Perhaps the originator and the first practitioner of what the twentieth century came to know as “total war,” William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 commanded the Union armies of the West in the decisive drive from Chattanooga to Atlanta and the famous “march to the sea” across Georgia. In these campaigns and his later push northward from Savannah through the Carolinas, Sherman’s troops carried the war to the Southern home front and blazed a wide path of destruction that delivered the death blow to the Confederacy’s will and ability to fight. For the accompanying destruction, his name is still cursed in some parts of the South; but he is also recognized as a great strategist, a forceful leader, and–together with Ulysses Grant –the ablest Union general of the war.
The partnership of William Tecumseh Sherman (known to friends as “Cump”) with Grant helped bring both out of early obscurity, until Grant commanded all Union armies and Sherman led all federal forces in the West.
The careers of both men had been undistinguished between the Mexican War and the American Civil War. When the South seceded, Sherman–West Point, 1840–was superintendent of a military college that is now Louisiana State University. Aided by his brother John, a member of Congress from Ohio, he reluctantly left the South for a Union commission. Sherman commanded a brigade in the war’s first major battle, at Bull Run in Virginia, and then a division in its first truly bloody encounter, at Shiloh; later, he led a corps in one of its climactic campaigns, against Vicksburg, Mississippi, and he commanded a federal army in the last battle of the war in the East, at Bentonville, North Carolina.
His military career had not always been so outstanding; as commanding general of the Department of the Cumberland, 1861-1862, he feuded with the press, displayed emotional problems, and suffered accusations of insanity. Only after this ordeal did he begin his long and fruitful association with Ulysses Grant. Sherman’s influence, for example, helped stop Grant from resigning when the latter felt himself hamstrung by orders from Washington.
In the 1884 battles before Atlanta, Sherman’s opponent was Joseph E. Johnston; but Johnston’s skilled retreats before Sherman’s turning tactics exasperated President Jefferson Davis, who replaced Johnston with the belligerent John B. Hood. Sherman soundly defeated Hood in several engagements and occupied Atlanta early in September 1864.
On November 15, in perhaps the boldest act of the war, he led an army of sixty-two thousand men in two wings, with thirty-five thousand horses and twenty-five hundred wagons, on an overland march to Savannah–cutting himself off from his line of supply and sustaining his army on the land. “The utter destruction of [Georgia's] roads, houses and people,” he had written, “will cripple their military resources… I can make Georgia howl!” Encountering little organized opposition, Sherman took Savannah on December 21, 1864, and later turned north for the Carolinas, covering 450 miles in fifty days.
The results of this remarkable march justified Sherman’s strategic expectations and, together with Grant’s victories in Virginia, destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to carry on the war. It is still disputed, however, whether the burning of Atlanta, the later burning of Columbia, South Carolina, and the depredations of “Sherman’s bummers” were either necessary or unpreventable.
For his military prowess, Sherman is justly renowned; he succeeded Grant as commander in chief in 1869 and remained in that post until 1883. Two memorable remarks of his also have entered history. Having written to Mayor Calhoun of Atlanta in 1874 that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” he sharpened this definition in a commencement address at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879 to the oft-quoted phrase “War is hell.”
Five years later, when he was frequently talked of as a prospective Republican nominee for president, Sherman sent the Republican National Convention of 1884 the most famous of all rejections: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” Even today, “a Sherman” is well-understood slang for a firm refusal.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to William T. Sherman was paid by his old Civil War opponent Joe Johnston, who had fought him in Georgia and had signed with him an armistice after the Battle of Bentonville in April 1865. The two became friends. General Johnston attended Sherman’s funeral in New York in 1891, stood in the rain to watch the cortege pass, and caught a cold. It caused Johnston’s death two weeks later.