Born in Lancaster, Ohio February 8, 1820, William Tecumseh was the son of Charles Robert and Mary Sherman. Charles Robert was a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, and whose untimely death in 1829 left his widow with eleven children and no inheritance. Nine year old William was adopted into the family of Thomas Ewing, who served as senator from Ohio and was the first Secretary of the Interior. William was educated in a local academy and at age sixteen was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At the academy the young Sherman found himself. Math, the sciences , and the most rigorous civil engineering program in the United States provided an academic environment in which he thrived. He was delighted to learn that he possessed unknown talents in drawing and landscape sketching. His teachers recognized his intellectual abilities, encouraged him to excel, and graduation on July 1, 1840 found him third in his class in 1843.
Three months later the new second Lt. was assigned to the Third Artillery in Florida and duty in the Second Seminole War. He scouted swamps, led an expedition to capture the colorful Seminole leader Coacooche and in November 1841 was promoted to first lieutenant, a rank that usually required five to eight years of service. The experiences of his first war led him to conclude that it was badly managed, poorly commanded, befuddled and needlessly prolonged by political blathering and operational bungling. These observations no doubt influenced his military decisions in future conflicts.
The almost 17 months spent in Florida introduced Sherman into the frustrations of a war that could not be won. He learned well, however , strategies in fighting an elusive enemy operating in a secure physical environment. He also learned the value of a functioning chain of command, effective field leadership, a mobile and adaptable army, and full knowledge of the terrain. Despite his complaints the second Seminole was sharpened his understanding of warfare and helped prepare him for the future.
While many of his West Point peers were serving in the Mexican War 1846-48,, Sherman was doing admin duty in California in the newly renamed San Francisco. He accompanied the military governor of California on the trip to confirm that gold had been discovered in the region , beginning the California gold rush of 1849. Despite a brevet promotion to captain, his lack of a combat role may have influenced him to resign his commission. He married in 1850, and in 1853 he resigned his commission to enter the field of banking as manager of a branch bank in St. Louis. In 1857 he was in New York, in 1858 he was in California, later that year he relocated to Leavenworth , Kansas. Success in banking and real estate never arrived and 1859 had him move to Pineville, Louisiana.
He had agreed to become the first superintendent of a school would become LSU. he proved to be an efficient and popular administrator, but broke completely with the institution when he learned South Carolina’s secession from the Union. ” you people of the south don’t know what you are doing,” he told a friend, “this country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization.” He resigned his position as superintendent and returned to the North. He told the Governor of Louisiana, “On no earthly account will I do any act or think any hostile thought to the United States.”
On May14, 1861 he was commissioned as Colonel of a yet to be organized regiment. The 13th US Infantry.He found himself instead in command of a brigade of three month volunteers. At the First Battle of Bull Run July 21st 1861 he led the volunteers with distinction, received grazing wounds in the knee and shoulder and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. he was given military responsibility for the state of Kentucky and was shortly replaced by Don Carlos Buell. Transferred to St. Louis he was put on leave as unfit for duty adn returned to his home in Lancaster, Ohio. he was in the midst of what would today be called a nervous breakdown. ” That melancholy insanity to which my family is subject.” Before year’s end however, he returned to St. Louis and from there to commend the District of Cairo.
Following General U. S. Grant’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson Sherman was given command of Grant’s 5th Division, part of 42,000 men at Crump’s Landing and nearby Pittsburg Landing on the Tennesse River, just north of the Mississippi state line. Another 20,000 men under Don Carlos Buell were marching from Columbia, TN to join Grant. The retreating Confederates under General Albert Sidney Johnston had rallied at Corinth Mississippi about 20 miles southwest of Grant’s position. Reasoning that the best tactic was a swift attack to pin Grant’s forces against the river before Buell’s reinforcements could arrive, the Confederate’s 44,000 men began their march north to engage the enemy.
The union troops were not entrenched, had no built abaitis and had not sent out recon patrols. On the morning of April 6th 1862 the rebel attack caught the yankee forces by surprise. Some sitting in camp eating breakfast. Despite the widespread lack of preparation Sherman rallied his division and pulled off an orderly fighting retreat that helped prevent a rout. The end of the day found Buell’s men starting to arrive by barge and Grant sat under a tree smoking a cigar. Sherman not daring to mention retreat famously said “we’ve had the devil’s own day haven’t we?” Grant calmly replying ” Yes. Lick’em tomorrow though.”
With Buell’s reinforcements and the arrival of Lew Wallace’s division from Crump’s landing, Grant’s forces attacked at 600AM on April 7. By late afternoon the Confederates were in retreat to Corinth. With nightfall came heavy rain, the roads became impractical for artillery to be moved via horse or man and Grant’s fatigued forces had to call off their attack. The North and South dead and wounded were everywhere. The final casualty figures shocked both sides at over 13,000 for the North and about 10,700 for the South. It was Shiloh that convinced Grant and Sherman that the war would be a long bloody struggle.
In July Sherman was promoted to commanding officer of the District of West Tennessee and on July 21 Assumed his duties in Memphis. It was while at Memphis that he became aware of the hostility of the surrounding population, both in the city and countryside. This in time led him to the conclusion that all the people in the south were enemies of the union cause. “It’s about time the north understood the truth. That the entire south , man, woman and child is against us. Armed and determined.” This theory of collective responsibility goes far to explain Sherman’s attitude towards the civilian population.
In the long siege of Vicksburg during which Sherman expressed reservations about Grant’s strategy, the two worked well together. Following the surrender of the city, on July 4th 1863, Sherman was made general in the regular army. He was given command of the army of the Tennessee, he was sent 20,000 men to reinforce the Union army at Chattanooga, TN. In late November Grant launched a three pronged attack of 59,000 men under Genral Hooker, Thomas and Sherman to engage the 46,000 Confederates on Missionary Ridge. General Bragg’s army collapsed and retreated to Dalton Georgia and the stage was set for Sherman’s campaign to take Atlanta the next spring.
In early May 1864 Sherman invaded Georgia with 98,000 men in three armies. He was opposed by Joseph E Johnston’s Army of Tennessee with 65,000 men. Johnston always followed at strategy of retreat and so he was replaced on July 17th by General John Bell Hood who played to Sherman’s strengths by offering frontal battles on open ground. The campaign ended on September 2nd 1864 with the fall of the city which had been abandoned by Hood. After ordering all civilians to leave the city that month, in November Sherman ordered all government and military buildings to be burned. In the predictable mayhem that followed, many private homes and shops were burned along with them. An example of future conduct by Sherman’s armies was set in Atlanta despite later denials that such conduct was army policy.
The fall of Atlanta ensured the re-election of Lincoln denying victory to the democartic party and it’s calls for peace negotiations based on recognizing the South’s independence. Sherman’s victory in Atlanta right before the election preserved national unity and he was promoted earlier to major general of the regular army.
Following the election, Sherman began with 62,000 men to Savannah Georgia. His army lived off the land , something they learned they could do in the Vicksburg campaign, and caused by his own estimate over $100 million in property damages. “there was a devil may care spirit pervading the whole army”. The soldiers enjoyed their reputation of ” Sherman’s Bummers.”
The five week march of 285 miles cut a path between 20 and 60 miles wide through Georgia, destroying everything of military and civilian value. On December 22nd, 1864 the day after the city’s garrison of 10,000 fled, Sherman’s army occupied Savanna. He announced to Lincoln that his prize contained 150 heavy guns and 25,000 bales of cotton. A week earlier Hood’s force at Nashville, TN had been destroyed by Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland. The gloom and doom over Grant’s bogged down effort at defeating General R. E. Lee at Petersburg was partially lifted.
On Feb. 1th, 1865 Sherman’s army began it’s campaign of 400 miles through the Carolinas against light resistance from Johnston’s tired troops. Since South Carolina had been the first state to leave the union, the anger of union soldiers fell upon the state with no quarter asked and none given. On Feb 17th the state capital fell, fires began immediately and by the next morning most of the city was burned rubble.
Meanwhile Grant’s Army of the Potomac was wearing down General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Sherman’s march though the Carolinas was unstoppable. At least by the feckless General Johnston. On April 9th 1865 General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and Sherman accepted the surrender of Johnston on April 17-18th. The War of Northern Aggression was over. The contentious era of reconstruction was about to begin.
In the Summer of 1865, Sherman was given command f the military District of the Mississippi with jurisdiction across the great Plains to the Rocky Mountains. His particular attention was to be given to the protection and construction of the trans-continental railroad. Congress had chartered the railroad during the war and it was not to be given first priority in the years ahead. From his HQ in St. Louis, he carried out his duties with the serious efficiency with which he had made war in the south.
When US Grant became President in 1869, Sherman succeeded him as General of the Army and was required to move to Washington DC. On may 10th He received word that the last spike had finished the railroad giving him a great deal of satisfaction.
Retirement from the army came on November 1st 1883 at the age of 63. He reestablished himself in St. Luis where he remained off and on until he relocated to New York city in 1886. In 1884 while being courted for a run for president he declined. He died in NYC on Feb. 4th. 1891.