Sherman in the Days Before Disunion

As the dark clouds of war gathered in early 1860, William Tecumseh Sherman’s career took yet another turn. He was called by old army friends like Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard to become superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. It was a post suited the red-head’s inclinations, but it also led to some very awkward moments.

In his new capacity as head of the academy, Sherman became a member of the Louisiana gentry. Naturally, those who occupied that social space wished to know what their new friend thought of the hot-button issue of the day. For instance, at a dinner party hosted by Louisiana Governor Moore, Sherman was asked suddenly and directly, “Give us your own views of slavery as you see it here and throughout the South.”

Put on the spot, the Ohioan did not hold back.

He began by absolving the present generation in the state who “were hardly responsible for slavery, as they had inherited it.”

But he wasn’t finished.

If he were able to formulate laws and policy in the state, hypothetically, “I would deem it wise, to bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings under all Christian and civilized government,” Sherman told the dinner guests. He would end family separations and eliminate penalties for teaching slaves to read and write – among other things.

To these suggestions, Sherman tells us, “What I said was listened to by all with the most profound attention.” One man even exclaimed, “By God, he is right!”

The inclusion of this dinner episode not only demonstrates that Sherman had the respect of the Louisiana aristocracy – though he was a Northern man – but also is meant to answer the charge made by some that he did not care about the condition of the black man. During the war, some Republicans believed Sherman harbored racist notions and was not on board with progressive notions advocated by the party or the administration when it came to lifting up African-Americans from bondage.

If Sherman was uncomfortable with his impromptu examination at the governor’s dinner table, it was nothing compared to the difficulties posed by secession. In the spring and summer, 1860, “Political excitement was at its very height, and it was constantly asserted that Mr. Lincoln’s election would imperil the Union,” Sherman recalled, “I purposely kept aloof from politics, and would take no part.”

As a thoroughly Union man, the eccentric superintendent was in a ticklish position. Not only did he lead the state’s military academy, but he also oversaw the state arsenal located at his institution. Moreover, it was widely known in Louisiana that Sherman’s brother, John, was an Ohio congressman – about to be appointed a U.S. Senator – and was regarded as an abolitionist by the people of the South.

Never did Sherman’s allegiance to the Union waiver at this difficult junction, though, and he made sure his memoir reflected it. An instance of this: Sherman wrote, “I was notified that it would be advisable for me to vote for Bell and Everett [of the Constitutional Union Party], but I openly said I would not, and I did not.”

After the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln—which, as Sherman put it, “fell upon us all like a clap of thunder”—many across the South clamored for disunion. Still, “no man in or out of authority ever tried to induce me to take part in steps designed to lead to disunion.” Given his particular responsibilities—especially as caretaker of the state arsenal —it is a bit surprising that the academy head was not approached.

But Sherman had an answer to this: “I think my general opinions were well known and understood, viz., that “secession was treason, was war.”


from Sherman, William T.  Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman.  NY: Literary Classics of America, 1990, 167-171.

6 Responses to Sherman in the Days Before Disunion

  1. One wonders how much this oft quoted passage from Sherman’s Memoirs represents an accurate long after the event recapturing of the event, or reflects an earlier conversation he had with Professor Boyd of the faculty. One has to read both his and Grant’s Memoirs with an eye for elaboration.

  2. After the Civil War, when many were clamoring for trying Jefferson Davis and company for treason, Chief Justice Salmon Chase stated that they could not be charged with treason because succession WAS NOT rebellion. Had they proceeded to do so would have condemned the north for waging war and disregarding the Constitution.

    1. I have never seen an authenticated source for this often-alleged attribution to Chase. Perhaps you can provide it?

  3. Attached is the record of the Voting Returns of the Presidential Election of 1860 for the State of Louisiana, broken down by Parish. Notice that Abraham Lincoln WAS NOT on the ballot (as was also the case in many/ most Southern States.) Also, voting was not secret: the Poll Worker kept a ledger and entered each man’s vote as it was cast (and these ledgers should still be on file with the State Archive.)
    Who did W.T. Sherman vote for? That question has not been answered.
    “Sugar Planter” of West Baton Rouge for 24 NOV 1860 page 2 col.6

  4. I expect Sherman’s views on slavery and the status of blacks was more complicated than this post suggests. He also avoided using Colored Troops and kept them out of his armies invading Georgia. In one famous exchange with Hood after the Battle of Atlanta, Hood accused Sherman of bringing black troops into the South “over us.” Sherman denied that charge and said no, he had only used a few – and those came no closer than Chattanooga. For the record, those troops in Chattanooga were the 14th USCT and they performed very well in their one engagement.
    Tom Crane

  5. Sherman was in a difficult spot at that dinner. He had accepted the position as Superintendent of the Louisiana military academy after several years of business failure. His brother, John, A Congressman form Ohio who was seeking the Speaker position, had joined other Republicans in endorsing an antislavery book, “The Impending Crisis of the South.” Sherman was trying to build up this still very new military school. He feared his brother’s endorsement would cost him support in Louisiana. William Sherman learned from his brother, John that John did not actually espouse abolitionist views. John had, he said, acted irresponsibly in allowing his name to be used to endorse the book. William shared John’s letter with Louisiana politicians, to gain their support. At this dinner, referenced in Sherman’s papers, he knew he needed to explain his views, so as to shore up his position. He announced to the dinner participants that he and John both opposed slavery, but were not abolitionists. Meaning they did not advocate the use of force to end slavery.

    William told the dinner guests that he believed slavery to be completely constitutional and that slavery was the proper place for blacks in American society. He did indeed tell them he believed that he supported legislation that would prohibit slave families from being separated. And he would support laws that removed the prohibition on teaching slaves to read and write. He believed current Louisianans were not responsible for slavery. They had simply inherited the institution. That is when one dinner guest slammed his fist and on the table and said, “By God, he is right.” La. Historical Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Spring, 1995), pp. 134-139.

    What Sherman said was not too different from many locals. His were not particularly extremist views for the time period or for the locale. His guests might have been “aristocrats,” in the sense they were surely men of wealth. But Gov. Moore was a Democrat politician. Even in those days, Democrats were not all that “aristocratic.”
    Tom Crane

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