Some Reflections on William Tecumseh Sherman

General-Sherman-AtlantaI must admit, it is exceptionally difficult to reflect on William Tecumseh Sherman. No question, he was one of the most enigmatic individuals of the American Civil War. The mere mention of his name in general company today, 150 years after the end of the conflict, still sparks an intense discussion. More often than not through the course of the conversation it will be made known that Sherman single handedly burned the entire South, which is not necessarily true. But is Sherman’s legacy, which is the subject of my presentation at next month’s Emerging Civil War symposium, the March to the Sea?

To be sure, his rise was not as explosive as that of his peers. Sherman led a brigade at First Manassas but was then later relieved from command of the Department of the Cumberland. Shortly thereafter an Ohio paper accused him of being insane. The whole ordeal nearly broke him, however he persevered and was given an assignment by Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. This into and of itself may be the key to Sherman’s later success: during the early stages of the war, he was able to establish and maintain positive relationships with his superiors, such as Halleck and U.S. Grant through his dependability and willingness to diligently take on any assignment. Even then, Sherman struggled in command and an argument could be made that he was an average combat officer.

Sherman fought well at Shiloh and for the most part during the Vicksburg Campaign. Like any other commander, he also met with a fair share of struggles at Chickasaw Bayou and Chattanooga. But when Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and became the head of all the Union armies, Sherman was his first choice to take his place in the Western Theater.

Complicated as his ascendency was so too was the man himself. Sherman is and remains a bundle of contradictions. He was a loving and devoted father who shunned organized religion despite the impact it had on his marriage and family; a combat officer who was often reluctant to commit his men to battle and a man who did not believe in employing black troops in battle, but quite possibly through his operations freed more slaves than any other Union commander.

Only when we start to unravel this bundle, no matter how complicated it may be, will we begin to scrape the surface of Sherman’s legacy. Doing so will give us a deeper understanding of the man along with the times in which he lived.

6 Responses to Some Reflections on William Tecumseh Sherman

  1. He was also a painter who took a mistress wasn’t he? After the war the soldiers out west loved him for his steadfastness in defense of them and he was almost killed by Indians along with Col. Grierson when visiting a western fort if I remember correctly.

    1. Sherman was indeed a very talented artist, although I am not sure he ever took a mistress. If you have more information on that, please feel free to share.
      In early May, 1871 during one of his inspection tours, Sherman traveled from San Antonio with an escort from the 10th U.S. Cavalry to Fort Richardson. During the trip, they were observed by a Kiowa party led by Satanta, Satank and Big Tree. Under the advice of a medicine man, the Kiowas did not attack Sherman, but rather fell upon a supply train that was following Sherman’s escort.
      Satanta later admitted to leading the attack on the supply train. Sherman planned to arrest him at Fort Sill, which was commanded by Benjamin Grierson. The ensuing standoff and arrest nearly led to violence. Sherman and Grierson were in the middle of it all and at the very least could have been wounded.

      1. Yes, I write about the incident briefly in my novel about an army lieutenant of the time period.

        “Taking a mistress” may be overstating things a bit but according to John Marszalek in his book Sherman, A Soldier’s Passion for Order he suggests that Sherman had a more than platonic relationship with the sculptress Vinnie Ream. He bases this on correspondence between the two.

        Having read other personal letters of the time I’m not so sure he’s judging Sherman by the sentimental and often very intimate style of letters back then, but they definitely do seem at least flirty to the modern eye.

        Marszalek supposes that since Sherman traveled a lot and was friendly with women he “probably” had short affairs. I’m not so sure a historian should suppose all men are the same. 🙂

  2. And Vinnie Ream may not have been the only woman that Sherman may have been involved with. But again, he is a bundle of contradictions.

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