banks Sherman had pulled through. However the branch was closed in 1856 and another branch opened in New York City. Sherman, the owners hoped, would become its director. And he did. When the Panic of 1857 came, Sherman’s branch was up and running. Yet, it was closed when the main bank collapsed. Out of work, Sherman was employed in Thomas Ewing’s salt works. This no doubt made Ellen very happy. But that would not last long. Sherman’s sister and Ellen began quarreling and Sherman transferred to his brothers-in-law’s business.  The next year Sherman went to work at the Louisiana Military Seminary. There he stayed teaching cadets until early 1860 when he resigned, war between North and South seeming to be inevitable.

With the Civil War on, Sherman became colonel of the 13th US Infantry Regiment. He worked hard to get his men, the majority of them greenhorns, into shape. In August 1861 Sherman was promoted to Brigadier General, having come through Bull Run alive although not unscathed. Unlike his counterparts, Sherman wished to be subordinate. While in in command of forces in Kentucky he nearly had a nervous breakdown, leading the press to label him insane. Lack of sleep and constant worries about a Confederate attack in which he would not be prepared for (i.e. outnumbered), had taken a toll on the general. Fortunately, Sherman recovered having gotten the needed rest. By 1862 he had another command. In early April Sherman had his army out on a training march when he met up with Confederate forces. But he didn’t believe it was anything to be alarmed about, just a little cavalry and artillery, and beside he was not be “drawn into battle”. He continued to have small confrontations with the enemy. By the 6th Sherman was forced to face the truth. The Battle of Shiloh had soon begun. Two days later Confederates were in retreat.

In the summer of 1863 Sherman’s family came to visit him. The happy reunion, tragically, ended in tears. On the way home Sherman’s son, nine-year old Willie, contracted typhoid fever dying October 3rd.

By November 1864 Sherman had begun the notorious March to the Sea. Along the way his men would have to do quite a bit of foraging to stretch their supplies as long as possible, much to the chagrin of the Southern populace. Railroads were destroyed, with many rails being twisted about whatever was handy. These were dubbed Sherman neckties. Everything that could aid the South was to be destroyed, such as crops. For his time Sherman’s ideas were considered irregular.

Sherman Leaning on Gun Courtesy Library of Congress

In mid-November Sherman had Atlanta burned.

Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city

Sherman had planned for his army to go through areas that could meet their foraging needs and such. By December 21st Sherman’s forces had entered Savannah, Georgia. On the 22nd Sherman sent his famous telegram to Lincoln

I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift , the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton”.

William Sherman Courtesy Library of Congress

Sherman continued to serve the Union dutifully and well beyond the Civil War which ended April 9, 1865.

In 1869 Sherman was made general-in-chief taking his friend, Ulysses S. Grant’s place as Grant ascended the presidency. Sherman also dealt with Indian troubles, finally retiring in 1884. There were many people wanting to elect the old general president, but Sherman would have none of it. He disliked politics almost as much as he did newspapermen. Two years after his retirement Sherman and Ellen moved to New York. In November 1888 Ellen died. Afterwards Sherman’s health began to fail. He died February 14, 1889.

Source: Woodworth, Steven. Great Generals Series : Sherman

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