In a letter written on April 29, 1863, to his wife Ellen, William T. Sherman privately expressed his misgivings about the Vicksburg campaign Ulysses S. Grant was just then launching. “My own opinion is that this whole plan of attack on Vicksburg will fail must fail, and the fault will be on us all of course,” he wrote.
The entire letter is quite extraordinary, but what really jumps out at me is the venom Sherman holds for fellow corps commander John McClernand. McClernand, a highly influential political general commanding the XIII Corps, was the most senior of Grant’s subordinates. Sherman despised McClernand, who outranked him and thus superseded him in command following Sherman’s defeat at Chickasaw Bayou in late December 1862. That replacement, Sherman later admitted, was “the severest test of my patriotism.”
“The Noises & clamor have produced their fruits. Even Grant is cowed & afraid of the newspapers,” Sherman wrote, suspecting machinations behind the outcry.
Should as the papers now intimate Grant be relieved & McClernand left in command, you may expect to hear of me at St. Louis, for I will not serve under McClernand. He is the impersonation of my Demon Spirit, not a shade of respect for truth, when falsehood is easier manufactured & fitted to his purpose: an overtowering ambition and utter ignorance of the first principles of war. I have in my possession his orders to do “certain things” which he would be ashamed of now. He knows I saw him cow at Shiloh. He knows he blundered in ignorance at the Post & came to me beseechingly, “Sherman what shall we do now?” And yet no sooner is the tempest past, and the pen in hand, his star is to be brightened and none so used to abuse, none so patient under it as Sherman. And therefore Glory at Sherman’s expense.
“Demon Spirit”! Can you believe that? He calls out McClernand as a liar and a coward, too, with “Overtowering ambition.” Harsh words.
Sherman’s reference to “the Post” was Arkansas Post, a Confederate garrison 45 miles upstream from the mouth of the Arkansas River. Federal forces captured it on January 11, 1863, as part of their operations against Vicksburg (see more, here, from the American Battlefield Trust). McClernand wrote a self-adulatory report of the battle, ignoring Sherman’s key role, further insulting the bruised feelings of the resentful Sherman.
Even after Grant arrived from Memphis in early February to take personal command of operations in the field, tensions between Sherman and McClernand continued to simmer, and Sherman became convinced it was only a matter of time before McClernand slipped him a Brutus-like dagger. “I avoid McClernand, because I know he is envious & jealous of everybody who stands in his way,” Sherman told Ellen earlier in April. “He knows I appreciate him truly and therefore he would ruin me if he could.”
“Appreciate” here serves as a euphemism for “see through him clear as day and recognize him as the smarmy political snake he is.” While that’s my translation, not Sherman’s exact words, he does express a similar sentiment on a February 6 letter to Ellen. “[H]e is a most deceitful man, taking all possible advantage and having no standard of truth & honor but the public clamor,” he wrote.
The context of the April 29 letter, though, stand out because it seems to be written while Sherman was sunk in one of the dark moods he was sometimes prone to. He did not have confidence in Grant’s overall plan for crossing the Mississippi and making an overland attempt on Vicksburg from the rear. Sherman’s own part of that plan entailed making an up-river demonstration against Confederate forces near the Yazoo River to keep their attention fixed there while Grant moved downriver and crossed. “I think Grant will make a safe lodgment at Grand Gulf,” Sherman confided to Ellen,
but the real trouble is and will be the maintenance of the army there. If the capture of Holly Springs [on December 20, 1862] made him leave the Tallahatchie, how much more precarious is his position now below Vicksburg with every pound of provision, forage and ammunition to float past the seven miles of batteries at Vicksburg or be hauled thirty-seven miles along a narrow boggy road?
Sherman himself would eventually supply the answer to this very question. Grant would assign the division of Maj. Gen. Francis Preston Blair of Sherman’s XV Corps to oversee the movement of supplies from Grand Gulf up to the rest of the army as it moved through the Mississippi interior. Sherman characterized Blair in the same category of political general as McClernand, “mere politicians who come to fight not for the real glory & success of the nation, but for their own individual aggrandizement.” Yet Blair would rise to the challenge and keep Grant’s army supplied as it moved, even as the army’s successes made a believer of the dutiful-but-pessimistic Sherman along the way.
Those successes, though, did nothing to soften Sherman’s attitudes toward McClernand, who performed solidly during the overland campaign and at least as well as the other corps commanders in the assaults against Vicksburg itself. Sherman condemned him, by his own actions, as a man “full of vain-glory and hypocrisy” and enamored by a “process of self-flattery,” and there was no changing his mind. The venom Sherman expressed toward his “Demon Spirit” in his letter to Ellen only concentrated over time, as McClernand would come to regret.
You can read the full text of Sherman’s April 29, 1863, letter to Ellen at General Sherman’s Blog, created by a “JJ Brownyneal” during the Civil War Sesquicentennial to offer a day-by-day account of Sherman in the war. Other correspondence is also reprinted there, although the blog’s first-person “voice of Sherman” is a fictional construct.