I was pondering the theme of this year’s ECW Symposium – “1863: The Great Task Before Us” – and thought about what stood out in my mind. Of course, the great Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and later Chattanooga loomed large. But, having written a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman recently (Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War. Savas Beatie, 2023), it occurred to me that I have always been touched by a few lines written by the general to his wife in October following the death of his beloved son Willy.
Even as Sherman sped to Chattanooga in the crisis there, he was a deeply grieving man. Never did it distract him from his duties, but his grief is expressed in his letter to his wife Ellen. These lines gave me new insight to the mind of the complicated red-head.
Corinth, Mississippi – Oct. 14, 1863
“Oh! that poor Willy could live to reap the fruits of whatever is good in me, and avoid the evil. If it so be that he can see our hearts from above he will read in mine a love for him such as would not taint the purest heaven that you ever dreamed of. God spare us the children that are left, and if I am pardoned for exposing them wrongfully I will never again. . . .”[i]
Iuka, Mississippi – Oct. 24, 1863
“I see your thoughts as mine dwell with poor Willy in his grave. I do not, and you should not, reproach yourself a moment for any neglect of him. He knew and felt every moment of his life our deep, earnest love for him. The day he came on board the Atlantic, I think I observed that usual suppressed feeling of pride at having secured that gun. I know I joked him about it and think he received it in his usual manner, and yet at that moment he must have felt the seed of that disorder which proved so fatal. He did not know it then, and we could not so quickly detect the symptoms. . . . God knows and he knows that either of us, and hundreds of others, would have died to save him. . . .”[ii]
[i] William T. Sherman, Home Letters of General Sherman. (New York : C. Scribner’s Sons, 1909). 278-279.
[ii] Ibid, 280.