American Civil War: General William T. Sherman

Uncle Billy

Major General William T. Sherman. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

William T. Sherman - Early Life

William Tecumseh Sherman was born February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, OH. The son of Charles R. Sherman, a member of the Ohio Supreme Court, he was one of eleven children. Following his father's untimely death in 1829, Sherman was sent to live with the family of Thomas Ewing. A prominent Whig politician, Ewing served as a US Senator and later as the first Secretary of the Interior. Sherman would marry Ewing's daughter Eleanor in 1850. When he reached the age of sixteen, Ewing arranged an appointment for Sherman to West Point.

Entering the US Army

A good student, Sherman was popular but accumulated a large number of demerits due to a disregard for the rules pertaining to appearance. Graduating sixth in the class of 1840, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery. After seeing service in the Second Seminole War in Florida, Sherman moved through assignments in Georgia and South Carolina where his connection to Ewing allowed him to mingle with the high society of the Old South. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Sherman was assigned to administrative duties in newly-captured California.

Remaining in San Francisco after the war, Sherman helped confirm the discovery of gold in 1848. Two years later he was promoted to captain, but remained in administrative positions. Unhappy with his lack of combat assignments, he resigned his commission in 1853 and became a bank manager in San Francisco. Transferred to New York in 1857, he was soon out of job when the bank folded during the Panic of 1857. Attempting law, Sherman opened a short-lived practice in Leavenworth, KS. Jobless, Sherman was encouraged to apply to be the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy.

The Civil War Looms

Hired by the school (now LSU) in 1859, Sherman proved an effective administrator who was also popular with the students. With sectional tensions rising and the Civil War looming, Sherman warned his secessionist friends that a war would be long and bloody, with the North eventually winning. Following Louisiana's departure from the Union in January 1861, Sherman resigned his post and ultimately took a position running a streetcar company in St. Louis. Though he initially declined a position in the War Department, he asked his brother, Senator John Sherman, to obtain him a commission in May.

Sherman's Early Trials

Summoned to Washington on June 7, he was commissioned as colonel of the 13th Infantry. As this regiment had not yet been raised, he was given command of a volunteer brigade in Major General Irvin McDowell's army. One of few Union officers to distinguish themselves at the First Battle of Bull Run the following month, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to the Department of the Cumberland at Louisville, KY. That October he was made the department's commander, though he was wary of taking on the responsibility. In this post, Sherman began to suffer what is believed to have been a nervous breakdown.

Dubbed "insane" by the Cincinnati Commercial, Sherman asked to be relieved and returned to Ohio to recover. In mid-December, Sherman returned to active duty under Major General Henry Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. Not believing Sherman mentally capable of field command, Halleck assigned him to a number of rear area positions. In this role, Sherman provided support for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's capture of Forts Henry and Donelson. Though senior to Grant, Sherman put this aside and expressed a desire to serve in his army.

This wish was granted and he was given command of the 5th Division of Grant's Army of West Tennessee on March 1, 1862. The following month, his men played a key role in halting Confederate General Albert S. Johnston's attack at the Battle of Shiloh and driving them off a day later. For this, he was promoted to major general. Forging a friendship with Grant, Sherman encouraged him to remain in the army when Halleck removed him from command shortly after the battle. Following an ineffective campaign against Corinth, MS, Halleck was transferred to Washington and Grant reinstated.

Vicksburg & Chattanooga

Leading the Army of the Tennessee, Grant began advancing against Vicksburg. Pushing down the Mississippi, a thrust led by Sherman was defeated in December at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. Returning from this failure, Sherman's XV Corps were re-routed by Major General John McClernand and took part in the successful, but needless Battle of Arkansas Post in January 1863. Reuniting with Grant, Sherman's men played a key role in the final campaign against Vicksburg which culminated in its capture on July 4. That fall, Grant was given overall command in the West as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi.

With Grant's promotion, Sherman was made the commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Moving east with Grant to Chattanooga, Sherman worked to aid in breaking the Confederate siege of the city. Uniting with Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland, Sherman's men took part in the decisive Battle of Chattanooga in late November which drove the Confederates back into Georgia. In the spring of 1864, Grant was made the overall commander of Union forces and departed for Virginia leaving Sherman in command of the West.

To Atlanta & the Sea

Tasked by Grant with taking Atlanta, Sherman began moving south with nearly 100,000 men divided into three armies in May 1864. For two and a half months, Sherman conducted a campaign of maneuver forcing Confederate General Joseph Johnston to repeatedly fall back. Following a bloody repulse at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman returned to maneuver. With Sherman nearing the city and Johnston showing an unwillingness to fight, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced him with General John Bell Hood in July. After a series of bloody battles around the city, Sherman succeeded in driving off Hood and entered the city on September 2. The victory helped ensure the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln.

In November, Sherman embarked on his March to the Sea. Leaving troops to cover his rear, Sherman began advancing toward Savannah with around 62,000 men. Believing the South would not surrender until the will of the people was broken, Sherman's men conducted a scorched earth campaign which culminated in the capture of Savannah on December 21. In a famed message to Lincoln, he presented the city as a Christmas present to the president. Though Grant wished him to come to Virginia, Sherman won permission for a campaign through the Carolinas. Wishing to make South Carolina "howl" for its role in starting the war, Sherman's men advanced against light opposition. Capturing Columbia, SC on February 17, 1865, the city burned that night, though who started the fires is a source of controversy.

Entering North Carolina, Sherman defeated forces under Johnston at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19-21. Learning that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, Johnston contacted Sherman regarding terms. Meeting at Bennett Place, the Sherman offered Johnston generous terms on April 18 that he believed were line with Lincoln's wishes. These were subsequently rejected by officials in Washington who were angered by Lincoln's assassination. As a result, final terms, which were purely military in nature, were agreed upon on April 26. The war concluded, Sherman and his men marched in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington on May 24.

Postwar Service & Later Life

Though tired of war, in July 1865 Sherman was appointed to command the Military Division of the Missouri which included all the lands west of the Mississippi. Tasked with protecting the construction of the trans-continental railroads, he conducted fierce campaigns against the Plains Indians. Promoted to lieutenant general in 1866, he applied his techniques of destroying the enemy's resources to the fight by killing large numbers of buffalo. With the election of Grant to the presidency in 1869, Sherman was elevated to Commanding General of the US Army. Though plagued by political issues, Sherman continued the fight on the frontier. Sherman remained his post until stepping down on November 1, 1883 and being replaced by Civil War colleague, General Philip Sheridan.

Retiring on February 8, 1884, Sherman moved to New York and became an active member of society. Later that year his name was proposed for the Republican nomination for president, but the old general flatly refused to run for office. Remaining in retirement, Sherman died on February 14, 1891. Following multiple funerals, Sherman was buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General William T. Sherman." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). American Civil War: General William T. Sherman. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General William T. Sherman." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).