By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
A complicated family and mental illness pushed and pulled a man who became one of the most accomplished generals in the Civil War.
The news was slow in February ’64: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation decree, freeing slaves only in rebel states, had become law January 1, but its true consequences had yet to be determined; the winter months had closed down the war in Virginia and reports from the eastern-centric press about events in the lower South, absent some epic battle, continued to be spotty. However, there was a minor campaign in mid-February against a town in Mississippi that helped cement the improbable rise of a Union commander. His relationship with U.S. Grant would catapult him to become the General and Chief’s co-architect and collaborator in a new military strategy that was waged against the South.
William Tecumseh Sherman’s father died when the boy was nine years old. Although an Ohio Supreme Court justice, Charles Robert Sherman left his wife and eleven children penniless and debt-ridden. The kids were divvied among family and friends with William moving down the street into the home of Thomas Ewing and his wife, who had four children of their own, plus two nieces and a nephew that they had already taken in. Fast forward 21 years. William married one of the Ewing sisters, Ellen, while William married one of the Ewing sisters, Ellen, while Sherman’s stepfather, who, as a state senator and now Secretary of the Interior, had become a leading light within the Washington political scene.
Now a West Point grad and promising army officer, William Tecumseh carried a lot of demons which fueled his fears and frustrated his aspirations. In his mind, the world could come crumbling apart in an instant: family members could die, financial ruin was lurking around the corner, and a history mental illness in his family could come home to roost. Often, with thoughts racing from one to another, he wanted the world to be a well-ordered, predictable place. Sherman disliked being dependent on others and very much wanted to be his own man.
This was a source of his ambivalent feelings about Thomas Ewing, the man who had taken him in, father of his wife, and family patriarch who now wanted him to oversee some of his family business interests. Ellen wanted to live near her family and expected that Sherman would have a brilliant civilian career. During a good deal of their marriage, they would spend months apart as Sherman pursued his next opportunity while Ellen chose to live near her kin. Her family was both a nurturing presence and suffocating albatross.
Soon after they were married, Sherman left Ellen in Ohio, took a leave of absence from the army, and went out to seek his fortune as a San Francisco banker. She would join him for extended periods but then return with their two daughters to her home state. Tecumseh’s vision was that he would achieve success in the financial world, be his own man, and support his wife in the style that she had become accustomed. Although he was a very accomplished bank president, there were two problems: he was not making enough money to support their lifestyle and the constant boom and bust eruptions in San Francisco’s wild 1850’s gold rush economy were driving him mad.
The city’s banks were constantly at risk of being “run on” because of financial overextension or corruption, real or imagined. Sherman was sailing his financial ship through troubled waters. On top of that, he, probably against his better judgment but capitalizing on his prior army experience, accepted a commission as head of the local state militia while remaining president of the bank.
San Francisco was for all intents and purposes without a police force. One high profile crime led to another and before long, a citizen’s Vigilante Committee spontaneously arose to bring law and order to the streets of the city. The Committee was an odd combination of social elites and miscreants. San Francisco’s business and governing glitterati ran it and those among the city’s most unsavory did the extralegal dirty work. Sherman had put himself in a no-win situation. If he looked the other way and the Vigilante Committee continued to reign, the state governor who appointed him would be breathing down his throat; if he brought the Committee to heal, he alienated the business associates upon whom he depended for his livelihood. Eventually, he resigned his appointment and was duly chastised by the governor.
But all of it was too much for Sherman. He wrote a letter to his bank president in the St Louis home office, pleading to be replaced. He then wrote a follow-up letter apologizing for his hysteria and “depression” explaining that it was caused by “the effects of a disease which I cannot control.” His wife, Ellen, would later write of the incident “knowing insanity to be in the family and having seen Cump in [sic] the verge of it once in California…” Sherman’s west coast banking experiment lasted four years. St Louis closed the San Francisco branch, and he was out of a job.
Thomas Ewing offered him a position working for the family in Ohio, but Sherman declined and decided to rejoin the Army. He went back to Washington with his father-in-law, who pulled a few strings, and tried to reenlist. But the army’s peace time status could not absorb all of its newly-minted West Point graduates, let alone take back those who had left the service.
In November of ’59, Sherman landed as the headmaster of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, which would later go on to become Louisiana State University. His tenure there was short-lived as the drums of war grew louder. In January, the state’s militia seized the US arsenal at Baton Rouge and stored the weapons at the academy. Sherman resigned and went to Washington where his family was again lobbying to secure him a position in the now desperate Union Army.
The West Point graduate, ex-banker, ex-headmaster secured a colonelcy to command a regiment and was soon made responsible overseeing the defenses for the nation’s capital. He acquitted himself well in the Union debacle at Bull Run outside Washington, the first major battle of the war. Sherman was then offered command of the army’s Department of the Cumberland, which included troops in Kentucky and Tennessee among others. Lacking self confidence, he lobbied hard with Lincoln to be second in command within the department. His pleas were successful and General Robert Anderson, who had surrendered Fort Sumpter, was appointed head of the Cumberland. However a change in circumstances and Sherman’s predisposition would cause him problems.
Although second in command, military operations in Border States was fraught with problems with both Union and secessionist extremists mixed within the general population. Sherman found it difficult to tell who was friend or foe. Military intelligence was also in its early stages, leaving a dearth of information regarding the size of enemy troops. It was from this ground that Sherman’s demons rose again. He made wild estimates about the number of rebel forces who opposed him and the number of forces he in turn needed to meet the phantom threat. The psychological pressure ratcheted up when Anderson had to leave for medical reasons putting Sherman in command.
Both the head of the army, General George McClellan, and the White House were alarmed by Sherman’s troop estimates and reports; Secretary of War Simon Cameron was sent down to talk with their frantic general. The Secretary came back to Washington and proclaimed that Sherman was “absolutely crazy.” McClellan relieved him and sent someone to watch over him until his replacement could arrive. Major General Henry Halleck, head of all Union troops in the Western theatre, gave Sherman responsibility for reviewing troops in all areas where there was little military action going on. However, Halleck also authorized Sherman authority, if necessary, to take command of the troops under his review. The long and lanky general from Ohio decided to do so. This brought vehement protests from his predecessor, who had a genius for bureaucratic infighting and orchestrated a review of Sherman’s health by a doctor who concluded that his mental state was “of such nervousness that he was unfit for command.”
Halleck ordered Sherman back to headquarters and ordered him to take a four-week leave of absence. He seemed to recoup, but the muddy world of military/civilian politics led to the convalescent being savaged by the New York Times and labeled as insane by the press in his home state. Sherman was heart sick and wrote to Thomas Ewing, who had taken in this nine-year-old fatherless child, “Among the keenest feelings of my life is…you will be mortified beyond measure at the disgrace which has befallen me – by the announcement in the Cincinnati Commercial that I am insane.”
Upon his return to active duty, Halleck put Sherman in charge of training new troops where he righted himself. Halleck then fatefully made the assignment that became one of the most important in the Civil War. Sherman was now under Grant, responsible for the forwarding of both troops and supplies to the General. Against a background of total frustration regarding Union efforts against Lee in Virginia, Grant began to rollup victories in the West: Belmont, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Then came Shiloh.
This battle in Tennessee, also known as Pittsburg Landing, was on the scale unknown on the American continent. The battle raged over a number of days with the South initially placing the Union in dire straits. However both Grant and Sherman were able to rally their troops and eventually turn the tide. Union and Confederate casualties totaled 23,000. The nation was aghast, but Grant learned that he could place his trust in Sherman.
Even though he had won, it was now Grant’s turn to be pilloried in the press. No doubt aided and abetted by the people within the government and military hierarchy, Grant was labeled a drunk. There was an element of truth to it. The General would sometimes drink to excess when bored, but he never allowed his problem to compromise his performance in the field. A series of miscommunications between Halleck and Grant ensued, and the head of the Western Department brought his rival back to headquarters. Grant was given a staff job with no troops under his command.
Grant was miserable and had written his letter resigning from the army. In what can only be described as historical serendipity, Sherman paid his friend a visit and talked him out of it. Meanwhile, the army’s game of musical chairs was in full swing back east, and Halleck was soon promoted to General and Chief of the entire Union army. Lincoln, who was a friend and supporter of Grant, now saw to it that he was given command of all the troops in the Western Department.
Grant and Sherman were back together again with the officer, who was given to bouts of depression and mania, was instrumental in his friend’s successful siege at Vicksburg. This strategic victory in July ‘63, was the culmination of the Union’s effort to control the Mississippi River. The South was cut in half.
By time that 1864 rolled around, the roulette wheel that was the Union Army command structure was spinning again. That February, unreported by the Danville North Star, Sherman, after leaving Vicksburg, waged a campaign against the city of Meridian, Mississippi, a strategic choke point for the South. It was the home of a key railroad depot, an arsenal, a military hospital, a P.O.W. stockade, and headquarters for state offices. In a coordinated attack, Sherman ordered his troops “to wipe the appointed meeting place off the map.” Sherman summed up the results, “Meridian…no longer exists.” This type of warfare was to become part of the template that the Union would use to wage total war in the deep South.
In March, the white roulette ball landed on Grant’s spot; he was called back east to become the head of the Union army. Later that month, Grant brought Sherman to a hotel in Cincinnati where they spent two days crafting the military strategy that would be used to prosecute and close out the war.
At the time, the catechism that passed for military strategy saw war as a chess match. Each commander would mass their pieces together, go at it and whoever wasn’t forced to leave the field of battle was declared the winner. Then the adversaries would find themselves confronting each other in a different place and they’d repeat the same process.
For better or worse, Grant and Sherman evolved the concept of modern “total warfare.” They concentrated their focus on not only destroying their enemy but also their adversary’s economic means to wage war and the political will of their citizens to continue the conflict. They worried less about controlling geography and more about killing their opponents and destroying key population centers. Sherman boiled it down and said of Grant, “He was to go for Lee [Virginia] and I was to go for Joe Johnston [the rest].” As he charged through the South, his demons in check, Sherman would refine the practice of cutting loose from his supply lines and “living off the land.”
As Grant and Sherman left the hotel in Cincinnati, the South had no clue about the devastation that awaited.