The subject of the post is a question that has been puzzling me for quite awhile. Indeed, one could consider this a Question of the Week, but on steroids. Was William T. Sherman, a man who remains in the pantheon of the great Union commanders, just an average combat officer? For certain, Sherman never really did anything spectacular. In fact, his combat record prior to becoming head of the Military Division of the Mississippi is unspectacular to say the least. Unfortunately, a summary examination leaves us with more questions than answers.
Sherman’s first meaningful assignment came as a brigade commander at First Manassas. His one battle in the east is often forgotten since the bulk of his service was in the Western Theater. Transferred to Kentucky, Sherman eventually was placed in command of the Department of the Cumberland, but was relieved on the grounds that he was incapable of holding such a high post. Northern newspapers even accused him of being “insane”.
Sherman bounced from one assignment to another before he finally took command of a division that eventually joined the Army of the Tennessee. He led this division at the Battle of Shiloh where, despite giving ground throughout the first day of the battle, fought stubbornly. His next chance to lead men in battle came late in 1862 during an expedition against Vicksburg. Facing Confederate forces north of the city, Sherman launched a series of unsuccessful frontal assaults at Chickasaw Bayou which resulted in a devastating repulse.
Sherman commanded a corps during U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign and in the fall of 1863 he was among the reinforcements dispatched to Chattanooga. Once again, Sherman did not perform well. Apparently, he did not learn from his experience at Chickasaw Bayou and during the Union offensive on Missionary Ridge, he once again resorted to head long frontal attacks which were turned back by Rebel infantry.
What makes things even more confusing is Sherman’s performance in 1864 and 1865. His problems were not as pervasive as they were when he was responsible for directing multiple armies. While the Atlanta Campaign and the Carolinas Campaign were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it does seem that Sherman had come into his own. He certainly had a mind that was more in tune with the looking at the overall, larger strategic picture. Sherman was also extremely skilled in the field of logistics, which contributed to the success of his later campaigns.
Interestingly enough, Sherman performed at his best when he was allowed to engage in massive and rapid maneuver. Maybe that was where his true strength lay. In February 1863, he led an expedition across the interior of Mississippi in an effort to break up the enemy rail network in the town of Meridian. Sherman was so happy with the outcome that it served as the blue print for his “March to the Sea.” Still, it seems odd that he performed better at the higher levels of command, rather than having a gradual rise like many of his peers. While questions concerning Sherman’s performance will continue to persist, perhaps it is best left to the individual to decide. No matter what the answer might be, he emerged from the war as a member of the great pantheon of Union commanders.