Statues of William Tecumseh Sherman stand throughout the country, including a striking gilded-bronze one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens outside Central Park in New York City.
Reading a biography of Sherman in the context of the current spate of iconoclasm brings home how anyone looks immaculate on a pedestal, or to borrow and flip around the famous line about valets — everyone is a hero to his sculptor. Marble and bronze smooth away the inevitable human flaws of even truly great men.
If the mob wanted to take sledgehammers and grappling hooks to statues of Sherman, it would have grounds to do so — his retrograde racial attitudes; his campaign of property destruction in the South; his role in the Indian wars.
Yet none of this can detract from his gargantuan contribution to the salvation of the nation in the Civil War, and his enormously impressive qualities as a warrior-intellectual: a prodigious reader, bracing writer, and student of the arts — who also happened to capture Atlanta.
Brian Holden Reid, a British military historian specializing in the Civil War, has written an appropriately sympathetic account of Sherman. It has an authoritative ring to it and, at 500 pages of text, is certainly exhaustive. Understandably, given why we remember Sherman and given Reid’s expertise, he renders the general’s Civil War operations in extensive detail.
This actually made it harder for me to follow the battles, not easier, but this may be my defect rather than one of the author. I clearly lack a knack in this area. I’ve read books or listened to lectures, for instance, touching on Vicksburg many times (we even stopped there once on an NR Mississippi River cruise), but if any reader out there has a bunch of maps and a couple of hours to explain to me how the maneuvers leading up to the siege went down, I’d be very grateful.
Sherman had the right kind of forebears for a Union hero. The historian Kevin Phillips argues that a series of civil wars — or, as he calls them, cousins’ wars — decided the shape of Anglo-America, with the same religio-cultural groups taking basically the same anti-monarchical, anti-aristocratic sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the Civil War.
Sherman’s family could be Exhibit A. His Puritan forebear Edmund Sherman bristled at the impositions of King Charles I and emigrated to North America, while Sherman’s grandfather supported the American Revolution.
Sherman’s father, a lawyer, idolized the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh and named his third son William Tecumseh, one of eleven children.
The family suffered a heartbreakingly typical 19th-century tragedy. Debt-ridden and exhausted by work, Sherman’s father died of a typhoid infection in 1829. The custom upon such an event was for other families to take in the children. Young Sherman went to a neighboring wealthy and politically connected family headed by Thomas Ewing, who would soon be a U.S. senator from Ohio. Ewing nominated him for West Point, where Sherman excelled academically and was a memorable raconteur.
Sherman had a contempt for politicians his entire life, but benefited immensely from his political connections, not just the Ewings but his brother John, who also became an Ohio senator.
After graduation, Sherman became romantically involved with a Ewing daughter, Ellen. They eventually married, and she was an important partner throughout his life, even if they were often separated, and for a period near the end, estranged.
Sherman was excitable and restless, a great talker who had a tendency to reach extreme conclusions that he didn’t keep to himself. If he could rub people the wrong way — and was an expert at holding grudges — there was no denying Sherman’s energy and talent.
Still, he didn’t distinguish himself in his pre-war military career. He left the service and became a banker in San Francisco, where he dealt stalwartly with a bank run. Then, he managed Ewing property interests in Kansas. The prospect of failure stalked him into his early 40s. “I am doomed to be a vagabond,” he said in 1859.
At the outset of the war — after he went back and forth about returning to the army and after much lobbying by his politically connected family to secure him a suitable position — he took command of a regiment.
In his first experience under fire, he told his men not to duck because it was already too late if they could hear the cannonball — then ducked himself when a cannonball hit a tree above him. “Well, boys,” he joked, “you may dodge the big ones!”
At the Union defeat at Bull Run, he got high marks for managing an orderly retreat.
Given command of a department in Missouri, he exaggerated the Confederate forces arrayed against him and gave in to the counsel of fears, suffering a breakdown. Relieved of his command, he returned home with Ellen. The Cincinnati Commercial ran a headline General William T. Sherman Is Insane. (He acquired a burning hatred of the “fake news,” and later would want to execute an offending reporter as a spy.)
He had to fight to save his reputation and career. His family’s senators, Thomas Ewing and John Sherman, worked in his behalf in Washington, and so did Ellen, an indefatigable advocate during this period. Sherman returned after his hiatus to train troops under General Henry Halleck.
“No other Civil War general,” Reid writes, “would recover from such depths of shame and despair to rise on the strength of intellectual power and operational and strategic insight to reach such heights of fame and military success.”
He got command of troops again and excelled at Shiloh, a key Union victory in the West. He had three horses shot out from under him in one day, and a quarter of his division became casualties.
For all that he was high-strung, he was cool under fire. Charismatic, physically hardy, and careless of his appearance, he was a natural leader of men. His troops loved him and called him “Uncle Billy.”
In terms of Northern politics, he was a conservative. He doubted the North’s resolve and was skeptical of democratic politics. He didn’t welcome freed slaves joining his columns and took a dim view of blacks generally. “The negro is in the transition state and is not the equal of the white man,” he said.
Yet he hated secession with a passionate intensity. Sherman took over from Grant in the West when his friend and superior went east to assume overall command. His campaign to take Atlanta was a masterpiece of maneuver, unstoppable by Confederate general Joe Johnston or his more aggressive replacement, John Bell Hood.
Sherman’s view of the nature of war crystallized over the course of the conflict. He embraced a broad definition of measures justified by military necessity and believed that the South had to be taught a hard lesson. A passage in a letter he wrote to Atlanta’s mayor states his view powerfully and succinctly: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our Country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”
In an audacious move, he turned his back on Hood to undertake his iconic march to the sea and then through the Carolinas. “If we can march a well-appointed army right through his territory,” he wrote of Jefferson Davis, “it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist.”
And that’s what Sherman did. He converted his army, as he put it earlier in the war, into “a mobile machine, willing and able to start at a minute’s notice, and to subsist on the scantiest food.” He set the standard as marching 15 miles a day. His forces foraged for food, but their acts of destruction were focused on public property, economically significant infrastructure, and the plantations of wealthy secessionists.
Southern partisans exaggerated his depredations at the time, and have ever since. A book attacking him in the 1970s was called “Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War.” As Reid points out, though, Southern civilians were almost entirely unharmed and no one starved, despite the army’s taking food.
As for the controversial burning of Columbia, S.C., Confederate soldiers prior to retreating engaged in haphazard attempts to burn cotton that had been gathered in the streets. The embers kept going throughout the day, and then when winds picked up in the evening a fire raged out of control. Union forces tried to put it out, unsuccessfully, and drunken federal troops in the streets didn’t aid their cause. (Columbia’s citizens had, unwisely, ladled out whiskey when the troops arrived as a gesture of welcome.)
For all his harsh statements about the nature of warfare, Sherman was economical with manpower. A master of logistics and planning, he relied on maneuver and psychological effect to achieve his ends. “It is more honorable to produce results by an exhibition of Power than by slaying thousands,” he wrote in 1863.
In fact, he never won a major offensive battle. If he punched above his weight in this sense, someone still had to destroy the Southern army — namely Grant, in his grinding battles against Robert E. Lee.
After the war, Sherman loomed large in public life. He became the commanding general of the army and had an outsized hand in the winning of the West. The Great Mentioner often mentioned him as a presidential possibility, but Sherman maintained his contempt for politics. His refusal to entertain entreaties to run for president in 1884 led to his Shermanesque disavowal of interest.
There is much in his life that falls down by today’s standards, but much that rightly belongs to the ages. Keep him on the pedestal.
This article appears as “A Warrior in Full” in the August 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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