In a bloody Civil War chiefly remembered for battles in which each side tried too often to simply pummel the other into submission by sheer weight of numbers and volume of fire, General William Tecumseh Sherman stood out as a master of maneuver warfare. In what can be properly described as the world's first war of the machine age, a conflict in which railways, aerial observation, and the machine gun all made their real military debut, its two most famous and talented commanders, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, frequently launched frontal attacks on prepared positions, a type of massed infantry advance more suited to an earlier era of military technology. Both generals ordered attacks-in Lee's case, Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and for Grant, the assault of the 50,000 troops of the II, VI and XVIII Corps at Cold Harbor-that failed miserably and proved to be close to suicidal for the soldiers ordered to go forward across open ground into the maws of the rifled muskets and cannon of a well entrenched enemy. In contrast, Sherman did all in his considerable power to keep casualties low, both among his own troops and, perhaps equally significant, among those of his Confederate enemy. And yet Sherman is most famous for a brutal campaign of burning, pillaging, and wanton looting that saw the devastation of the city of Atlanta and a long and destructive trek through the heart of the Confederacy, an invasion that came to take on the aura of a crusade, where the stated objective of Sherman and his soldiers was to lay waste to the heartland of the South. Sherman's "March to the Sea" and his subsequent Savannah and Carolinas campaigns have been described as the first application of total war, in which civilians as well as soldiers were deliberately targeted to ensure that they felt the full brunt of the horrors of war. Other Union commanders emulated Sherman, in particular, General Philip Sheridan, who took up Sherman's lessons and amplified them in his scorched earth campaign down the Shenandoah Valley. They were also applied, in slightly modified form, in the later genocidal wars the United States waged against Native Americans on the western plains, campaigns conducted while Sherman was the head of the U.S. Army. In his fascinating, compelling and detailed account of his life, Sherman lays out how, step by step, this almost gentle and most compassionate of soldiers came to embrace a brutal and inhumane approach to war, one that has been the mark of every major conflict since his time.
William Tecumseh Sherman emerged from the Civil War as one of its greatest heroes, if you were a Union supporter, and perhaps its greatest villain to those who had fought and sacrificed for the South. Sherman was born on May 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio, the son of one of the state's Supreme Court justices. William was the sixth of eleven children, but misfortune befell him at the age of nine when he and his many siblings were effectively orphaned by his father's death. His widowed mother, feeling unequal to the task of caring for her numerous children, chose instead to scatter them among relatives and friends. Sherman was fortunate to be adopted and raised by a wealthy friend of his father's, Thomas Ewing, Sr., a U.S. senator. His younger brother, John, was also adopted by the same family and followed in his adoptive father's footsteps and also became a U.S. senator. John was to prove to be an important political supporter during Sherman's later career. Sherman attended school in Ohio until 1836, when he entered West Point Military Academy. At West Point he had a reputation as an honorable individual with a forceful and high-spirited personality who took his studies seriously. In 1840, he graduated sixth in a class of forty-two cadets.
Sherman was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Third Artillery and posted to garrison duty in Florida, where the resentments caused by the brutal Seminole War continued to fester. In 1842, Sherman was sent to Fort Morgan in Alabama, and later to Fort Moultrie in Charleston harbor. In 1843, he began to study for a law degree largely as a distraction from the tedious routines of his military duties and garrison life. As the Mexican War began in 1846 he was sent, along with a contingent of troops, around Cape Horn to San Francisco, from where he took part in some small-scale operations. At the same time, Sherman was enjoying the natural beauty of the still unspoiled countryside and he was present to witness the upheavals caused by the start of the California Gold Rush. Returning to the East in 1850, Sherman married his adoptive parents' daughter, Ellen and was promoted to captain and posted first to St. Louis and then to New Orleans. Increasingly disillusioned with life in the peacetime U.S. Army, and realistically assessing that there was little immediate prospect for further promotion, Sherman determined that it was time to take advantage of the fact that the well-educated graduates of West Point were in considerable demand in the civilian economy. In 1853, he resigned his commission and, anxious to again experience the great natural beauty he had enjoyed in the far west during his tour of duty in California, he returned to San Francisco to become a banker. The bank, however, failed, and Sherman turned to the practice of law, only to lose the single case he took to court.
Sherman again left San Francisco, living first in St. Louis and then in New York and finally in Leavenworth, Kansas, but he continued to struggle to make a success in civilian life. It was thanks to several old Army friends, among them P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, who would later fight opposite him as Confederate generals, that in 1859 he was appointed superintendent of the newly established Louisiana Military Academy (now Louisiana State University). Sherman's was a popular and successful tenure, but it was cut short as the secession movement in the South gathered momentum and civil war became inevitable. Sherman was quick to reject any notions that he would accept a Confederate commission, and instead returned to St. Louis when Louisiana seceded from the Union. When war broke out, he rejoined the U.S. Army as the colonel of the 13th Infantry Regiment, with instructions to report to Washington, D.C.
From the outset, Sherman believed it was going to be a long and hard war. He thought that President Lincoln's April 1861 call for only 75,000 volunteers to serve for a mere three months was a serious misreading of the danger the new Confederate Army represented. Sherman's experiences in New Orleans had shown him just how committed Southerners were to their cause and he firmly believed that the United States was going to need to raise a large and well-trained army to defeat them. At the war's first major battle, at Bull Run, the correctness of his assessment was borne out. Sherman led one of the few Union brigades that performed relatively well during a long, hard day of fighting that ended in a stunning Confederate victory.
As one of the North's few even moderately successful commanders that day, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of Union forces in Kentucky. Here he set about recruiting volunteers, a difficult task because allegiances in this border state were split between North and South. Anxious to see action, Sherman somewhat recklessly boasted that with 60,000 men, he could drive the Confederates out of Kentucky, despite the fact that he was conspicuously nervous about his and his armies prospects because he consistently overestimated the strength and offensive capabilities of the Southern forces deployed in the area. His concern about enemy intentions and capabilities led him to increase the size of the force he said he would need to secure first Kentucky and then the entire region, until the newspapers in Washington were reporting that he had asked for 200,000 men to be placed under his command. At a time when Washington itself seemed in imminent danger of capture by Confederate forces, there was indignation among the public that Sherman was apparently demanding such a large force and rumors began to circulate that he was "crazy."
Sherman was not crazy, but he does seem to have been subject to unpredictable mood swings that carried him, willy-nilly, between great enthusiasm and deep depression. Some modern commentators have gone so far as to suggest that his symptoms and behavior suggest that he was a manic-depressive, at a time when neither the diagnosis nor appropriate medication was available to treat the problem. His erratic behavior was certainly noticed and widely commented on by his contemporaries. Apart from what were seen as his wild demands for more troops, it was also claimed that after preparing his command for what was to be a major offensive, the occupation of East Tennessee, Sherman lost his nerve in carrying through the operation. Under a cloud, he resigned his command in Kentucky in November 1861 and set off for St. Louis, where he placed himself at the disposal of General Halleck, commander of the Department of the West. Today it seems obvious that the strains of command caused Sherman to suffer a nervous breakdown. He was very depressed and briefly considered suicide, but rejected the idea because of his wife and children.
In February 1862, after Sherman had taken some leave and a period of recuperation spent drilling recruits, Halleck judged his health and mind sufficiently robust to take command of a division in the Army of the Tennessee, where for the first time Sherman found himself serving under General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant quickly became Sherman's best friend and his most loyal and ardent supporter. Although both men had flaws, Grant helped stabilize the brilliant but erratic Sherman, while Sherman stood firmly beside Grant through the heavy criticisms that were all too often heaped upon him, including repeated charges that he was a drunkard and careless with the lives of the soldiers under his command. Together, they would forge the Army of the Tennessee into the North's most consistently successful command.
Their relationship, however, got off to a somewhat rocky start. The Army of the Tennessee saw its first major battle on April 6, 1862, at Shiloh. As a result of poor intelligence on the whereabouts of the Confederate forces as well as careless troop dispositions based in no small part on overconfidence on the part of Grant and Sherman, the Union forces were nearly overwhelmed in a series of frontal assaults launched throughout the day by General Albert S. Johnston and his powerful Army of the Mississippi. The Army of the Tennessee was badly mauled on the first day of the battle, being forced to retreat along nearly the entire length of its battleline, and finally forming a last line of defense, backed by mass cannons, with its back hard against the Tennessee River. The heavy cannonade, coupled with the exhaustion of the Southern troops, enabled the line to hold, with the Confederates suffering heavy casualties in their attempts to breach it. Fortune smiled on the weary Union army, and during the night, reinforcements from the Army of the Cumberland under General Buell arrived to reinforce the Union line. With fresh troops, Grant went on the offensive and the Confederates were driven from the field on the second day. Sherman's division was in the thick of the fighting, defending the key pivot of the Union line at the Shiloh Church. Although severely wounded in the hand, he refused to relinquish command of his troops, and by his steadfast behavior, he fully deserved the praise that General Grant gave him in his official report: "I feel it a duty to a gallant and able officer, Brigadier-General W. T. Sherman, to make mention. He was not only with his command during the entire two days of the action, but displayed great judgment and skill in the management of his men. . . . To his individual efforts I am indebted for the success of that battle." But it was a costly victory. At the time, Shiloh was the bloodiest battle of the war. The final number of dead or missing was 13,000 Union and 10,500 Confederate soldiers, more American casualties than had been suffered during the entire Revolutionary War.
Shiloh was a grim foretaste of the enormous bloodletting that was to come. The battles and skirmishes of the Civil War, along with the sickness and disease that haunted the ranks of both sides' armies, killed more American soldiers than any other war in the nation's history. At least 618,000 Americans died in the Civil War, and though some historians believe that the toll may have reached as high as 700,000, the number that is most often cited is 620,000. Whatever the exact figure, the enormous casualty rolls of the Civil War exceed the United States' combined losses in all of its other wars, from the War of Independence through to the current wars and insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Civil War's terrible bloodletting left a heritage of grief and bitterness between North and South that has still not entirely healed.
After Shiloh, Sherman was promoted to Major-General of Volunteers and in July 1862, he was assigned to command the District of Memphis. In late December of that year Sherman led a force of 32,000 men in what amounted to a frontal assault on the Chickasaw Bluffs as part of Grant's two-pronged plan to seize the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Sherman's attack failed, and with Grant's lines of communications wrecked by Confederate raiders led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the whole offensive was abandoned. Undeterred, Grant returned to plotting the city's capture, a feat he finally accomplished in July 1863. Sherman, who had played an important role in the siege, was again promoted, this time to Brigadier-General in the regular army. He was given command of the Army of the Tennessee in the fall of 1863, in which capacity he played a key part in Grant's last victory in the West at the Battle of Chattanooga. After Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and given overall command of the entire Union Army, he headed off to the Eastern Theater to test his metal against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. As part of his new command responsibilities, Grant promoted Sherman first to command of the Western Theater and later to overall command of the armies in the West. In February 1864, Sherman received the Thanks of Congress for his services in the Chattanooga campaign. As Sherman's performance during the campaign had been workmanlike rather than inspired, it may be that this accolade owed more to the machinations his brother, Senator John Sherman, than it did to his own brilliance on the battlefield.
With Sherman in the West and Grant in the East, the days of disjointed Union offensives in widely separate theaters of operations came to an end. Grant, the first general to truly grasp the potentials of industrialized warfare, determined that the Confederacy would be simultaneously pummeled by superior Union forces on every front. Its armies would be bled to death on the battlefield, while the South's industrial base, food supply, and transport infrastructure buckled and ultimately collapsed trying simultaneously to meet too many dangers in too many places. Grant intended to seize the initiative, and once he had it, not relent until the Confederacy was defeated and destroyed. While Grant stayed in Virginia with the Army of the Potomac, Sherman was placed in command of the Union's second largest group of forces, the military division of the Mississippi, or the entire southwestern region comprising of the Departments of the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Arkansas. Launching his assault into the heartland of the Confederacy, in a series of clashes, Sherman pushed back the Confederates under Generals Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood, who were desperately trying to protect the critical railway hub that the city of Atlanta represented for the South. The Atlanta Campaign can be best characterized as a war of maneuver, an uneven struggle between Sherman and his well-equipped army and an increasingly ragged Confederate force that consistently found itself out-maneuvered, out-fought, and out-generaled. Despite the bravery of the South's soldiers, the outcome was never really in doubt and the campaign ended with the destruction and capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864.
Sherman now embarked on his most famous and controversial campaign. The core of the three separate Union armies he commanded, 60,000 mainly young and fit combat soldiers, abandoned much of its slow-moving, horse-drawn supply train and set out on a rampage across the countryside that was to become known as the "March to the Sea." Sherman wrote Grant at the start of the trek, "I can make Georgia howl," and he and his men did just that. Against weak and disorganized Confederate opposition, they tore the heart out of the Confederacy in a swift and brutal campaign that cut a swath of devastation across Georgia and carried the Union Army from Atlanta to Savannah. Under Sherman's orders to destroy anything of military or industrial value to the Confederacy and to bring the war home to ordinary Georgians in the harshest of manners so as to undermine civilian morale, Sherman's soldiers lived off the land during the month-long march, seizing at gunpoint what they needed and frequently looting what they wanted. Sherman's "bummers" left a sixty-mile trail of destruction and ruin across the Georgia landscape and became famous for ferreting out any object of value. If thwarted in their search for loot, they frequently took their frustration out on the countryside itself. Arson became common and the army could be tracked by the pillars of smoke it left in its wake. Sherman summed up his view of the march by saying: "This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities."
When Sherman and his men reached Savannah, the Federal Navy resupplied it from the sea and the army began a six-week refit to prepare for its next campaign, a march up through the Carolinas to support Grant in his fight against Lee in Virginia. Sherman was even more ruthless and his soldiers more destructive during the Carolinas Campaign because they believed that they were now among the people who had been the most zealous advocates of secession. In Georgia the destruction can perhaps be described as the first manifestation of an army waging total war, where little or no distinction was made between civilian, government, and military property. All was fair game if it would shorten the war by breaking both the capacity and will of the enemy to fight. But if Georgia was business, the Carolinas were personal. These Northern soldiers, so far from home for so long, who had witnessed at first hand the appalling state of the large number of freed slaves who had attached themselves to the Union Army for protection, vented their frustrations and anger on the people and property of North and South Carolina, the states they held responsible for starting the war in the first place. Sherman, mindful of the many soldiers from these two states serving in Lee's army facing Grant in the trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, let them. His reasoning was that if their actions caused Lee's troops from the Carolinas to desert and rush south to protect their families and homes, Grant's victory over the last and only really effective major Confederate formation left in the field would be that much easier.
Sherman's plan worked, at least to some extent, as desertions from the Army of Northern Virginia rose precipitously. Lee, unable to hold his trenches with his hollowed-out army, abandoned Petersburg and began to march south, hoping to shake off Grant and join forces with Johnston's troops fighting Sherman. Run to ground and unwilling to destroy what was left of his army in an open-field battle, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. On April 26, 1865, at Durham Station, North Carolina, Sherman accepted the surrender of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee from his longtime adversary, General Johnston, an act that effectively ended the war. However, the lenient terms Sherman gave to the surrendering Confederates, even more generous than those given by Grant to Lee, outraged a number of Federal officials and politicians, who complained bitterly about his usurpation of government prerogatives. But Sherman took it all in stride and settled down to occupation duty and peacetime soldiering.
In 1869, Sherman was made commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army. In this position he oversaw the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the war of attrition that all but wiped out the Native America Plains tribes. By dint of his "achievement" in opening up the Western plains for mass white settler migration, and his well-established reputation from the Civil War, Sherman remained the most popular man in the country after Grant, and attempts were made to persuade him to run for president. But Sherman hated both politics and politicians, and he flatly rejected all attempts to draft him as a candidate for president by the Republican Party in 1884. In typical style, Sherman delivered what has become the Gold Standard for refusal to seek office: "If nominated, I will not accept. If elected, I will not serve." In 1891, he died of pneumonia at the age of seventy-one. His old adversary, Joe Johnston, who was one of his pallbearers, also died of pneumonia not long afterward because he had stood bareheaded in the freezing rain beside Sherman's coffin. When upbraided at the funeral by a friend for showing this risky mark of respect, Johnston simply said: "If I were in [Sherman's] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat."
It is rare for a great soldier to also show real skill as a writer, especially when the subject is his own life and campaigns. A few, such as Xenophon, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Aurelius, have produced great literature and philosophy, as well as enthralling history. But they have tended to be the exception rather than the rule when generals put down the sword and take up the pen. In Sherman, perhaps the most innovative and successful commander in the Union Army, we find another general who could write almost as well as he could fight. As he says in the opening pages of the book, he undertook the writing of his memoirs ten years after the end of the Civil War in part to dispel popular misconceptions about his behavior and his character, but also to give future historians a useful primary resource on his thinking and actions when they embarked upon any assessment of his conduct in the war. This book is the result of these twin objectives. In 1875, General William T. Sherman published the first edition of his Memoirs. As might be expected, given the wide divergence of views on the character and military skills of the author, the story he told and the opinions he shared were controversial. Eleven years later, in 1886, Sherman published a second, expanded edition of the book, with two new chapters and a large number of appendixes. He had pulled some punches in his opinions of some of his fellow officers in the first edition since he was still serving as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army when it was published. But he showed no such restraint in this, the second edition, and his additions merely served to make the memoirs even more controversial. It is a controversy that has never abated.
Sherman was up against strong competition as a Civil War memoir writer. In 1885, after serving two terms as president of the United States and as he was dying of throat cancer, Ulysses S. Grant published his Personal Memoirs. This is a book that both at the moment of its appearance and since has been hailed as a masterpiece for the liveliness, strength, and precision of its writing. While Sherman's writing skills are not quite in the same league as Grant's, his formidable intelligence, self-awareness, and considerable powers of observation enable his memoirs to present a striking and highly detailed picture of not only his own actions but also the actions of those around him. It all goes to make Sherman's Memoirs a well-written and engaging narrative. Much of the book is a collection of his major wartime correspondence, with people such as President Lincoln and Generals Grant and Halleck, which Sherman links together with his own commentary. This combination of primary source material and Sherman's frank and perceptive analysis gives the reader real insight into not only the course of Sherman's career but also the thinking and motivations that governed his actions.
In his writing, Sherman is clearly determined to give the reader a detailed and accurate account of the events he describes, be they conversations with fellow officers or his memories and impressions of the great campaigns he undertook. As he relates his difficult journey through life and how he persevered in the face of repeated failures and disappointments, Sherman also strives, in a way that was highly unusual at the time, to be objective in his evaluations of personalities and events. While it is true that one can find obviously biased opinions and negative comments in Sherman's writings, when compared with the slash-and-burn memoirs of other Civil War generals from both armies, who were all too often conducting virulent and highly personal campaigns of vilification against officers who had been their comrades-in-arms, Sherman appears moderate in his assessments. His writings neither obviously seek to boost his own reputation nor shred the character of others, be they his military superiors, peers, or subordinates, or even his former adversaries. And while he is forthcoming, even if in somewhat restrained language, in detailing what he perceived to be the shortcomings and failures of those around him, Sherman is equally swift to give praise and share the glory for successes. He is also self-critical, willingly and insightfully drawing attention to incidents when his own plans or performance fell short, and he faithfully catalogs and embraces his own mistakes and the reasons for them.
Sherman remains the most controversial Union general of the Civil War. He continues to be widely acknowledged as being the first commander to truly grasp the meaning and operational imperatives of "total war" as we now understand the term. But he and his soldiers are also regularly compared to a barbarian horde because of the harsh, destructive, and sometimes wantonly cruel behavior they displayed toward soldier and civilian alike to make total war a reality to a society whose view of warfare still basked in the afterglow of the imagined chivalry of the half-forgotten formalized battles of eighteenth-century Europe.
Sherman summed up his own opinions on the conduct of his campaigns in two of his most famous quotes. He wrote to the Confederate mayor of Atlanta, who was pleading that his city and its citizens be spared further destruction: "War is cruelty, you cannot refine it," just before the town was put to the torch. And as he later told the cadets of the Michigan Military Academy, "War is at best barbarism. . . . Its glory is all moonshine. . . . War is hell."