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By Steven E. Woodworth
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Steven E. Woodworth
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The Education of a Soldier, 1820–1845
On a chilly winter day in Lancaster, Ohio, Charles R. Sherman and his wife Mary Hoyt Sherman welcomed the birth of their sixth child, a boy whom Charles named William Tecumseh, with the middle name honoring Ohio's most celebrated Indian chief. "Tecumseh was a great warrior," the father later explained to nonplussed neighbors. The large and growing Sherman family lived on Main Street in a clapboard house built in the style popular in Charles and Mary's native Connecticut. It marked the Shermans as one of the more distinguished families in this twenty-year-old town where the frontier road, known as Zane's Trace, crossed the Hocking River.
By February 8, 1820, when young "Cump," as his siblings would soon be calling him, made his appearance in the world, Charles Sherman was a successful lawyer. A veteran of the War of 1812, though without seeing combat, Charles rode the judicial circuit. A big, florid, energetic man, he was highly respected, but his family did not enjoy the affluence that his profession and status might have brought. Three years before Tecumseh's birth, Charles had suffered a serious financial disaster. While serving as the U.S. collector of internal revenue for the third district of Ohio, he had accepted various banknotes in payment of taxes and failed to adjust quickly enough to avoid catastrophe when the federal government announced a change of policy, specifying the acceptance of only Bank of the United States notes or coins. As a consequence, Sherman was left with massive amounts of worthless paper money and a crushing debt. Rather than declare bankruptcy, he set out to pay the debt and struggled under the load for the rest of his life.
In 1823, Charles won appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court. In those days, even justices on the state's highest judicial tribunal still rode the circuit, traveling around the state to hold court in various towns, and so he continued to be away from home a good deal of the time. He was on the circuit on June 18, 1829, holding court in Lebanon, Ohio, ninety-five miles from Lancaster, when he was suddenly taken ill with a high fever. Friends brought him to a hotel, summoned a physician, and sent word to Lancaster. Mary Sherman set out at once by coach but had only got as far as Washington Court House, Ohio—when, on June 24, Charles succumbed to what his family ever afterward believed had been typhoid, though others thought it was cholera.
Charles's unexpected death left Mary with the house, the furniture, some bank stock worth about two hundred dollars per year, and eleven children, the youngest just one month old. In its straitened situation, the Sherman household was going to have to get much smaller. The older boys, all the way down to fourteen-year-old Jim, took jobs or apprenticeships and moved out on their own. The oldest girl, sixteen-year-old Elizabeth, married. Relatives and friends took in most of the younger children one by one—five-year-old John to Mount Vernon, Ohio; seven-year-old Lamp to Cincinnati.
Cump stayed in Lancaster and was adopted by a neighbor at the other end of the block. Thomas Ewing, Sr., a close friend of the Sherman family, took the lad to live with his family at the corner of Main and High streets. The Ewing house was large and ornate outside and stocked inside with such finery as fancy china and a piano. The forty-year-old Ewing was equally impressive, "an intellectual giant," Tecumseh would later call him. Ewing had worked his way through college by alternating studies with stints of hard labor at the salt works in Kanawha, Virginia (later West Virginia). After graduation he studied under Lancaster's leading lawyer and gained admission to the bar in 1816. A big, bluff, imposing man at more than six feet and two hundred sixty pounds, Ewing found immediate success in his profession and had the look of a man bound for greater things.
Ewing "looked down on religion as something domestic," Tecumseh would recall. By contrast, Ewing's wife Maria was a devout Catholic who was diligently raising her own four children—Tecumseh's juniors—as well as the two nieces and one nephew who lived in the Ewing household, as good Catholics. When Thomas brought Tecumseh to the Ewing house, Maria decreed that he could remain in her household only if he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. As always in matters of religion, Thomas acquiesced. Tecumseh was not consulted. An itinerant Dominican priest, on his next monthly visit to Lancaster, baptized him in the Ewings' front parlor.
And so young Sherman grew up as a foster member of the Ewing family. Thomas had promised to treat him as one of his own, and he was as good as his word. The rest of the family was similarly accepting, and Tecumseh genuinely liked them and felt gratitude for their having taken him in. Yet, he never addressed Thomas and Maria as "Father" or "Mother" Campaigns. I. Title. but rather as Mr. or Mrs. Ewing. Sherman was bright and obedient but fond of mischief; he was a passable scholar, always near the top of his classes but much more interested in play or even outdoor physical labor than the tedium of the schoolroom. Along with the Ewing children, he attended Sunday mass and received extensive instruction in the Catholic faith with the degree of submission the ever stringent Maria required. From Maria and the priests, he learned Catholic doctrine and liturgy and the the catechism. From his foster father, Tecumseh learned that a real man was quietly disdainful of religion while benevolently tolerating his devout wife's piety. He also learned from Thomas Ewing that slavery was innocuous, blacks were inferior, and abolitionists were repugnant and potentially dangerous.
In the years after Tecumseh joined the household, Ewing continued to rise. In 1830, he won election to the United States Senate as a Whig. Failing in his bid for reelection in 1836, he received an appointment in 1841 as Secretary of the Treasury in the administration of newly-elected President William Henry Harrison.
By that time, Sherman had taken his own path in life. He had been fascinated with the military since the boyhood day he had watched a militia officer drilling amateur soldiers on an open field near Lancaster. Charles Sherman, before his death, had spoken to Thomas Ewing about his desire that Cump should be trained for public service in the army or navy, and Mary Sherman liked the idea of her son as a cadet at West Point better than she did the idea of him as a midshipman in the navy. So, in 1836, when Tecumseh was sixteen and Ewing was still in the Senate, his foster father obtained for him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Leaving Lancaster on May 20, 1836, Sherman traveled by stagecoach and train until a steamboat carried him the last leg of his journey up the scenic Hudson River to where the academy sat atop its bluff overlooking the river below. Sherman easily passed the entrance exam and entered into the life of a West Point plebe. He accommodated himself with little complaint to the academy's Spartan rules and living conditions. Midway through his academy years the students' living quarters gained the lavish addition of iron bedsteads, so that the cadets no longer had to sleep on pallets on the floor. Otherwise, each room contained a mirror and washstand, a table, chair, and lamp, and an open fireplace for heat. From reveille at 5:30 A.M. until lights-out at 9:30 P.M., every hour of the cadet's day was precisely regimented—study, lecture, and recitations, punctuated by meals that by all accounts were worse than Spartan—boiled meat, boiled potatoes, boiled pudding, boiled coffee. Sherman coped easily with the stringent academic regimen of West Point and consistently stayed near the top of his class. The academy during the nineteenth century was primarily a school of engineering, and Sherman and his fellow cadets spent more than two-thirds of their time on that subject, primarily under the tutelage of Professor Dennis Hart Mahan, West Point's leading scholar both in engineering and military science. Mahan, the author of numerous textbooks on civil and military engineering and military science, also provided the training these future officers received in the art of war. Mahan had much to say about entrenchments and defensive works of various sorts, but he was also an admirer of Napoleon, of that general's grand offensive movements and battles of annihilation.
Had he not accumulated so many demerits, Sherman would have ranked higher within his class. One of his favorite illicit pastimes was the preparation of food in his quarters—strictly against regulations—and sharing it with fellow cadets in after-hours repasts. All such nonregulation food was known in cadet parlance as hash, and by his third year at West Point, Sherman, as fellow Ohio cadet William S. Rosecrans recalled, "was considered the best hash-maker at West Point"—adding that this distinction was "a great honor" among the cadets. Sometimes, he and his friends would cap a late-night feast with a clandestine visit to Benny Haven's tavern, two miles from the academy. The legendary inn was the favorite resort of two generations of West Point cadets in search of palatable food, strong drink, and raucous conviviality—and since it was strictly off-limits, it was also a source of numerous demerits for cadets caught frequenting it. And Sherman found plenty of ways to score demerits—keeping a messy room, talking in ranks, neglecting to salute a superior—to name a few. During his final year at the academy, his worst in deportment, he amassed one hundred forty-eight of the two hundred annual demerits that would have triggered his expulsion.
Sherman was popular with his fellow cadets. Some of the acquaintances and friends gained at West Point would be men with whom Sherman would deal in one way or another for the rest of his life. Three classes ahead of him, North Carolinian Braxton Bragg was friendly with Sherman, and Massachusetts cadet Joseph Hooker was not. Handsome Pennsylvanian John C. Pemberton was also in the same class. New Yorker Henry W. Halleck, whose owlish face seemed appropriate for the studious habits that made him third in his class, and Marylander Edward O. C. Ord, Sherman's first roommate, were one year ahead of Sherman. The shy and mannerly Virginian, George H. Thomas was among Sherman's own classmates. Ulysses Simpson Grant, another Ohio cadet, arrived on campus at the beginning of Sherman's last year.
As Sherman neared the end of his four years at West Point, the Ewings urged him to leave the army on graduation and pursue a civilian career, perhaps the law, but Sherman wanted to stay in the army and feared falling into continued dependence on Thomas Ewing. About that time, when Sherman got into a tight spot financially, he wrote not to Ewing but to his mother, Mary Sherman, requesting the loan of five dollars. "I do not wish ever to ask Mr. Ewing again for assistance," he explained. Determined to make his own way in the world, Sherman proceeded eagerly toward a military career.
Graduation came on July 1, 1840. Of the ninety-four cadets who had entered the academy four years prior as part of Sherman's class, forty-two made it through to graduation. Of those, Sherman ranked sixth—and would have ranked fourth had it not been for all the demerits he had racked up. A fourth-place class rank would have put him in the elite corps of engineers. Sixth was good enough for artillery, the next best assignment. After the customary postgraduation furlough, Sherman reported late that summer, as ordered, to Governor's Island, New York, for transportation to Florida, where he was to take up his duties as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in Company A, Third U.S. Artillery Regiment.
He joined his company at Fort Pierce, on the east coast of Florida about seventy miles below Cape Canaveral. There, he spent the next fifteen months in service that grew increasingly onerous and boring. The Second Seminole War was in progress, but it was a guerrilla conflict, in which the soldiers were rarely able to come to grips with the elusive Seminoles. Sherman played a minor role in negotiations with Seminole leader Coacoochee, but little came of the effort. The most interesting activity Sherman found was catching fish and turtles.
In November 1841, he received a promotion to first lieutenant, a remarkably early advance for the army of that day, and Sherman may have had Thomas Ewing's favor to thank for it. With the promotion came a posting to Company G, Third Artillery Regiment, stationed near St. Augustine, Florida. There, Sherman commanded a twenty-man detachment, which guarded the one-family settlement of Picolata, eighteen miles from town. His tenure was uneventful, but the duty was better than at Fort Pierce. Mail came once a month and occasional visits to St. Augustine allowed him to enjoy the social life of that venerable town of three thousand inhabitants. He had been there only three months when in March 1842 the government decided that it had sufficiently suppressed the Seminoles.
No longer needed in Florida, Company G next received orders to relocate to the Alabama coast for a three-month stint in Fort Morgan—and then to Fort Moultrie, outside Charleston, South Carolina. The latter post had gained its fame as a palmetto-log fortification that stood off British attack in 1776. In later years, the army had rebuilt it with masonry walls and two-story barracks inside. Outside the walls, the fashionable settlement of Moultrieville had grown up, composed of the airy seaside cottages where wealthy Charlestonians summered in the sea breezes. While much of the army's strength had been deployed against the Seminoles in Florida, Fort Moultrie, like Fort Morgan, had been unoccupied but now once again garrisoned and set in military order, the fort harbored four companies—B, D, and K, along with Sherman's G—as well as the band and headquarters of the Third Artillery.
Military duties made few demands on a soldier's time at Fort Moultrie. Dress parade, guard mount, and inspection occupied the garrison until scarcely midmorning. Thereafter, Sherman wrote, "each one kills time to suit himself till reveille of next morning commences the new routine." The city of Charleston offered its diversions. Sherman was impressed with its architectural beauty and the dynamism of its bustling docks with their massive stockpiles of cotton and rice and the shouts and songs of the black stevedores. On the other hand, he and his fellow officers found the Charleston social scene tiresome. "Smirks, smiles, pride and vanity, hypocrisy and flippance reign triumphant," among the Charlestonians, Sherman wrote. He and his fellow officers, feeling that the army needed to be represented at social events in order to maintain community relations, were soon taking turns pulling social duty. To ease the boredom, Sherman resorted to painting pictures and writing letters. Sherman's most faithful correspondent was his foster sister, Ellen Ewing, who was four years his junior.
In 1843, Sherman spent several months of furlough in Ohio, visiting family in Lancaster, Mansfield, and Columbus and helping his brothers arrange his mother's finances and living arrangements. His return journey to Charleston was by way of the Mississippi River. The Father of Waters fascinated Sherman, and he wrote with interest of its many sights, including the river towns of Memphis and Vicksburg. Early in 1844, the army assigned him to an investigation of claims that had been made by volunteer soldiers from the Seminole War for lost horses or equipment. The inquest, which lasted until the late spring of that year, was headquartered successively in Marietta and Augusta, Georgia, and in Bellefonte, Alabama. With his restless mind and abundant energy, Sherman spent all of his free time riding over the hills and valleys of North Georgia, sketching the terrain and admiring such features as Kennesaw Mountain.
While back in Ohio the year before, he had made up his mind to marry his foster sister Ellen. By letter, he proposed to her and in another letter sought her father's approval. Both replies were favorable, but Ellen's came with conditions. She wanted him to get out of the army and take up a civilian occupation in Ohio. She would not, she wrote, consent to live at any substantial distance from Lancaster and her family. And she wanted him to become a practicing Catholic.
Sherman was unwilling on all counts. He felt he was unprepared for any career outside the army and was unwilling to go back and begin at the bottom of some new calling when he would need a regular steady income immediately if he was to marry. He believed the army was his only realistic chance for such an income, and he was determined to maintain his independence from his foster father and prospective father-in-law. He did not want to become a civilian, and if he did, he certainly did not want it to be in Ohio, least of all near Lancaster. As for Catholicism, Sherman said he wished to believe but could not quite do so. Over the next two years, earnest and somewhat pained letters made their way back and forth between Ohio and South Carolina.
The crisis typified in many ways the tension of Sherman's childhood, youth, and young manhood. He owed much to the Ewings' generosity. They had taken him in, nurtured him, and secured his entrance into an honorable profession. Yet, he longed to make his own way, to stand on his own legs, and he dreaded a return to dependence on Thomas Ewing's generosity. The long-continued tension was intensified almost unbearably by Sherman's love for Ellen and her demand that he leave the only profession he felt offered him any hope of the independence he craved. Then, in the midst of this crisis, outside events intervened.
Excerpted from Sherman by Steven E. Woodworth. Copyright © 2009 Steven E. Woodworth. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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