“Sherman Ponders the War Ahead From St. Louis”

WTSherman_Harpers Weekly

Researching Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is never dull.  He is colorful, intelligent, and sometimes wise.  And very rarely does he hold back; in writing, as with his conversation, he says exactly what is on his mind.  Let’s face it, love him or hate him – he is entertaining.

On a recent trip to the Library of Congress, I was struck by a letter Sherman wrote in the very early months of the war.  It contained no revelations, and is, in fact, published in a collection of the general’s correspondence edited by Simpson and Berlin (1).  Still, the manuscript found in the Thomas Ewing Family Papers is fascinating and worthy of study.


(Photo by D. Maxfield from manuscript, Thomas Ewing Family Papers, LOC)

The letter is dated June 3rd, 1861, from St. Louis, and addressed to Thomas Ewing, Jr. in Kansas, whom had recently been elected Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.  It first caught my attention because it contained notations at the very top of the letter by later users of the collection.  In red pencil, it read “overt names in red.”  In regular pencil, and of a different handwriting, another note read “very interesting.”  Likely the marks of editors, the notations conveniently red-flag a letter I needed to read carefully (2)

Then operating a street car company in St. Louis, Sherman ached to get back in the army.  After graduating West Point in 1840, he served thirteen uninspiring years before reluctantly resigning his commission in 1853 to head a bank in San Francisco.  Under immense pressure from his wife Ellen and her father Thomas Ewing to find a civilian career, Sherman was determined to be his own man.  He would not take a job in one of Ewing’s enterprises.  If he left the service it would be with a company that sought his services on his merits and promised to provide handsomely for his family.  While Sherman was generally confident in his own abilities, he always thought of himself as a soldier first.

The letter opens with Sherman acknowledging recent letters from the Capital which suggest that he was “to be one of the Colonels to the New Regiments…” then being formed.  The voluble red-head tried to appear that he was not overly anxious for the appointment by stressing that he needed confirmation quickly for logistical and family reasons.  But Sherman’s real concern is evident when he says repetitively that he was likely to be passed over.  The first instance appears in reference to his concern for the logistics of sending his family to Ohio for safe-keeping, in case the commission has come through, but he says, “the President may and likely will yield to the pressure of applicants and leave the absent out…”  Later, Sherman’s concern is revealed when he writes Ewing that he thought the President would “confine his appointments to Such as volunteered at his first call (3).”

Raised the foster-son of prominent lawyer and politician Thomas Ewing, who would serve Ohio and nation as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of Treasury, and as the first Secretary of the Interior, politics was never far from Sherman’s mind – though he would say that he abhorred it.  His brother, Ohio Senator John Sherman, was a frequent correspondent who kept him copiously posted on developments in Washington as well as acting as a powerful advocate for his older sibling.  It is no wonder that Sherman was cynical, understanding the political world as he did, as he pondered the Union’s chances in the war.  While he was still uncertain about his place in the army, he noticed “a political bias” in Lincoln’s military appointments.  “The appointment of Pope, Reeder, Banks, Fremont [and company] will afford to Bragg & Davis & Beauregard the liveliest pleasure.  The North,” Sherman argued, “has so decided an advantage in men for the Ranks, that it is a pity to balance the chances, by the choice of leaders (4).”


(Photo by D. Maxfield from manuscript, Thomas Ewing Family Papers, LOC)

As the mobilization for war in the North proceeded, increasingly with calls for a move “Forward to Richmond!” as the New York Tribune demanded, Sherman in St. Louis and Ewing in Kansas were probably feeling left out.  If so, it may have helped the professional, Sherman, and the non-professional, Ewing, to talk strategy.  “I take it that Scott intends by his occupation of Alexandria & semi-circle of heights to make Washington safe from approach,” Sherman wrote, “thus to cut off Harper’s Ferry from the State, to threaten it, and attack if Johnston shows an opening – also to threaten Norfolk to hold in Check there a large force but to attack & hold Richmond by or before the date fixed for the Southern Congress.”  But, reiterating his thoughts about many of the men already awarded commissions, “these concerted movements can only be made under the orders of one man (Scott I suppose) with intelligent subordinates in charge of the independent columns.”  The most difficult job of all would be to secure the Mississippi River, Sherman thought, and added for that “I know of no one Competent unless it be McClellan (5).”

Sitting relatively idle in St. Louis, Sherman may have regretted his flight from Washington in disgust back in the Spring after meeting with the new president.  After telling Lincoln of the South’s preparations for war, the president responded, “Oh well, I guess we’ll manage to keep house (6).”  Despite pleas from his brother that he stay around, he proceeded to the Midwest railing against all politicians.  Now he consoled himself that he had not missing anything important.  “As soon as the real war begins,” Sherman wrote Ewing, “new men heretofore unheard of will emerge from obscurity, equal to any occasion.”  Presumably that meant himself as well (7).

Few people North or South foretold a long war and bloody war.  There were some that said that no blood would flow at all, others that so little would be spilled that it could be easily cleaned up with a pocket handkerchief.  Although he would later be accused of insanity for such prognostications, Sherman seemed to see the imminent war more clearly than most.  “I still think it is to be a long war,” he told his foster-brother, “very long – much longer than any Politician thinks.”  And yet, he clearly could not wait to get into it (8).



  1. Brooks D. Simpson & Jean V. Berlin. Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  2. William T. Sherman to Thomas Ewing, Jr. June 3, 1861.  Thomas Ewing Family Papers, Library of Congress.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Charles Royster, ed. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman.  New York: The Library of America, 1990.
  7. William T. Sherman to Thomas Ewing, Jr. June 3, 1861.  Thomas Ewing Family Papers, Library of Congress.
  8. Ibid.

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