On November 15, 1864, Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman left the city of Atlanta and began his famous “march to sea” across Georgia. Over the next few weeks, his army torched farms, houses and warehouses and stole food and livestock as part of an attempt to crush the fighting spirit of the Confederacy. Sherman’s use of “hard war” made him into a hero in the North and a villain in the South, but it was only one of many episodes in a long and complicated military career. On the anniversary of Sherman's march through Georgia, explore nine surprising facts about the man who helped pioneer “scorched earth” military tactics.

He was named for a Shawnee chief.

William Tecumseh Sherman (known as “Cump” to his friends) was born in Lancaster, Ohio, on February 8, 1820. His father gave him his unusual middle name as a nod to the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, a magnetic leader who built a confederacy of Ohio Indian tribes and fought with the British during the War of 1812. A relative later wrote that Sherman’s father always shook off concerns that he had given his son a “savage Indian name” by arguing, “Tecumseh was a great warrior.”

He married his foster sister.

After losing his father at the age of 9, Sherman was sent to live with Thomas Ewing, a renowned Ohio attorney and family friend who later served as a senator and the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The young Sherman grew close with Ewing’s eldest daughter, Ellen, and they regularly corresponded through letters during his tenure at West Point and his early military career. Following a long engagement, the two were married in 1850 in a Washington, D.C., ceremony attended by the likes of President Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The couple later had eight children, two of whom died from sickness while Sherman was serving in the Civil War.

He played a role in triggering the California Gold Rush.

While stationed in San Francisco in 1848, Sherman helped convince military governor Richard Mason to investigate one of the first reported gold discoveries in California. He was on the scene during a mission that confirmed the existence of rich gold deposits along the Sacramento River, and later penned the letter Mason sent to Washington relaying their findings. Coupled with other early discoveries, Sherman and Mason’s fact-finding mission inadvertently set off a wave of gold fever in the United States. In less than a year, California’s population more than quadrupled after thousands of speculators journeyed west to make their fortune.

He had a rocky career in business.

After missing out on combat in the Mexican American War and enduring a series of lackluster assignments, Sherman left the military in 1853 to run a San Francisco bank. While he proved a competent businessman, the move corresponded with the bursting of the Gold Rush bubble, and his branch collapsed in the ensuing financial hysteria. Sherman was left humiliated, in part because many military friends—including future Civil War generals Braxton Bragg and George Thomas—had entrusted money to him. To help cover their losses, he eventually liquidated some $20,000 worth of his own assets. A despondent Sherman left the banking world for good in 1858. He later signed on as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy—the school that would become Louisiana State University.

He may have suffered a nervous breakdown during the Civil War.

Following a promising performance at July 1861’s First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and eventually given command of Union troops in Kentucky and Tennessee. Sherman hadn’t wanted the role, and in short order, the weight of its responsibilities took a toll on his mental health. He vastly overestimated the size of Confederate forces in the region, griped in his dispatches to President Lincoln and appeared constantly on edge. Historians have since speculated that he was suffering from depression or nervous exhaustion, but whatever its cause, the general’s bizarre behavior eventually found its way into the papers, some of which labeled him insane. Sherman requested to be relieved from his position in early November 1861, and remained sidelined until that December, when he was reassigned to the Western Theater. He was later placed under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, and following a crucial victory at April 1862’s Battle of Shiloh, the pair forged a winning partnership that lasted for the remainder of the war.

He cut off all lines of communication during the march to the sea.

Engraving depicting Sherman's "march to the sea"
Engraving depicting Sherman's "march to the sea"

Sherman’s March to the Sea was one of the most stunning operations of the Civil War, yet few people outside of Georgia knew anything about it while it was underway. Before leaving Atlanta, Sherman intentionally severed all telegraph links to the North to help shroud his moves in secrecy. The plan meant the Confederates could only speculate about where Sherman and his 60,000-strong rampaging army were headed, but it also left the Union high command in the dark about the mission’s progress. When asked about Sherman’s whereabouts, a worried President Lincoln is said to have responded, “We know what hole he went in, but we don’t know what hole he will come out of.” Sherman would finally reappear on December 22, having slashed and burned his way through the heart of Georgia. Upon reaching the sea, he sent a famous message to Lincoln that read: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah.”

He offered lenient terms of surrender to defeated Confederates.

Despite his reputation for “hard” warfare, Sherman could also be surprisingly—perhaps even naively—generous in victory. When he accepted Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender in Durham, North Carolina, in April 1865, Sherman offered very forgiving terms that granted general amnesty to the rebels and even allowed for the Southern states to immediately re-enter the Union upon swearing an oath of allegiance. The sweeping agreement enraged U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who rejected it out of hand and criticized Sherman for giving up “all the advantages we had gained from the war.” Joseph Johnston was forced to surrender under more conventional terms, but he went on to become a good friend to Sherman, and even served as a pallbearer at his old adversary’s funeral in 1891.

He also used his “scorched earth” brand of warfare against Native Americans.

Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

After the Civil War, Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi and tasked with pacifying the Plains Indians during the building of the transcontinental railroad. Sherman took to the job with characteristic vigor, orchestrating the relocation of the tribes and warning their chiefs, “you cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or the moon, and you must submit.” To help break the natives’ spirit, Sherman took a page from his Civil War playbook and set his sights on destroying one of their primary resources: the buffalo. Beginning in the late 1860s, he organized the killing of some 5 million bison in an effort to drive the creatures to the brink of extinction. Sherman continued his harsh policies after becoming commanding general of the army in 1869, and by the 1870s, he had helped force most of the Plains peoples onto reservations.

He repeatedly declined to run for president.

Sherman made no secret of his disdain for politics, once quipping that he would rather spend four years in jail than in the White House. Nevertheless, during the 1870s and 1880s, Washington D.C., movers and shakers often tried—and failed—to convince him to make a run at the presidency. Sherman tried to stamp out the speculation once and for all in 1884, when he turned down an invitation to become the Republican candidate by saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” His unequivocal response has since become famous in political circles, where similar flat refusals are often dubbed “Shermanesque statements.”