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Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

by Wesley Moody

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  At the end of the Civil War, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman was surprisingly more popular in the newly defeated South than he was in the North. Yet, only thirty years later, his name was synonymous with evil and destruction in the South, particularly as the creator and enactor of the “total war” policy. In Demon of the Lost Cause,


  At the end of the Civil War, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman was surprisingly more popular in the newly defeated South than he was in the North. Yet, only thirty years later, his name was synonymous with evil and destruction in the South, particularly as the creator and enactor of the “total war” policy. In Demon of the Lost Cause, Wesley Moody examines these perplexing contradictions and how they and others function in past and present myths about Sherman.             Throughout this fascinating study of Sherman’s reputation, from his first public servant role as the major general for the state of California until his death in 1891, Moody explores why Sherman remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. Using contemporary newspaper accounts, Sherman’s letters and memoirs, as well as biographies of Sherman and histories of his times, Moody reveals that Sherman’s shifting reputation was formed by whoever controlled the message, whether it was the Lost Cause historians of the South, Sherman’s enemies in the North, or Sherman himself. With his famous “March to the Sea” in Georgia, the general became known for inventing a brutal warfare where the conflict is brought to the civilian population. In fact, many of Sherman’s actions were official tactics to be employed when dealing with guerrilla forces, yet Sherman never put an end to the talk of his innovative tactics and even added to the stories himself. Sherman knew he had enemies in the Union army and within the Republican elite who could and would jeopardize his position for their own gain. In fact, these were the same people who spread the word that Sherman was a Southern sympathizer following the war, helping to place the general in the South’s good graces. That all changed, however, when the Lost Cause historians began formulating revisions to the Civil War, as Sherman’s actions were the perfect explanation for why the South had lost.  Demon of the Lost Cause reveals the machinations behind the Sherman myth and the reasons behind the acceptance of such myths, no matter who invented them. In the case of Sherman’s own mythmaking, Moody postulates that his motivation was to secure a military position to support his wife and children. For the other Sherman mythmakers, personal or political gain was typically the rationale behind the stories they told and believed.  In tracing Sherman’s ever-changing reputation, Moody sheds light on current and past understanding of the Civil War through the lens of one of its most controversial figures.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this careful reexamination of William Tecumseh Sherman's evolving reputation, Wesley Moody shows that a host of characters from both the North and South constructed a myth of modernity and destruction that still influences how we misremember the real man. This book is a welcome addition to Civil War memory studies."—Kenneth W. Noe, author of Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861

“Wesley Moody has surveyed the many forms of literature about Sherman and his image in motion pictures. Combining biographical information with a discussion of the changing phases of Sherman’s historical reputation, he reveals many surprising things. One is that Sherman was not unpopular in the South until about 1900 and another is that his image has largely been shaped by British writers. His provocative discussion may not change common stereotypes, but the effort is well worth the making.“—Brian Holden Reid, author of America’s Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861-1863

Library Journal
In his penetrating study of William Tecumseh Sherman from his childhood and early posting as major general for the state militia of California until his death in 1891, Moody (The Battle of Jonesboro) traces his subject's ever morphing reputation. He reminds the reader that tantalizing myths affecting Sherman's reputation had been evolving since before his controversial March to the Sea and were fostered by the general's obsessive drive for financial and job security in the ranks (even at the cost of promotion), the creation of wartime propaganda, the prevailing tactic of officers (including Sherman) to pad their military contributions at the expense of battlefield realities, the Reconstruction period and the Gilded Age, the South's attempt to absorb and later justify its loss in the war, with Sherman as both champion and villain, and the scholars, past and present, who molded Sherman's place in history to comport with their own interpretations. Moody concludes that Americans are still miles away from reviewing Sherman's record with calm impartiality. VERDICT A well-researched and concisely penned work, offering progressive Civil War historiography that's sharply focused through the life of one of this country's most enigmatic and evocative military figures. Mandatory reading for Civil War scholars and enthusiasts alike.—John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland

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Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1945-9

Chapter One

The Prewar Years and the Early War

Although Sherman was unknown to the general public at the beginning of the war, the template for his future reputation began to emerge early on in the mind of the Southern public. Ulysses S. Grant, in his personal memoirs, described marching his regiment through a deserted Missouri town at the beginning of the war. People "had evidently been led to believe that the National troops carried death and devastation with them wherever they went," he recalled. Before Union and Confederate troops met at the first battle of Bull Run, Confederate president Jefferson Davis in a speech to the Confederate Congress predicted how Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans would prosecute the war. According to Davis, "Mankind will shudder at the outrages committed on defenseless females." Sherman was only an unknown colonel when Davis made this speech and was as far away from shaping national policy as was possible. A future generation of southerners and historians, however, will blame William T. Sherman for a brutality they implied did not exist in earlier wars or in other parts of the American Civil War.

Neither Jefferson Davis nor the people fleeing in the face of Grant and his single regiment had to look too far in the past to find examples of the kind of brutality they feared and that Sherman was credited with inventing in 1864. General Santa Anna ravaged a rebellious Texas, and both the British and the Americans would institute "hard war" in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The most famous example, of course, was the burning of Washington, DC, during a British raid. Living off the land was the major strategy of Napoleon, who was studied intently by generals on both sides. The "On to Richmond" press and those sightseers who escorted the Union army to the battlefield at Bull Run may have believed that the war would be fought in one glorious battle, but the rest of the country knew that this would be the type of bloody war that had been going on between Kansas and Missouri for the previous five years.

There was nothing in Sherman's early life that would have led one to believe he was destined for greatness or controversy. With only a few exceptions, in his childhood and early life he was not that different from others of that era. On February 8, 1820, Charles Sherman, a prominent judge in Lancaster, Ohio, and his wife, Mary, had their sixth child, a boy they named Tecumseh. He was named after the Shawnee chief who had waged war against the United States prior to and during the War of 1812, and who had been killed during the Battle of Thames less than seven years prior to the birth of Tecumseh Sherman. Giving a white child an Indian name was an oddity in the nineteenth century, as it was, but naming him after as dangerous and successful an enemy as the great Tecumseh was truly odd. This was obviously the first of many controversies in Sherman's life, and the fact that it occurred before he was born was very fitting.

When Tecumseh Sherman was nine years old, his father died while riding the judicial circuit. The obituaries printed by Ohio newspapers gave cholera as the cause of death, but typhoid fever was a more likely culprit. Mary Elizabeth Sherman was now a widow with eleven children. As was the tradition of the time, the children were taken in by family and friends. Tecumseh Sherman was taken in by Thomas Ewing, a prominent attorney and close friend of his father. His new home was in view of his old one, and he often visited his mother; it was not a traumatic move for the boy. He was taken in as part of the family, and he loved and was loved by the Ewings. Throughout his life he would view the Ewing sons as his brothers and would marry Thomas Ewing's daughter, Ellen. Throughout his adult life, Sherman will be preoccupied with supporting his growing family, and this will affect all of his professional decisions. Perhaps the position his mother found herself in as a widow greatly affected his outlook on life.

In 1836, Sherman received an appointment to the US Military Academy. Ewing was then a senator from Ohio, so Sherman's appointment was all but guaranteed. According to his Memoirs, West Point was not Sherman's choice. He was informed by his adopted father that he would attend the academy. In the age before grants and financial aid for students, West Point was the only free institution of higher learning in the country.

Sherman graduated sixth in his class in 1840. He would have graduated with higher standing had it not been for the large number of demerits he received. (According to Sherman's memoirs his demerits were due to uniform infractions, but according to his classmates he had a fondness for visiting Benny Havens, the local bar famous among cadets, and he also had a talent for procuring contraband food in the cadet quarters.) He graduated with George Thomas and Richard Ewell, both of whom would become generals in the Civil War. Graduating at the top of your class was no guarantee of success. The top student from the class of 1840 was the future governor of Louisiana and Confederate general, Paul Hebert. He, like most pre-Civil War graduates at the top of their class, had an undistinguished war record. Hebert may have had an almost perfect disciplinary record at West Point and excelled in his classes, but as a brigadier general in the Confederate Service he has been all but forgotten.

After West Point, Sherman was assigned to the Third US Artillery. He was sent to the Florida territory to serve in the Second Seminole War that had been raging since 1836, but he saw little action in Florida. With the exception of isolated raids and ambushes, the Seminoles tried to avoid the soldiers, a tactic that made perfect sense since their goal was to remain in Florida. He did not see any action during the Mexican War, either. He was stationed in California, but he did not arrive until after the area was pacified. After this war he served as the commissary in New Orleans before resigning his commission from the army in 1852.

Throughout his adult life Sherman was most concerned with supporting his family financially. As much as he loved army life, the low pay made it difficult for him to take care of his growing young family. Sherman moved to San Francisco to manage a bank owned by Lucas, Simonds and Company of St. Louis.

Sherman first came to the attention of the press with local notoriety in the California newspapers in 1856. It was not his position as a bank president that brought him to the attention of the public. As a well-liked member of the business community and a West Point graduate, it was natural that Sherman would be made a major general in the state militia. San Francisco was still a wild boom town when he arrived. The city was poorly managed and corruption was rampant. In 1856, a policeman and a newspaper editor were murdered in two separate incidents. These deaths triggered a wave of vigilante violence.

The local citizens formed a Committee of Vigilance, with the stated goal of restoring government to "its true functions, to correct abuses" and to give the law "force and effect." Sherman was offered command of the committee, but he refused that honor. The governor of California, J. Neely Johnson, ordered Sherman, as commander of the state militia district that encompassed San Francisco, to mobilize the militia. Very few men responded to Sherman's call since most of the militiamen were already members of the Committee of Vigilance.

Most of the San Francisco newspapers supported the committee and attacked and lampooned Sherman in their pages. They ridiculed him for not being able to field a sufficient force to challenge the committee and also accused him of corruption, because some of the men lynched by the committee had large accounts invested with Sherman's bank. The press's rough treatment of Sherman and his own inability to do anything about the situation led him to resign his position as head of the local militia. Sherman wrote to the newspapers about his reasons for resigning. He blamed his superiors for the failure to control the vigilantes, an act that only alienated the governor and the commander of the US Army Department of the Pacific, Brigadier General John E. Wool, a national hero from both the Mexican War and the War of 1812. With this letter, Sherman began his long habit of writing the newspapers or making public statements when silence would have served him much better.

The committee eventually disbanded peacefully. Most of its members probably considered their work complete after having hung several men and run many more out of town. Although these events were covered in newspapers across the country, Sherman did not merit any mention outside the newspapers of northern California.

For most of his life, Sherman lived under the shadow of his younger brother John, who was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1856 as one of the growing number of Republicans sent to Washington. John Sherman was extremely popular in his home state. He was young and handsome. He had a promising political career ahead of him and was the descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. William T. Sherman was just another West Point graduate trying to earn a living. Throughout their lives, John will be the most hated of the Sherman brothers among Southerners.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to support a family during the economic crisis of 1857. The San Francisco and St. Louis branches of his bank were both closed. Sherman lived for a short time off the kindness of his foster father, who was now his father-in-law, and then also practiced law in Leavenworth, Kansas, with his brother-in-law Thomas Ewing, Jr. The entire time he was looking for an opportunity to return to the army. In 1859 he accepted a position as commandant of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. This was not exactly the army, but it offered financial security and was closer to military life than banking.

While William T. Sherman was struggling to support his growing young family (his fifth child was born in September 1859), his brother was in the middle of possibly the largest controversy of the antebellum period. John Sherman was part of the congressional delegation sent to investigate the disputed elections and the growing violence between proslavery and antislavery forces in the Territory of Kansas.

The congressional report accused the proslavery government of Kansas of committing massive voter fraud and acts of violence against midwestern settlers. Democratic newspapers responded by accusing Sherman and other members of the committee of falsifying the report. This issue dominated the headlines for nearly a month. The debate over what was happening in Kansas was so heated that it almost turned violent. Representative John Wright of Tennessee threatened Sherman with a pistol, making him the first in the Sherman family to face real danger in the conflict between North and South.

As an active member of the new Republican Party and an outspoken opponent of slavery, Representative John Sherman was well known and controversial. He was disliked among Northern Democrats, and in the South he was hated and feared. When his older brother William was hired as superintendent of the newly formed Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, his employers were concerned about his younger brother's political views. Louisiana's governor, Thomas Moore, suggested there was apprehension about him having an important government job since his brother was "the abolitionist candidate for speaker." Moore was probably too much of a Southern gentleman to tell Sherman what he thought of his brother.

Sherman's assurances that his brother was not an abolitionist must not have been taken too seriously by his audience. Early that year, John Sherman had endorsed the highly controversial book The Impending Crisis of the South and How to Meet It by Hinton Helper. The North Carolina–born Helper argued that the South with its peculiar institution was a drag on the American economy. The book attacked the South and the Democratic Party and called upon non-slaveholders to unite against slaveholders. Although the work would be considered racist by modern standards, especially those sections dealing with his fear of the "mongrelization" of American society, Helper was accurate in his portrayal of the Southern economy and of the damage slavery does to society.

Democrats, especially Southern Democrats, were extremely upset about the possibility of the young Ohio Republican becoming Speaker of the House. They wanted a moderate former Whig as opposed to the outspoken John Sherman who wholeheartedly believed in the Republican platform. The younger Sherman was accused of being the "standard bearer of [William H.] Seward" and the "Black Republicans," carrying the banner "upon which is inscribed: 'Slavery must be abolished and we must do it.'" Although to modern readers this may seem positive accusations, to Southerners in 1859 there was nothing worse they could have said about John Sherman than that he was an abolitionist.

There was enough controversy stirred around Representative Sherman that his name was withdrawn from contention and William Pennington of New Jersey was elected Speaker. This did not satisfy Democrats either, since Pennington was only "the instrument of the Republicans, while Sherman is their master," but it was very unlikely that any Republican would have satisfied the Democrats.

William T. Sherman's assurances to his new employers that his brother was a moderate may have been mere wishful thinking. His letters during this time are filled with appeals to his brother to be more moderate on the issue of slavery. He wrote asking him to make "reasonable concessions to the weaknesses and prejudices of the South."

Sherman, himself, was a moderate on the slavery question. In his heart, he was a Whig, as was his foster father. He believed in rule by the elite, and as a young army officer stationed in the South he liked what he saw of Southern society. While Sherman did not own a slave, as did other officers stationed with him in Mobile and Charleston, this was more due to his financial situation than to any feeling of abhorrence toward slavery. While in Louisiana, he used slave labor at the academy and suggested that his wife should buy a few slaves to work as servants for the family. Unlike her husband, Ellen Sherman felt slavery was wrong. She refused. Sherman was a man of his times. He felt slaves should be treated better, and perhaps he took pride in the fact that American slaves were treated better than slaves anywhere else, but he thought those who championed abolition were dangerous zealots.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election was the last in a chain of events that brought war. Regular army and naval officers resigned in droves to join the forces of their home states. State militias seized government installations, sometimes not even waiting for their state to secede. As a loyal former soldier, Sherman found himself forced by these events to leave the South. The state militia of Louisiana seized the US arsenal at Baton Rouge and sent two thousand muskets and a large supply of ammunition to Sherman at his academy. Sherman immediately wrote the governor and the president of the board of supervisors and resigned his position.

He did not leave for the North immediately but, instead, spent a week in New Orleans finalizing his business with the academy and the state of Louisiana. He made a point in his 1875 memoirs to show that, when he left the Louisiana Military Academy, the institution was in no way damaged by his resignation. This stood in opposition to what he wrote his wife, Ellen, at the time, that he would "not for a day or even an hour occupy a position of apparent hostility to Uncle Sam."

Like most people in 1861, Sherman was unsure what the next few years would bring. As the Southern states seized Federal property within their borders, most officers charged with its defense simply stood by and did nothing. While Sherman was still in the state, Major Joseph Haskins, the commander of the arsenal at Baton Rouge and a decorated veteran of the war with Mexico, with no resistance surrendered his post to the state of Louisiana. It is very likely that had Major Haskins and the many other officers in his position known the nature of the war to come or even what was expected of them by their government, they would have, as Sherman suggested was their duty, "defended their posts to the death." It is doubtful that Sherman would have acted differently had he known that the next four years would bring such death and destruction. Writing ten years after the war, Sherman seemed more concerned with the accusation that he "was guilty of a breach of hospitality" than with the possibility that he had committed treason by aiding the state of Louisiana after it had left the Union.

The now unemployed Sherman returned to Lancaster, Ohio, where his wife and children were living, without a clear plan for the future. For a man for whom financial stability and the support of his family were top priority, this had to be a crushing blow. He did, however, have competing offers. His brother, then Senator Sherman, wanted him to come to Washington so he might use his political influence to find him a position in the new Republican administration. Sherman also had an offer from Henry Turner, who had secured him his position as bank president, to be the president of the Fifth Street Railroad in St. Louis. He quickly wrote Turner that he would accept the position, but since the position would not begin for a few weeks, Sherman traveled to Washington to see his brother.


Excerpted from DEMON of the LOST CAUSE by WESLEY MOODY Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Wesley Moody is Professor of History at Florida State College. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

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