One of the greatest warriors and most influential Americans to emerge during the Civil War was William Tecumseh Sherman, a red-haired, adopted son of a good Ohio family. Sherman served in the military and started a bank in San Francisco (where he saw the gold rush begin), then moved in 1859 to Louisiana to found a college, the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (which later became Louisiana State University).
Sherman was in the Deep South when war erupted. Chain-smoking, quick-witted and a rapid-fire talker, Sherman was also prophetic, whether or not he knew it. Early on he foresaw the terrible scope of the coming conflict and the Southern delusion about the success of secession. Hearing that South Carolina had fired on a federal fort, Sherman, according to a friend, began pacing the floor on Christmas Eve, in literal tears, then poured forth predictions few if anyone else was speaking at the time:
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…
He then described the South’s weak economy which was in no shape to support a war machine:
“Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail.
“Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
Still, the South marched blithely forward, and history unfolded according to Sherman’s eerie accuracy. In early 1861, he left the seminary/military academy to go north and enlist, requesting a low military appointment though his brother, a U.S. Senator, could have secured him a high one. To his friends at the Louisiana seminary he wrote, “I entertain the kindest feelings toward all … only in great events we must choose, one way or the other. Truly, your friend, W. T. SHERMAN.”
But his seemingly terrible vision of what it would require to bring the South back into the Union earned him the scorn of newspaper editors who dubbed him “insane.” He was sent home by his superiors to recover his mind for a month. But his brilliance could not be suppressed. He returned to serve under U.S. Grant, fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg and most famously in the Atlanta campaign.
The “March to the Sea,” which Sherman conceived and carried out, remains one of the most famous and daring campaigns on American soil. No battles were fought, but Sherman’s army of 60,000 made sure to destroy as much infrastructure as they could — railroad lines, mills, homes of Confederate leaders and anything else of use to the South’s continued rebellion. The March demonstrated that Northern armies could move freely and dominate the field in hostile territory. Also, 20,000 slaves attached themselves to the army’s passing caravan, following it to freedom as it returned north.
Hated bitterly by Atlantans for banishing its civilian population prior to wrecking their city, an event portrayed in Gone with the Wind, Sherman famously wrote to Atlanta’s mayor:
“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. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. … The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power … once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger … the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.”
He reminded him that “… the South began war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or tittle of provocation. … Now that war comes home to you; you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. … I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.
“But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”
After the war, Sherman received the nation’s highest military appointment, general commander of the U.S. Army, and served effectively in that capacity for 15 years, much of it under his dear friend, Grant. Of his great and lasting friendship with Grant, he quipped, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”
Sherman also helped the railroads expand westward toward his beloved California where he once hoped to retire. Even one-time military foes attended the grand parade through the streets of New York in his honor upon his death in 1891. He was one of the few men who correctly predicted what war would entail, then served tirelessly and brilliantly to help bring it to a decisive end.