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.