Read Along With Me: William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs—Post 1

Part two in a series

Welcome back! This is the first post containing my thoughts and questions as I read through Sherman’s Memoirs. I outlined my plan in a post in late March and invited readers to join me on this journey. I look forward to your feedback and insights!

The first assignment was to read the Introduction (if you grabbed an edited version like the Fellman copy that I am using) and Chapters 1-7. I thought I could finish this section (175 pages) quickly, but end-of-semester curve balls pulled me away from the book more often than I would have liked. How long did it take you to get through it? What did you think of Sherman’s writing style?

The Introduction was an engaging and sometimes humorous overview of Sherman’s life. I think it might make more of an impact to read it again at the end of the book when I can compare Fellman’s interpretation to my own. Fellman spent less than three pages touching upon the early part of Sherman’s life that was the focus of our reading for this post, while the rest of the twenty-page introduction centers on Sherman’s war years and postwar life. Fellman described Sherman as weighed down by a “specter of failure” (ix) prior to 1861 but I did not feel that come across in the memoirs, did you?

Chapters 1-7 cover the period 1820, when Sherman was born, to early 1861, when Sherman left his superintendent position at the Louisiana Military Academy to return north on the eve of the Civil War. Along the way, this man was on the move! I remain amazed at the mobility of people in the 19th century; is this amount of travel normal for that time? Or just normal for someone connected with the military? After West Point and a few initial appointments in Florida and elsewhere, Sherman went from his home in Lancaster, Ohio, to New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, and California often and mentions month-long sea voyages and treks across the isthmus of Panama casually. After reading his accounts of what it took to get from New York to San Francisco by boat and mule in the 1850s, I am not at all surprised that the United States pushed for the Panama Canal so aggressively.

Sherman spent the duration of the Mexican War in California. He expressed frustration that he missed out on the actual fighting of the war but seemed to make the most of his time in California. He built a broad network of people, witnessed the gold rush, and thought extensively about future professional prospects. Later, he settled into banking for a few years and narrated several intriguing vignettes from that period of his life. I especially enjoyed the appearance of various people during this time who would play significant roles in the Civil War. It was a good reminder that their lives were intertwined as countrymen up until the outbreak of hostilities. Who expected Henry Wise of Harpers Ferry infamy to make an appearance?!

My favorite sections in these chapters were the details about the gold rush and the story about how Sherman negotiated his way onto the floor of Congress so that he could watch Daniel Webster’s speech regarding the Compromise of 1850 (which Sherman found boring). Sherman’s family plays almost no role in this memoir so far, with his wife making infrequent appearances and children just seeming to appear out of nowhere. He is rarely even with his family and they are more like a piece of luggage he has to remember to move from one place to another on his journeys. I cannot tell if this was really the level of regard he had for his family or if Sherman was reflecting the culture of privacy at the time. Personally, I’d like to hear more about his home life too, but clearly he did not anticipate that his reader at the time cared much for this part of his story.

Sherman wrapped up Chapter 7 by explaining how he disentangled himself from running the Louisiana Military Academy after secession. What was your response to this section? I liked the details but I felt it was overly defensive; he was clearly trying to address criticisms that had been leveled at him over time with regard to his actions there.

Overall, these chapters outlining his experience as a commissary, banker, administrator, etc., helped me realize how Sherman succeeded during the war. So much of what he learned during his early military years focused on supplies – outfitting new units, feeding men, finding resources, dealing with unforeseen events – it all makes sense now how Sherman would have been so comfortable cutting his supply lines and living off the land during his interior marches through the South. He knew how to do this work; he knew how to procure supplies and survive. He also came across as a pretty good judge of character. Now, whether that was mainly hindsight talking is hard to tell, but young Sherman seemed to be confident, ambitious, and professionally agile in his growing network of contacts. I expect all of these characteristics to serve him well in wartime. What is your impression of Sherman thus far?

Our next assignment is to read Chapters 8-12. I’ll be back in May to chat about Sherman’s latest adventures. Right now, I picture Sherman on a train, heading to Cincinnati from New Orleans. Let’s hope he stops by to see his wife and kids before heading in a new direction…

Julie Mujic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC, and can be reached through www.juliemujic.com.

 

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9 Responses to Read Along With Me: William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs—Post 1

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Hold up there! I must have missed the first post. Give me a week or so to catch up, beciase I love this idea! Thanks, and if I get left behind, I can always access the posts through ECW.

  2. Terry Rensel says:

    Dr. CMac tipped me off to this happening, so I got myself a copy and dug in. I was pleasantly surprised at how readable the memoirs are and I’ve already finished all of Vol. 1.

    I think that the constant travelling was fairly consistent with army life in that era, but I could be wrong. It is fairly consistent with how travel back and forth to California was in those days, especially for the military. He also does seem to be reluctant to dig into personal details, which I am going to agree with you and that it has more to do with maintaining privacy more than anything else.

    The defensiveness about how his time in Louisiana went, and ended, definitely stands out. He does mention that by his taking up arms against the South, specifically participating in battles against specific individuals, as being showing a lack proper appreciation for the “hospitality” that he was shown during his time there, and his going to the lengths that he did in explanation, as proof of him acting in a proper fashion.

    I don’t want to get ahead of the assignment, so I think that I’ll end my comments here, but I want to encourage anyone who reads this comment, that so far, all the reading that I’ve done I’ve enjoyed and found well worth the time spent doing it.

    • juliemujic says:

      I’m so glad you joined us and having moved through the memoir so easily. Re: Sherman’s defensiveness about Louisiana – it definitely stands as a strong reminder to readers of the multiple purposes of memoir as a form of writing. It’s best that we keep that in mind as we go forward; Sherman obviously wants to clear the air on a few things!

  3. John Foskett says:

    Interesting points and questions. Regarding mid-19th century mobility, I have a strong hunch that mobility as a routine was probably still limited. The military was an exception because we had a small regular army covering a massive territory – so the need for staffing of widely separated posts, especially by capable officers, would seem to have required that they frequently move – as many did. For the population in general, however, other than the one “big move” west (whether by long overland trail or long pre-Panama Canal water passage) mobility seems to have been limited. Still an agrarian society for the most part; no transcontinental railroad yet; and even the rail systems in place had different gauges, etc.and in many instances were less than efficient I also have a hunch that this changed significantly in the decades after the War. My own experience is my ancestor Isaac – until he enlisted in Boston in 1861 as a 20-year-old he’d never been to Boston, never been on the train, never been on a boat, and was pretty much limited to his rural central Mass/southern NH home. He experienced all of this and much more solely because of the War.

    • juliemujic says:

      Thanks for the comments, John! I appreciate the insight into mid-19th century mobility. Perhaps Americans’ lack of regular mobility and interaction with people in other parts of the country contributed to the causes of the war as well. Although, I would argue that increased mobility today has not exactly soothed national tensions… I have read numerous accounts though that suggest high levels of mobility among those moving to/through the Midwest during the 19th century. As people left the East Coast, they did not always get to Ohio and Indiana and just stop. Many of those early waves of settlers then moved onto Iowa, Nebraska, etc.
      If we assume that the military was an exception in terms of mobility, that just makes their experience in the 19th century so much more interesting. Additionally, we would have to consider the impact of mobility on their families – Sherman’s family seemed to have to chase him from here to there during these years too. So, it was more than just him…

      • John Foskett says:

        Julie: I think those are fair points. Obviously it would impact families of regular Army officers/soldiers. Sherman’s family did seem to move, while Julia Grant apparently did not accompany her husband on his assignments to Oregon Territory and northern California. I also shouldn’t have implied that everybody was literally “stuck in place”. But the mobility we’re talking about generally was a one-way transaction (to an intended permanent location) and not routine “travel” any meaningful distance from home or picking up stakes every five or so years. I have little doubt that the war exposed most Union troops to lifestyles and people they never would have encountered otherwise. I don’ believe that my ancestor Isaac saw an African American until he got to Baltimore in 1861. And his diaries are replete with observations about the culture, cuisine, housing, and other aspects of life in rural Virginia which were completely foreign to him. I have little doubt that he was completely “foreign” to them, as well. 🙂

      • juliemujic says:

        Re: mobility was in one direction –> that’s very true, and a good distinction from the kind that Sherman’s family experienced. I wonder what I would do in similar circumstances. I definitely know spouses these days who “stay put” while their spouse travels for work, and then others who tag along everywhere. To each his own I guess!

  4. David Lady says:

    Dr. Julie, I am glad to have finally taken up the challenge of Sherman’s memoirs; I owe you for the inspiration, as this is the latest of several attempts (to this point only dipping into various war episodes) but only the first where I began at the beginning.

    Like you, I do not sense any “laboring under a sense of failure” in this part of the memoir. Sherman is accounting for a series of jobs well done, duties faithfully performed. Even the banking failure in California is a triumph; all creditors paid off, all obligations met.

    I was struck by the sheer danger and difficulty in the various passages to and from California. How common shipwreck seemed to be, how uncertain navigation actually was. I would give anything to know what Ellen Sherman thought of it all, especially her own shipwreck during an unaccompanied travel!

    As to the Louisiana episode, I see a Sherman accounting for first setting up a fine academy and ensuring it’s fiscal stability, giving a good return to the state of Louisiana, and then properly turning the school and all property over to a successor when he felt that he could no longer honorably remain. He is carefully accounting for his actions, rather than emotionally defending these actions, in spite those southerners who see him acting dishonorably when departing from those who had treated him well.

    Finally, I see how Sherman became a painstaking logistician, through the various staff offices he held in the antebellum army. Like Grant and Sheridan, he performed critical logistical tasks at small unit and regional level well before his rise to great responsibility in a wartime Army. In fact, I think his experience surpasses Grant’s, as Sherman performed tasks at Departmental level, supplying both the Departments of the West and Texas during one assignment. The success of the Atlanta Campaign lies first and foremost with Sherman’s dramatic reorganization of the process for resupplying the field armies marching into Georgia; the skills employed to supervise and sustain a most demanding pace of operations over a single-tracked railroad were learned in Louisiana and California well before the Civil War.

    • juliemujic says:

      Hi David, thank you for the comments! I’m glad that this series is helping you dive back into the Sherman memoirs; it will help me stay focused in the same way 🙂 It sounds as though you and I are reading this section in a similar manner in terms of the conclusions that we are drawing. I agree that the skills he was building during the antebellum period will contribute to his wartime success. I think especially his non-military experience will complement his knowledge of military logistics in crucial ways when the war arrives. Maybe we should write historical fiction from Ellen Sherman’s perspective together!

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