When you think about the men behind the Civil War, who comes to mind? The average American would probably say Lincoln, Grant, and General Lee. Two were presidents, and one is posthumously famous for leading the Confederacy and for the orange car from the television show. What about William Sherman? Who is he and why has his name been obscured by the passage of time? William Tecumseh Sherman was the General directly subordinate to General Grant and is the orchestrator behind some of the most impressive victories from the war including the campaign against Atlanta, the march through Georgia, and the final sweep through the Carolinas which effectively won the war for the North.
It is curious that those great figures of history most worth remembering are often forgotten, while those we do remember are frequently less deserving of our posthumous praise and attention. For William Sherman, this was as much to his own personal desires as it was to history’s course of remembrance. In his book, Hart records Sherman’s preference to remain anonymous: “I deeply regret that I am threatened with that curse to all peace and comfort—popularity.” This sentiment remained, despite his continuous rise in the military, culminating with the prestigious rank of Major General—with a 14-year post-war stint as Commander General of the entire U.S. Army. Despite these lofty laurels, Sherman is one of the few historical figures that can be found to have actively abstained from letting his ego carry him into unwanted territories. After the conclusion of the war, he was pressured for years to enter the world of politics, and maybe even run for the office of president, but he steadfastly refused. “Why should I at sixty-five years of age, with a reasonable provision of life, not a dollar of debt, and with the universal respect of my neighbors and countrymen, embark in the questionable game of politics?” He was recorded as saying.
Why is he worth remembering? Because he was unrivaled at mobile warfare. He perfected the ‘indirect approach’ on the battlefield and would often confuse his enemies by approaching multiple objectives simultaneously. Sherman is most famous for his march through Georgia—a campaign in which he decidedly abandoned his lines of supply and communication and stormed through the heartland of the Confederacy on foot and horseback, effectively living off the land. He did the same in the Carolinas, leading over sixty thousand men across open land and into hostile territory. He struck directly at the hearts and minds of the southern people along the way and smashed their hopes (and a few of their barns) to bits. General George Patton himself spent time in Georgia prior to the Second World War studying Sherman’s tactics, including how he ‘stripped’ his soldiers of all essentials in order to increase mobility. He had an excellent mind for war and tactics and his resume proves it outright.
One aspect of this book that really hit me in the gut was Sherman’s diagnosis of the press and media of the times. They distorted events to devastating degree and seemed to create more anxiety and anger in the populace than was ever necessary. Sherman’s words, written in 1862, still ring with the hollow tones of truth. He describes members of the media as “the chief cause of this unhappy war. They fan the flame of local hatred and keep alive the prejudices which have forced friends into opposing hostile ranks.” Despite being on one side of the war, he was objective enough to clearly see how both the “North and South [keep] each radical class [of] its votaries filled with the most outrageous lies of the other.” I found this sentiment alarmingly true, as it could very easily have been written about the disconnect I see in my own country (the United States) today. Sherman was supremely aware of the media and politician’s ability to divide people’s hearts and minds. Hart echos Sherman when he writes that “prejudice governs. You and all who derive power from the people do not look for pure, unalloyed truth, but to that kind of truth which jumps with the prejudice of the day.” His prophetical words struck a major chord in my mind and it really made me ‘zoom out’ and try to view current events through the larger scope of one that examines history as a fluid whole. Past events have all the lessons to teach us about how to solve our current quandaries, if only we were more desirous to learn.
What I grew to admire most about Sherman was his astuteness of mind. He never bit off more than he could chew. He always keep his objectives in clear view and routed all available resources to its achievement. He was supremely accurate in his diagnosis of battle tactics including the physical movement of his troops and the psychology of his army as a whole. He had an incredible ability to think inside the mind of his opposition and discern his movements. He was always the first to reject a promotion if he felt himself unworthy, and was conscious of the ever-present need to sideline his ego in support of whatever he deemed best for the Union forces overall. Even after the world acclaimed him for his success, his humility still shined brightly, exemplified by quoted lines from his personal letters such as: “Like one who has walked a narrow plank, I look back and wonder if I really did it.” Although he was describing his march through the South, I think it more accurately describes his life overall, and I think it noble that he had the courage to walk.