William Tecumseh Sherman: Biography, Sherman’s March, Civil War, & Achievements

Nicknamed “Cump”, General Sherman distinguished himself brilliantly fighting for the Union’s Army during the American Civil War (1861-65)

A famed and astute military general in the U.S. Army, William Tecumseh Sherman’s heroics during Sherman’s March (during the American Civil War) in 1864 played an immeasurable role in bringing an end to the 4-year bloody Civil War which had torn the United States to shreds. Even though it proved vital in securing a victory for the Union over the Confederate Army, Sherman’s March unleashed unbridled destruction that has since been considered a hard pill to swallow, especially for many Southerners.

Who was William T. Sherman? How did this Lancaster, Ohio-born rise to such prominence in the U.S. Army?

In the article below, World History Edu explores the history as well as things not often said about William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the most famous military leaders in our nation’s history.

Quick Facts: General William T. Sherman

Born: William Tecumseh Sherman

Birthday: February 8, 1820

Place of birth: Lancaster, Ohio, United States

Died: February 14, 1892

Place of death: New York City, New York, United States

Buried at: Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri

Aged:  71

Parents: Mary Hoyt Sherman and Charles Robert Sherman

Siblings: 10 siblings

Spouse: Eleanor Boyle Ewing

Children: 8

Education: United States Military Academy at West Point

Most famous for: Sherman’s March to the Sea

Famous battles fought in: First Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Shiloh, Vicksburg Campaign, Atlanta Campaign, Carolinas Campaign

Nickname: “Cump”, “Uncle Billy”

Birth and early years

Born William Tecumseh Sherman on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio, this future general grew up with a total of 10 siblings. His parents were Charles Robert Sherman and Mary Hoyt Sherman.

William T. Sherman got his middle name Sherman from a Shawnee Chief called Sherman. His father, a Ohio-based lawyer, was said to be big admirer of the Native American chief, hence he named his son Tecumseh.

When Sherman was 9 years old, tragedy struck his large family as his father passed away. This left his mother in a dire situation of fending for 11 children, including William. To ease the burden on herself, Sherman’s mother sent some of the children to be cared for by other family members.

The young William Sherman was sent to live with John Ewing, a family friend. Ewing, who was a Ohio senator and a member of the state’s cabinet, is said to have had a big influence on Sherman.

Military training at West Point

During his four-year stay at West Point, the renowned U.S. military academy, Sherman trained with many of the generals he fought with and against during the American Civil War (1861-1865). His place at the military academy came through the help of his foster father John Ewing. He was a very diligent student, scoring high in many academic disciplines at West Point. In 1840, he graduated sixth in his class.

Early military career

Following his graduation, Sherman, then in his 20s, found himself stationed in states like Georgia and South Carolina. When the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) broke out, Sherman was sent to Florida as the U.S. tried to force the Seminole Indians to move to the Creek reservation west of the Mississippi River.

His time in Florida had a long-lasting impact on his life, including influencing his attitude towards Southerners during the American Civil War.

Because he was stationed in California, he was not involved in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), a two year war that the U.S. fought against Mexico to acquire more territories. While in California, he would get promoted to captain.

Bemoaning the fact that he was confined to mainly administrative duties, Sherman resigned his commission in 1853. He did so because desk duty often impeded a soldier’s upward mobility. He then took up a job as banker in San Francisco. The banking job, however, proved to be fiasco and Sherman and his family relocated to Kansas, where he started practicing as a lawyer.

How and why Sherman got involved in the American Civil War

In 1859, he made his way back to the South, where he served as a superintendent of a military academy in Louisiana – the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy.

Although he was a very beloved educator in Louisiana, he was troubled by the fact that the South wanted to secede from the Union. He is said to have cautioned many of his friends and Southern state officials to abort their secession plans. Disheartened by Louisiana’s secession in January 1861, he sent in his resignation letter and proceeded to work for a streetcar company in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sherman wholeheartedly believed that the Union ought to be kept intact; therefore, he let his brother John pull some strings so that he could be recommissioned in the U.S. Army. He was made a colonel in the Union’s Army, serving in the 13th Infantry Regiment.

In July 1861, just a few months after the Fort Sumter attack in April, Sherman was involved in the First Battle of Bull Run. Even though the Union Army lost the battle, Sherman proved a handful for the enemy forces as the leader of a brigade. His superior officers were pleased with his brilliance on the field of battle; hence Sherman was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

Sherman’s temporary nervous breakdown

At the onset of the American Civil War, Sherman had grown very worried about what he felt was the Union’s reluctance to commit men to war. This was evident while he served in Kentucky. The newspapers got wind of General Sherman’s displeasure with the inadequate number of troops and supplies.

Sherman was also having a personal crisis of confidence. That and many more were some of the reasons why he was relieved of his duties in the army. The general is said to have had severe bouts of depression following that event.

General Sherman’s partnership with General Grant

General Sherman was able to surmount his fears and depression and then make his way back to active service. He returned to the Western Theater to support General Ulysses S. Grant.

He and Grant worked together to secure victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Kentucky in February, 1862. In addition to it allowing Kentucky to remain in the hands of the Union throughout the war, the victory was crucial as it allowed the Union to use Tennessee as a launching pad to weaken the Confederate States Army.

Sherman worked very closely with Grant during Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. His tactical decisions, including a temporary retreat, allowed the Union Army to defeat a fierce Confederate assault. He proved to be a trustworthy adviser to General Grant as he implored the commander to continue serving. Grant had contemplated resigning from the army due to the barrage of criticisms he received for high the casualty suffered at Shiloh.

General Sherman served under and supported General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all the Union forces and later 18th president of the United States. | Image: Commanding General of the Union forces, General Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor, June 1864

Sherman’s logistical prowess during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863

Overcoming adversity after adversity, General Sherman’s efforts in the Western Theater allowed the Union to take control of many important Confederate territories.

His prowess in handling military logistics was second to none. This was evident during the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which saw Union forces secure victory and monumentally weaken the Confederacy. By July 4, 1863, Vicksburg had fallen into the hands of the Union. This meant that control of the Mississippi River was firmly in hands of the Union.

The combined efforts of General Sherman and General Grant were met with immense praise from the White House, particularly President Abraham Lincoln. Both generals were rewarded. Grant was made commander of all troops in the Western Theater, while Sherman was promoted to brigadier general of the regular army.

Read More: General Ulysses S. Grant’s Military Accomplishments

Commander of the Union Armies in the Western Theater

The Peacemakers painting

From left to right, General Sherman, General Grant, President Lincoln, and Admiral Porter meet on March 27, 1865, in Virginia, to discuss the end of the Civil War. Painting: The Peacemakers (1868) by American portrait painter George Peter Alexander Healy

With Grant’s promotion to the commander of the entire Union forces, Sherman was appointed commander of the Union armies in the Western Theater.

Sherman paid of the trust the White House in him with confident displays at the Battles of Chattanooga in November 1863. Those battles served as launching pad for his campaign in Atlanta, Georgia.

General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign in May 1864

Sherman’s campaign in Atlanta in May 1864 was aimed at crippling the Confederate’s manufacturing hub. The campaign saw him engage fiercely with Confederate forces under the leadership of Generals John B. Hood and Joseph E. Johnston. About four months into the campaign, Sherman successfully took Atlanta.

Sherman’s Atlanta campaign victory is credited with salvaging the re-election bid of President Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election. Lincoln’s approval rating had plummeted due to the sheer number of Union casualties albeit military wins in the Eastern Theater.

Read More: 9 Greatest Accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln

General Sherman’s quest to cripple civilian and military installations in the South

Sherman most likely had an undeserved reputation as a blood thirsty general. His knack for devastating opposition forces made him a loathsome character in the South. Even among some Northerners, the Ohio-born general was not so much beloved because of some of the cruel tactics he deployed.

In his defense, Sherman always sought to remind the Northerners that were uneasy about his tactics that cruel acts were part and parcel of war. He reasoned that the more ruthless one acted in the theater of war, the faster the war ended.

As the war intensified, it therefore came as no surprise that General Sherman sought to brutally cripple the South’s military and civilian installations.

Sherman’s March to the Sea: How General Sherman’s “Total War” strategy helped wrap up the Civil War

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman use of “total war” to decimate the military and civilian targets in the South resulted in railroad lines getting sawed off or twisted. Those lines came to be referred to as “Sherman’s neckties.”

Historians often place General Sherman’s war strategy under a term known as “total war”, which refers to the complete violation of accepted rules of war or rules of engagement. He certainly was a man willing to make as many sacrifices humanly possible to secure victory for the North.

With about 60,000 Union soldiers, Sherman marched into Atlanta in November 1864. With the complete backing of President Lincoln and General Grant, Sherman and his men went through the coastal region of Savannah, Georgia, before heading north into the Carolinas.

As part of his strategy, he split his men into two, and then he tasked them to go on a rampage through the South’s countryside. The soldiers’ orders were to seek and destroy strategic military and civilian installations.

He put a tight lid on the march as he did not want the press to have a field day and cause unnecessary fear and panic across the country. What this meant was that with the exclusion of those places were Sherman’s troops marched into, very few Americans were aware of Sherman’s March to the Sea at the time.

A master logistician

Owing to the large numbers of troops under his command, General Sherman had to be very astute when it came to handling the logistic side of things during the March to the Sea. Historians and military analysts are full of praise for the general, considering the manner in which he was still able to get the needed supplies to his men even though he was completely cut off from Union supply routes.

The secretive nature of Sherman’s March to the Sea meant that his men had to carry along with them provisions that would last for the entire mission. In some cases, the general encouraged his men to live off the land, or to steal food from the locals.

Also, General Sherman brilliantly tackled impassable terrains and coastal regions by building temporary bridges and access roads.

Sherman takes Georgia

With that all done, Sherman and his troops arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in December, 1864. After occupying the city, the general sent a message to the White House, informing the man behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office of his successful mission. It’s even said that Sherman presented the completion of the mission as Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln.

The Carolinas fall to Sherman’s forces

By the turn of 1864, Sherman and his military advisors had come up with a strategy to march into the Carolinas. South Carolina is said to have suffered more than North Carolina. Perhaps Sherman was incensed by the fact that South Carolinas were the first in the Confederacy to secede (on December 20, 1860) from the Union. Their capital, the city of Columbia, was torn to shreds by General Sherman and his men.

To Sherman’s delight, as well as the excitement of millions of Americans all over the country, General Robert E. Lee, the overall commander of the Confederate States Army, surrendered just in time to avoid North Carolina from suffering a similar awful fate as South Carolina did.

General E. Lee surrender

General E. Lee of the Confederate States Army surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House April 9, 1865. The Confederacy surrender came just in time before General Sherman could inflict more damage in North Carolina. Image: Surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House

General Sherman after the American Civil War

Sherman’s long and illustrious military career continued after the Civil War. The nation needed astute military minds like Sherman to keep the peace and order across the country.

General Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the U.S. Army when General Grant secured the White House job (on March 4, 1869). He would stay in that job until November 1, 1883, serving under three more U.S. presidents – Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur.

For a brief period in 1869, General Sherman also served as the Acting United States Secretary of War.

His post-Civil War career was marred by his excessive use of violence in forcing Native Americans off their lands into designated reservations.

Following his retirement from the army, he settled in New York. There were calls for him to seek a political office in Washington, D.C., however, Sherman rejected all those requests. He probably could not see himself doing a good job in a civilian job as he did in the army.

More General Sherman facts

William Tecemseh Sherman

General Sherman – Portrait by Mathew Brady or Levin C. Handy

  • General Sherman’s place of birth was in Lancaster, Ohio, near the banks of the Hocking River, the 102-mile-long tributary of the Ohio River.
  • His father, Charles Robert Sherman, was a distinguished lawyer who was also on the bench of the Ohio Supreme court.
  • Sherman and U.S. Founding Father Roger Sherman (1721-1793) were said to be distant relatives.
  • His younger brother John Sherman was founding member of the Republican Party.
  • Two of his foster brothers – Hug Boyle Ewing and Thomas Ewing, Jr. – served in the Union Army as major generals during the American Civil War.
  • General Sherman was known for using scorched-earth military policies to bring the Confederate States to heel as well as their ultimate surrender in 1865. Those policies refer to the destruction of anything that could be beneficial to an enemy force, including weapons, transportation infrastructure, communication infrastructure, and other resources.
  • In 1875, Sherman’s memoirs about the Civil War was published. The book went on to be one of the most famous first-hand accounts of the four-year bloody war.
  • At the age of 30, he married his foster sister Eleanor Boyle Ewing (1824-1888). The couple had eight children.
  • General Sherman died on February 14, 1891 in New York City. He was aged 71. His body was buried in St. Louis, Missouri. At his funeral, one of the pallbearers Joseph E. Johnston, a former military general in the Confederate States Army.
  • Even after close to two centuries since the end of the Civil War, Sherman still continues to have a bad rap because of the uncontrolled devastation he unleashed upon the South during the 4-year bloody war. However, in all fairness, the general simply wanted the war to end as quickly as possible, hence his deployment of a “Total War” strategy. In other words, Sherman received passive approval from both Lincoln and General Grant to act in an unrestricted manner to secure victory for the North.

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