Celebrated in the North and reviled in the South, William Tecumseh Sherman was a prominent Union general during the American Civil War. An accomplished soldier and able leader, Sherman is best remembered for his "scorched earth" tactics during the Atlanta, Savannah, and Carolina campaigns, which left a swath of destruction across the South during the latter part of the war.
William Tecumseh Sherman was born on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. He was one of eleven children of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Charles Robert Sherman and Mary Hoyt Sherman. Sherman’s father died unexpectedly in 1829 when Sherman was nine years old. Because of financial problems, his mother sent him to live with Thomas Ewing, a prominent Lancaster lawyer, and Ohio politician.
U.S. Army Officer
Ewing secured an appointment for Sherman to the United States Military Academy, and Sherman became a West Point cadet at the age of sixteen years, in 1836. Sherman graduated sixth in his class in 1840, and he received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery on July 1, of that year. Sherman saw action in the Second Seminole War in Florida (1835-1842) but he missed the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) because the army had stationed him in California during the conflict.
Marriage and Civilian Life
Sherman married Eleanor “Ellen” Boyle Ewing, the daughter of Thomas Ewing, on May 1, 1850, in a posh wedding at the Blair House, in Washington, D.C. On September 27, 1850, the army promoted him to the rank of captain. Dissatisfied with army life, Sherman resigned his commission on September 6, 1853, and he entered civilian life as a bank manager in San Francisco. After his bank failed because of the Panic of 1857, Sherman briefly practiced law in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1858.
In October 1859, Sherman received an appointment as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (later Louisiana State University). Sherman was an able administrator who got along well with the students and faculty. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to resign his position in January 1861, when state officials required to receive and store arms taken from the United States Arsenal at Baton Rouge by the Louisiana Militia.
For a few months in 1861, Sherman served as president of the St. Louis Railroad, a streetcar company in St. Louis, Missouri, before volunteering for military service at the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Union Army Officer
Sherman’s first commission during the Civil War was as a colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry Regiment, effective May 14, 1861. He was one of the few Union leaders who distinguished themselves at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), and on July 23, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers, effective May 17, of that year.
The War Department assigned Sherman to the Western Theater and replaced General Robert Anderson as commander of the Department of the Cumberland on October 8, 1861. On November 9, 1861, federal officials reorganized the Department of the Cumberland as the Department of the Ohio. On November 15, 1861, General Don Carlos Buell replaced Sherman as the department commander at Sherman’s request.
The War Department transferred Sherman to St. Louis, Missouri, where he served under Major General Henry W. Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. While in St. Louis, Sherman underwent a personal crisis that prompted Halleck to judge him unfit for duty. Sherman went home to Lancaster to recuperate amidst rumors and stories in the press that he had gone insane. Despite the rumors, Sherman quickly recovered and was providing rear-area support for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862.
Battle of Shiloh
On March 1, 1862, the army gave Sherman command of the 5th Division of Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of West Tennessee (later the Army of the Tennessee). On the morning of April 6, his division withstood a surprise attack by the Confederate Army of the Mississippi on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). As the battle raged, Sherman distinguished himself by preventing a Union rout and by helping Grant plan and execute a successful counterattack on April 7.
Despite winning the battle, both generals received harsh criticism for failing to construct adequate defensive fortifications and for ignoring or discounting intelligence reports regarding Confederate troop concentrations in the area. Halleck relieved Grant of his field command, but Sherman remained at the front and assisted Halleck in capturing the Rebel stronghold at Corinth, Mississippi, on May 30, 1862, after a thirty-day siege.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Comrade
In July 1862, the fortunes of Grant and Sherman improved when President Lincoln promoted Halleck to General-in-Chief of the army and re-called him to Washington. Grant assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee, and Sherman became his most trusted subordinate.
Battle of Chickasaw Bluff
After assuming command, Grant turned focused on capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Gibraltar of the Confederacy. In late December 1862, Grant sent three divisions under Sherman to attempt an assault on Vicksburg from the northeast. The Federals proved no match for the Confederate defenders who dealt Sherman a crushing defeat at the Battle of Chickasaw Bluff (December 26-29, 1862). Sherman’s troops suffered over 1,100 casualties, compared to fewer than 200 for the Rebels.
Replaced and Restored
Following the repulse at Chickasaw Bluff, Major General John A. McClernand superseded Sherman in command of Grant’s forces north of Vicksburg. Although neither Grant nor Sherman liked the arrangement, Sherman redeemed himself by performing well during McClernand’s assault on Arkansas Post (January 9-11, 1863). By June, Grant found sufficient reason to relieve McClernand of his command and restore Sherman as his number-one subordinate. Although Sherman privately expressed reservations about Grant’s unorthodox strategy during the Vicksburg Campaign, he served Grant dutifully throughout the rest of the successful operation.
On October 16, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 337 merging the departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee under Grant’s command. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed Grant to move as quickly as possible to Chattanooga, Tennessee to assist the Army of the Cumberland, which was under siege by General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Grant quickly ordered Sherman to transport the Army of the Tennessee from Mississippi to Chattanooga to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland.
Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23, established a new supply route into the city, and began making preparations for a federal breakout. Sherman followed with roughly 20,000 soldiers, who began entering Chattanooga on November 20.
On November 23, about 14,000 Federal soldiers overran 600 Confederate defenders of a hill between Chattanooga and Seminary Ridge, known as Orchard Knob. The Union soldiers fortified the hill that served as Grant’s headquarters for the rest of the breakout.
The next day, about 10,000 Union forces commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker captured Lookout Mountain, which overlooks Chattanooga. On the same day, Sherman moved three divisions across the Tennessee River and captured a position called Goat Hill near the Confederate lines on Missionary Ridge.
Assault on Missionary Ridge
On November 25, Grant ordered Sherman to advance on Missionary Ridge from the north and Hooker from the south. Sherman and Hooker launched their assaults early in the morning but made little headway by afternoon. Seeing their lack of progress, Grant ordered Major General George H. Thomas to lead the Army of the Cumberland in an assault on the Confederate center. The assault was initially successful, but rifle and artillery fire from the ridge eventually tied down Thomas’ men.
Still stinging from their embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga in September, the Army of the Cumberland mounted a second heroic charge up the ridge and overran the Rebels. By 6 o’clock, the center of Bragg’s army was in full retreat and the Union held Missionary Ridge. After abandoning Missionary Ridge, Bragg ordered his army to march south toward Dalton, Georgia. Sherman and Hooker pursued briefly, but Grant soon called a halt, not wanting his forces to get too far from their supply lines.
Following the breakout from Chattanooga, Grant ordered Sherman north on November 29, 1863, to relieve Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which was being besieged by at Knoxville, Tennessee. As Sherman’s army approached Knoxville, Longstreet abandoned his investment and retreated toward Virginia, leaving Tennessee firmly under Union control.
Meridian Campaign – Preview of Total War
After helping drive Longstreet away from Knoxville, Sherman returned to Ohio where he spent Christmas with his family. In February 1864, he traveled to Vicksburg where he started a campaign against General Leonidas Polk’s troops at Meridian, Mississippi. As Sherman approached Meridian, Polk determined that he could not stop the Federals, so he evacuated the city. Sherman reached Meridian on February 14, 1863, and began laying waste to the area, practicing the “total war” strategy that he used on his March to the Sea later that year.
Military District of the Mississippi Commander
On March 3, 1864, President Lincoln ordered Grant to Washington and promoted him General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, holding the rank of lieutenant general. When Grant traveled east, he appointed Sherman to succeed him as commander of the Military District of the Mississippi, which encompassed all Union troops in the Western Theater.
As General-in-Chief, Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the East, and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in the West. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman opened his Atlanta Campaign, leading three armies out of Tennessee in pursuit of Johnston’s army. For the next four months, Sherman used a series of flanking maneuvers to drive the Army of Tennessee south toward Atlanta, Georgia. During the campaign, the War Department promoted Sherman to the rank of major general in the regular army on August 12, 1864.
By September 1, the Confederate Army of Tennessee (now commanded by General John Bell Hood) evacuated Atlanta. The next day, Sherman’s forces occupied the city. Although Hood’s army escaped, the capture of the Georgia capital was significant because it helped ensure President Lincoln’s reelection in November.
Destruction of Atlanta
Sherman occupied Atlanta for the next two and one-half months. During that time, he convinced Lincoln and Grant to allow him to embark on a daring operation, dispatching part of his command in pursuit of Hood’s army into Tennessee, while Sherman led an invasion force across Georgia toward the coastal city of Savannah. Sherman’s aim was to “make Georgia howl” by living off the land and destroying the property of Georgia civilians. Sherman believed that his March to the Sea would demoralize the South, thus ending the war sooner and ultimately saving lives. Although Lincoln and Grant had reservations about Sherman isolating his army by cutting communication and supply lines, they approved the plan.
Before evacuating Atlanta, Sherman ordered “the destruction in Atlanta of all depots, car-houses, shops, factories, foundries.” After stripping the city of all materials that the South could use, the designated destruction began on November 12. Unfortunately, before Sherman’s army evacuated the city, Union soldiers engaged in unsanctioned arson, torching private residences and much of the downtown.
Savannah Campaign – Marching to the Sea
Sherman left Atlanta on November 15, 1864. For the next five weeks, his army cut a swath of destruction across Georgia. Although Sherman prohibited looting, he authorized foraging parties “to gather turnips, apples, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp.” Sherman further instructed his foragers, who Southerners called “bummers,” that,
In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less apples.
Northern soldiers took mules, horses and wagons that might aid the Union advance. Finally, Sherman instructed that,
Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms . . .
Sherman men met very little resistance from the rapidly depleting Confederate Army during their “March to the Sea.” They captured Savannah on December 21, and Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln,
I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.
When the Savannah Campaign ended, Grant and Sherman decided that Sherman should move north and help Grant defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than move his army by steamer, Sherman persuaded Grant to let him march north through the Carolinas, exercising his total-war tactics along the way.
Destruction of Columbia
Sherman’s soldiers were especially destructive in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. Federal forces captured Columbia, the state capital, on February 17, 1865, and fires that night destroyed most of the central city. The source of the conflagration remains controversial. Some, including Sherman, claimed that Southern soldiers started the blaze by burning bales of cotton as they retreated from the city; some claimed that the fires were deliberate acts of vengeance by Yankee soldiers; others claimed that the source was accidental. Whatever the truth, the burning of Columbia has contributed to Sherman’s reputation in the South as the most detested Union general.
Battle of Averasboro
On March 11, 1865, Sherman’s forces entered Fayetteville, North Carolina, facing little resistance. Sherman rested his army for one day and then resumed his trek toward Goldsboro. Three days later, Sherman’s rearguard destroyed the arsenal at Fayetteville along with anything else that might be useful to the Confederacy, including railroad trestles, mills, and factories.
The Yankees met stiffer resistance near Averasboro on March 16, when Sherman ordered General Slocum’s wing to attack entrenched Rebels north of town. Slocum’s men flanked the Confederates, forcing them to withdraw to a second defensive line. The Rebels made a brief stand at the second line before falling back to their third and final line of defense. Despite several Union assaults, the Confederates held their position until nightfall and then withdrew to Bentonville under the cover of darkness.
Battle of Bentonville
On March 19, 1865, Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the South made a stand at Cole’s Plantation, blocking the road to Goldsboro. Once again, Slocum’s wing was the target. Led by a “who’s who” of Confederate Generals, including Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, William J. Hardee, and D.H. Hill, the Rebels launched an assault on the Federals that afternoon, forcing them to fall back temporarily. By nightfall, Slocum’s men checked the Rebel advance, and the first day of fighting at the Battle of Bentonville ended in a stalemate.
On the next day, Federal reinforcements arrived, and Slocum gradually pushed Johnston’s men back. Johnston held on until March 21, when he withdrew during the night. Sherman pursued only briefly the next day, preferring instead to confront Johnston on another day, after increasing the size of his army after completing his rendezvous with General Schofield and the Army of Ohio at Goldsboro.
Surrender at Bennett Place
After another month of skirmishing, Johnston realized that his position was hopeless when Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Grant on April 9, 1865. Johnston persuaded Confederate President Jefferson Davis to allow Johnston to begin negotiations with Sherman to surrender the last major Rebel force in the field. Davis agreed if Johnston could get Sherman to agree to terms more generous than those offered to Lee at Appomattox Court House. Specifically, Davis sought a surrender that restored the political rights and privileges of Southerners.
Although Sherman had no authority to negotiate political terms, he granted Johnston’s request when the two met at Bennett Place, in North Carolina, on April 17. Sherman believed that the terms he offered were consistent with President Lincoln’s stance of seeking “malice toward none, with charity for all.” Further, he feared that not agreeing to Davis’s conditions might compel Johnston to halt the negotiations and continue the war.
On April 18, the two generals signed terms of surrender agreeable to Davis. Northern leaders, however, were in no mood for reconciliation, especially after President Lincoln’s assassination three days earlier. The War Department sent Grant to North Carolina, where he ordered Sherman to renegotiate the surrender with Johnston, offering military concessions only. Sherman and Johnston met again at Bennett Place on April 26 and agreed to terms similar to those granted at Appomattox Court House.
Commander in the West
When the war ended, Sherman remained in the regular army. The War Department assigned him to command the Military Division of the Mississippi and later the Military Division of the Missouri, which encompassed all lands west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. On July 25, 1866, federal officials promoted him to the rank of lieutenant general.
Commanding General of the United States Army
When Grant became President of the United States in 1869, the War Department promoted Sherman to Commanding General of the United States Army. His main duties in the West included subjugating hostile Native American tribes, protecting settlers, and safeguarding the extension of railroads. His treatment of natives who resisted federal authority was kindred to his actions against Southerners who contested his advances through Georgia and the Carolinas. As was the case during the latter part of the Civil War, Sherman believed that the most efficient way to subjugate hostile native tribes was to destroy the resources that enabled them to sustain their resistance.
Sherman resigned as commanding General of the Army on November 1, 1883, and he retired from the army on April 8, 1884. The same year, Republicans began promoting him as a candidate for the presidency. Sherman, however, had no political ambitions. He quashed any discussion of his selection by tersely stating, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
Sherman spent the latter part of his life enjoying New York society and speaking at dinners, banquets and Civil War veterans’ reunions. William Tecumseh Sherman died in New York City on February 14, 1891, of unspecified causes. Following a funeral at his home on February 19, Sherman’s body was transported to St. Louis, Missouri, where his son Thomas Ewing Sherman, a Jesuit priest, presided over a second funeral on February 21. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston served as a pallbearer at the New York funeral. Sherman’s final resting place is in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis.