Sherman was one of the most famous Union generals of the American Civil War. Sherman is best known for the ‘march to the sea’, from Atlanta to Savannah, which played a crucial part in the final Confederate collapse, and for his close working relationship with U.S. Grant.
Originally named simply Tecumseh Sherman (after the famous Shawnee chief), Sherman’s father died in 1829. Sherman and his ten brothers and sisters were then distributed amongst friends and relatives. Sherman stayed in Ohio, lived with Thomas Ewing, whose wife insisted on adding the William. It was Ewing who got Sherman his place at West Point, from where he graduated sixth in his class in 1840.
From West Point Sherman joined the 3rd Artillery as a second lieutenant. His early military career included a period in South Carolina and another in Georgia, eventually to come in useful in an entirely unexpected way. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Sherman did not see any significant action during the Mexican War. He served in California, but only after it had been captured, and came close to resigning from the army. Post-war he married Ellen Ewing, Thomas’s daughter, in 1850. After a year and a half in the subsistence department, he resigned from the army on 6 September 1853, with the rank of captain.
His civilian career was unlucky. He worked for a bank that went bankrupt and lost his only case as a lawyer. Efforts to rejoin the army failed. Eventually he applied for the post of superintendent of a new military college, the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (now Louisiana State University). He held this post from October 1859 until January 1861. During his time in the south he gained a great many friends in southern society, but no sympathy for the separatist cause.
The secession crisis caused Sherman a great deal of anguish. He resigned his post at the Academy, many of whose students would soon be fighting against him. From the start he accepted that the Union had to be fought for, and after settling the accounts of the Academy headed north.
Now at last he was welcomed back into the regular army, as colonel of a new 13th Infantry Regiment, before moving on to command a brigade in the army forming around Washington. That brigade fought well at the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861), suffering 107 dead, 205 wounded and 293 missing, the highest losses suffered by any Union division. Sherman himself was wounded twice. After the battle he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers (for some time this meant that he out-ranked Grant).
His next posting was to Kentucky, where he was second-in-command to Robert Anderson (the commander at Fort Sumner at the start of the war). After Anderson retired in October, Sherman inherited a very difficult task. Opinion in the state was very evenly split between Union and Confederacy. Sherman had very few men under his command, and was only really able to hold his position. In a dispatch to the secretary of war, he stated that he would need 60,000 men to completely occupy Kentucky, and with 200,000 could win the war in that entire area. Hostile newspapers took that second figure, and began to call Sherman crazy. After a campaign against him, Sherman was relieved of the command in November.
There was never any substance to the accusations. Nevertheless the rumours continued on even after Sherman joined General Halleck’s army on the Mississippi, and may have played a part in the initial disaster at Shiloh, but even Halleck described them as ‘the grossest injustice’. It was now that Sherman began to be associated with Grant. The first connection was simply a coincidence – Sherman replaced Grant in command at Paducah, Kentucky on 13 February 1862.
Grant had already departed on the expedition that captured Forts Henry and Donelson. After these successes, Halleck decided to concentrate his army and advance on the Confederate stronghold at Corinth. Sherman was sent to join grant at Pittsburgh Landing, in command of an Infantry Division. It was now that the earlier accusations of insanity may have come back to haunt Sherman. The entire Union army was convinced that they would not be attacked at Pittsburgh Landing, and so had not fortified their camp. There is some evidence that one of the reasons for this, at least on Sherman’s part, was a fear that if he had fortified his camp he would be accused of insanity again.
Thus, when A S. Johnston’s army launched their great surprise attack on 6 April (Battle of Shiloh), Sherman’s division was caught unprepared. It was one of two divisions that caught the full force of the Confederate attack, and was entirely composed of raw recruits, with no prior experience of battle (hardly surprising at this stage in the war). Despite this, Sherman managed to hold them together, and conducted a magnificent fighting retreat. He was wounded twice, and had three horses shot from under him on the first day at Shiloh.
On the second day Union reinforcements allowed Grant to go onto the offensive. Once again Sherman was in the forefront of the action, which eventually forced the Confederates to retreat having suffered heavy losses (including the death of A.S. Johnston). After the battle, Sherman was promoted to major-general of volunteers, backdated to 1 May 1862 (for reasons of seniority).
The aftermath of Shiloh was somewhat disappointing for the North. Halleck arrived to take command of his army, and advanced very slowly towards Corinth. Eventually, just when he was ready to launch his attack, the Confederates abandoned the city. Despite this, Halleck was soon called east to serve as commanding general of the Union armies. He was replaced by Grant. His main target was now Vicksburg, the most important Confederate stronghold left on the Mississippi, but for the moment he needed time to prepare.
Sherman was appointed to command the District of Memphis (21 July). This was Grant’s right flank as he stretched out across the Tennessee border, and had been a vibrant centre of trade before the war. In a brief period in command, Sherman helped to begin the process of restoring that trade. At the same time he began to demonstrate the harsh attitude towards the south that typified the rest of his war. His aim was simple – his aim was to “make war so terrible that they (the southern people) will be ready to exhaust all peaceful remedies before taking up arms”. At Memphis his main problem was guerrilla warfare. Union supply boats on the Mississippi were exposed to attack from both banks.
Sherman’s response to these attacks foreshadows his actions in Georgia and the Carolinas. After one attack he ordered the town involved destroyed. After attacks continued, he ordered every building for fifteen miles destroyed on one stretch of the Arkansas bank of the river. Sherman’s concern was that if the Union fought too gently, then guerrilla warfare could go on for years, long after the formal defeat of the Confederate armies – what he called the ‘fate of Mexico’. To modern eyes this seems fairly mild – after the horrors of the Second World War, Sherman’s war on property almost seems tame, but at the time it was the first taste of total warfare. Sherman’s answer was that if his actions shortened the war by a single major battle, then they had saved countless thousands of lives.
At the end of 1862 Grant and Sherman were able to resume their march south. Grant decided on a two pronged attack on Vicksburg. He would take an inland route through Mississippi, attacked the city from behind, while Sherman would use the river to launch a frontal assault on the northern defences of Vicksburg. This could only work if the Confederate defenders of the city had been called away to deal with Grant.
While Sherman’s river expedition began smoothly enough, Grant discovered the difficulties posed by an expedition though hostile territory. His supply lines depended on a single railroad line north, and when that was cut by Confederate raiders he was forced to return north. However, he was unable to get news of that reverse to Sherman, who was now close to Vicksburg.
Map of the battlefield
Detail of Map
On 29 December Sherman’s men launched their attack against the Confederate positions on Chickasaw Bluffs. The result was a bloody repulse. Sherman lost 208 dead, 1,005 wounded and 563 captured from a force of about 33,000 men. The Confederate defenders of Vicksburg, under General John Pemberton, only suffered 207 casualties (63 dead, 134 wounded and 10 missing) out of a force of 25,000.
Sherman now lost command of his army. General McClernand, a ‘political’ general, had managed to persuade President Lincoln that he could recruit a new army in the north west, and capture Vicksburg with fresh men. Although Grant remained in overall command, McClernand was given orders to take over the army attacking Vicksburg. He failed to reach the area in time to command the Chickasaw Bluffs campaign, but was now in place. Sherman now became a corps commander in McClernand’s Army of the Mississippi.
McClernand’s command was short lived. Sherman managed to convince him that an attack on the Confederate position at Arkansas Post would be a good use of the army. This position did threaten Union communications on the Mississippi, and was promptly captured on 10-11 January 1863. However, Grant did not know the expedition had been Sherman’s idea, and complained about it. He was given the authority to replace McClernand if he felt it was needed. When Grant reached the Army of the Mississippi, he decided to take personal command himself. McClernand and Sherman were now both corps commanders in Grant’s army.
Grant now launched the campaign that led to the capture of Vicksburg. The essential problem facing him was that the city was only really accessible from the south. Swamps and steep hills protected it from the north, and the inland route had already been attempted. Grant now decided to run his fleet past the guns of the city, into the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Meanwhile, the army would march down the west bank of the river, meet with the fleet, and cross to the east bank. Once there, Grant planned to march south to Port Hudson (the only other Confederate stronghold on the river) where he would join with the Union force already besieging that place, capture it, and return north to deal with Vicksburg.
Sherman was not entirely convinced by this plan. Later he was to tell Grant that he had ‘felt no positive assurance of success’. However, the campaign that followed was probably Grant’s most skilful. Learning that Confederate reinforcements were being gathered in the state capitol at Jackson, Grant decided to strike at them first. The Big Black River campaign that followed saw Grant abandon his supply lines, and inflict four defeats on the Confederate forces around Vicksburg. Sherman’s corps took part in the battle of Jackson (14 May 1863). After that victory, Grant ordered him to settle down to the destruction of anything of potential military value in the town. Later, Sherman’s corps acted as the rearguard of the army besieging Vicksburg, ready to deal with any counter attack by the Confederate forces being gathered under General Joseph Johnston. No such attack came, and on 4 July 1863 Vicksburg surrendered.
As a reward for his services Sherman was now promoted to brigadier-general in the regular army (he was already more senior than this in the volunteers, but officers could hold ranks in both branches of the army). After a brief rest, Sherman and Grant were called to deal with the crisis at Chattanooga. After a period of slow but steady progress towards that key railroad junction, a Union army under General Rosecrans had finally captured the city on 8 September, but it was becoming clear that they were dangerously exposed to attack, and on 19-20 September Rosecrans was defeated heavily at Chickamauga. His army was forced back into Chattanooga, and a siege began.
Grant was ordered to take command of the relief operation. He rushed to Chattanooga in person, where he soon put in place measures that improved the supply situation. Sherman was ordered to bring as many men as possible from the Army of the Tennessee to help with the relief of the city. Grant waited until Sherman was in place before launching his attack on the Confederate positions around Chattanooga. His plan saw Sherman’s army attacking the right flank of the Confederate forces dug in on Missionary Ridge (25 November 1863). Sherman’s attack soon got bogged down against one of the best Confederate units, under General Cleburne. However, his attack may have helped weaken the Confederate centre, which broke unexpectedly after a frontal assault by Union soldiers from Chattanooga.
Even now, after a period of rapid marching and hard fighting, Sherman’s men could not rest. A second siege was going on at Knoxville, where James Longstreet was attacked a Union force under Ambrose Burnside. Sherman’s men reached Knoxville by 6 December, to find Longstreet already gone. Only now could Sherman’s men enter winter quarters and get some rest.
The same was not true for Sherman, who returned to Vicksburg to launch an attack on the Confederate arsenal at Meridian. For the rest of the winter, Sherman remained in command of the Army of the Tennessee around Vicksburg.
The spring of 1864 saw Sherman promoted to command all Union armies in the West. Grant had been appointed lieutenant-general commanding all armies (the rank had to be re-created by act of Congress). Sherman was promoted to his old post, but by now the focus of the war was moving east. With the Mississippi clear, Sherman was ordered to advance from Chattanooga towards Atlanta. Grant’s aim around Richmond was to destroy Robert E. Lee’s army. However, Sherman had slightly different orders. On 4 April he received a letter from Grant, laying out his plans for the year, and telling Sherman “You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”
For the rest of the war Sherman was to concentrate on the second part of his orders. He preferred as much as possible to avoid fighting major battles, disliking any talk of the glory of war. Instead he believed that the war could be won by making it impossible for the Confederacy to keep their armies in the field. This affected the way he conducted the Atlanta campaign. For Sherman the city was the target. For Grant it would have been the Confederate army under Joseph Johnston.
The result was one of the longer campaigns of manoeuvre warfare during the Civil War. Sherman had 100,000 men, Johnston 60,000. Johnston knew that he could not afford to loose large numbers of men in battle. He hoped to delay Sherman long enough to help the pro-peace Democrats win the Northern Presidential election, set for 8 November. Sherman did not want to launch an assault on any of Johnston’s carefully prepared defensive positions, hoping instead to trap him with flanking moves, or at least force him to abandon his positions.
Sherman began his march south on 4 May 1864. He had command of three separate armies – The Army of the Cumberland under General Thomas, of the Tennessee under General McPherson and the Ohio under General Schofield. During the campaign that followed Sherman repeatedly used the flexibility that gave him to force Johnston out of position after position.
The first such encounter came at Rocky Face Ridge. While most of his army pinned Johnston in place, McPherson was sent west, threatening Johnston’s lines of communication and forcing him back to Resaca. After three days of fighting there (Battle of Resaca, 13-15 May 1864), McPherson was once again sent west. This time Johnston was forced to pull back twenty five miles to Cassville. There he had tried to spring a trap on Sherman, but was let down by his most aggressive subordinate, General John Hood. Frustrated, Johnston pulled back again, to Allatoona, and prepared to try again.
Sherman did not give him the chance. This time he took his entire army on a flanking march to the west of Johnston, hoping to reach a road junction at Dallas, twenty miles to Johnston’s south west. However, Johnston detected this move and was able to block it in time (Battle of New Hope Church, 25-28 May 1864).
The weather now intervened to make Sherman’s normal flanking manoeuvres almost impossible. A period of heavy rain turned the roads into deep mud, and made it hard enough to maintain the army while it was static. In frustration, Sherman made one of his few serious mistakes during the war, attacking a strong Confederate position at Kenesaw Mountain (27 June 1864), with heavy losses. This attack was the product of frustration, combined with Sherman’s concern that his men might be loosing their ‘edge’ after all the marching. It was not a mistake he made again.
Sherman was soon able to resume his preferred strategy. The rains stopped, and the roads dried out, allowing Sherman to force Johnston out of the Kenesaw Mountain position. The last barrier between Sherman and Atlanta was the Chattahoochee River, which Johnston promised to hold for two months. Sherman crossed it on 9 July.
This was the last act of his duel with Johnston. President Jefferson Davies was not happy with Johnston, expecting his generals to fight. Now, with the Confederate armies only a few miles outside Atlanta, Johnston was replaced by General John Hood.
Sherman later claimed to be pleased by this change. Hood was a much more aggressive commander – too aggressive for Lee, who was opposed to his appointment. Although now unwilling to attack Confederate positions, Sherman was quite happy to have them come attack his!
Hood did not disappoint. News of his appointment reached him late on 17 July, and he took command on the next day. Two days later he launched his first attack. As Sherman moved his three armies into position around Atlanta, the Army of the Cumberland was potentially vulnerable. On 20 July Hood attempted to attack it as it crossed Peachtree Creek. Unfortunately, the attack came too late. The army was already across the creek, and Hood’s men were beaten back. Two days later he tried again, this time attacking the opposite end of Sherman’s line, McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee (Battle of Atlanta, 22 July 1864). This attack also failed, although McPherson was killed.
Now the initial passed back to Sherman. Rather than risk an assault on the formidable defences of Atlanta, Sherman sent the Army of the Tennessee towards the one remaining railroad into Atlanta, hoping to cut the city off. However, Hood was able to rush his own men into place in time to prevent this (Battle of Ezra Church, 28 July 1864). Sherman now settled down into a regular siege of the city.
This came at a bad time politically. Grant was making little visible progress against Lee. Now, after a long period of progress, Sherman too appeared to have come to a halt in front of Confederate defences. This was the low point of Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Inside Atlanta spirits began to rise. Many believed that Sherman was dangerously exposed, and could not maintain his position so far inside the Confederacy for long.
They were wrong. Sherman was simply preparing for his final flanking manoeuvre. His aim was to cut the Macon and Western Central Railroad, the one remaining rail link into the city. On 26 August he pulled all but one army corps out of the trenches around Atlanta, and began a great march out to the west, beyond the range of Confederate scouts. Inside Atlanta everyone was convinced that Sherman had finally been forced to pull back north.
Even when Sherman’s men reached the Montgomery Railroad on 28 August (which branched off the Macon and Western five miles south of Atlanta), Hood refused to believe this was anything more than a raid. It took two days for him to take the news seriously and only on 30 August did he dispatch a force under General Hardee to keep the Macon and Western clear. It was too late. Despite some heavy fighting around Jonesborough (31 August), Hood could not keep Sherman’s men off the railroad. His last supply line was broken. The next day Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta.
Sherman at Atlanta
Sherman with his staff
On 2 September the first of Sherman’s men entered the city. Sherman did not learn of this success until the following day, after the first newspaper reports had already appeared in the north! Sherman was now promoted to major-general in the regular army.
Once again he was in command of a Confederate city. This time he had no interest in the civilian side of the city. Instead, he declared Atlanta to be a military camp, and expelled the entire civilian population. This was not quite as harsh an order as it sounds. Most of the population had fled as Sherman’s army approached, and the rest were not simply kicked out. Instead, a truce was arranged with Hood to allow the civilians to cross into the Confederate lines. Only 1,649 civilians were present to be expelled.
Up till now, Sherman’s march had been entirely military. Most of the areas fought over had been almost unpopulated. That was about to change. After a short period chasing Hood’s army around northern Georgia, Sherman persuaded Grant that the best use for his army was to have it march through Georgia to the sea. He would dispatch General Thomas back to Tennessee to deal with Hood, and take 60,000 of his men on the march.
Sherman believed that the best way to end the war was to destroy goods rather than life. Through Georgia and South Carolina he was to test out that theory. Despite the massive destruction of property his men were to carry out, there is very little evidence of civilian deaths. Sherman may well still be Georgia’s most unpopular visitor, but then that was his intention!
Sherman’s plan looked very risky. He was going to abandon his supply lines, and take 60,000 men through hostile territory, foraging for supplies as they marched. He was greatly aided by Hood, who decided to invade Tennessee in an attempt to retrieve the situation in the state. This meant that Sherman’s march through Georgia was almost entirely unopposed. General Hardee was sent to Savannah to organise what defences he could, but the Confederacy was desperately short of soldiers. Sherman’s march was eventually opposed by an increasingly large number of Confederate generals, but little else!
South Carolina (south)
South Carolina (north)
North Carolina (west)
North Carolina (east)
The march began on 15 November. Sherman’s men had strict orders not to loot without express permission, while the foraging parties also operated under detailed orders. However, at any sign of resistance by the local population the gloves were taken off, and those areas were to be devastated on proportion to the level of hostility seen. Even within these orders, food, horses and mules were fair game. Detached soldiers, known as ‘bummers’ spread out around the army, spreading the devastation.
Only near Savannah did Sherman encounter any military opposition. Hardee had managed to gather 18,000 men at Savannah, and the city was well defended by nature – surrounded by swamps with access across five causeways. Sherman decided to make contact with the fleet. Off-shore elements of the Union fleet had been waiting for news of Sherman. Now his army arrived, and swarmed over the 200 Confederate defenders of Fort McAllister, guarding the Ogeechee River. The march to the sea had succeeded.
Savannah soon fell. Hardee watched Sherman’s men approach, and then when they were about to cut off his last escape route, fled north. Sherman’s men occupied the city on 21 December. Savannah was spared the devastation that befell other cities on Sherman’s march. He needed it intact as a base while he prepared for his next move.
After some debate, Sherman convinced Grant that the best use of his army was to have it march north through the Carolinas. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and to many of Sherman’s men was to blame for the war. Now they were going to get a chance to take their revenge. On 1 February 1865 they set off on the march north. Sherman always considered this to be his greatest achievement. South Carolina was very wet. The lower reaches of the Salkehatchie River were confidently expected to be impassable.
They were not. Sherman’s veterans built bridges and corduroy road at a rate of twelve miles per day. Joseph Johnston, restored to command, compared Sherman’s men to the Roman Legions. Their apparently unstoppable progress had a huge impact on southern morale. Despite the ever increasing number of top Confederate generals in the area, Sherman outwitted them and forced the evacuation of South Carolina without a fight. His army marched on a wide front, threatening both Charleston on the coast, and Augusta inland, forcing the Confederates to defend both. Instead, he made for the state capitol at Columbia, between the two. Both Augusta and Charleston had to be abandoned, and the Confederate forces moved into North Carolina.
Sherman’s marauding men were much harder to restrain in South Carolina. However, the worst accusation laid against them was almost certainly untrue. The night they occupied Columbia, much of the city burnt down. Confederate propaganda blamed the Union army. However, the evidence suggests that no one side was entirely to blame. The retreating Confederate army set some cotton bales on fire to deny them to Sherman’s men. High winds spread the fire. Some Union soldiers, especially released prisoners, probably helped. However Sherman and his officers spent the entire night attempting to put out the fires. In any case, the results here were not much worse than at many other places.
The nature of the campaign altered once Sherman entered North Carolina. The looting and destruction stopped at the state border, but for the first time since Atlanta Sherman faced a military threat. General Joseph Johnston had been put back in command of the forces opposing Sherman. Sherman’s habit of marching on a wide front now exposed his army to a slight risk. Johnston commanded 21,000 men, while Sherman had 60,000 with him and another 30,000 marching in from the coast. Johnston’s plan was to attack one wing of the Union army and defeat it before the rest of the army could come up to support it. Even if this plan could be put into effect, each wing of Sherman’s army was the same size as Johnston’s entire force. It was a strategy of desperation.
Map of the battlefield
Sherman’s first battle since Atlanta came at Averasborough on 16 March. His left wing collided with Hardee’s confederate corps and pushed it back after a severe fight. The main result of this battle was to give Johnston a better idea of Sherman’s location. He gathered together as much of his army as possible, and on 19 March launched his last attack of the war (Battle of Bentonville, 19-21 March 1865). The first day saw an almost equal fight, as the Federal left wing fought alone against Johnston’s army. Sherman was with the right wing that day, twenty miles further east, and did not hear about the fighting until evening. When he did, he ordered the right wing on a night march to relieve the left.
However, by now the battle was already won. On 20 March, while Sherman’s right wing was marching towards the battlefield, Johnston was not strong enough to attack again. On 21 March Sherman had a good chance to capture Johnston’s entire army. However, he did not order an all out attack, and Johnston was able to retreat in relatively good order.
This failure to attack demonstrates well Sherman’s attitude to war. He had always considered full scale battle to be wasteful. It was increasingly obvious that the war was coming to an end. Within two weeks, Lee was forced to abandon the lines around Richmond and Petersburg, and on 9 April Lee surrendered. Some of Sherman’s officers were certain that this was the reason he did not push his attack on 21 March.
The war seemed to end amongst a flurry of feuds between men who had worked together for years. In Sherman’s case, he was to fall out badly with both Secretary of War Stanton, and General Halleck. These feuds were triggered by the terms Sherman negotiated with Joseph Johnston on 18 April. These were very generous, and trespassed thoroughly into political areas well beyond Sherman’s authority to negotiate. However, the agreement did recognise this, and the terms were simply forwarded to Washington to be examined.
They arrived at a bad moment. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the mood had hardened. Stanton rejected the terms, despatching Grant to tell Sherman of this. This was all perfectly reasonable. However, Stanton’s temper got the better of his. He also published Sherman’s terms, and accompanied them with an inflammatory statement that came close to painting Sherman as a traitor! At the same time Halleck issued orders to the armies of the James and of the Potomac to march against Johnston’s force. He did this without informing Johnston that the truce was over, one of the terms of Sherman’s agreement that was not controversial.
Grant’s arrival in North Carolina calmed the situation. On 26 April Sherman met with Johnston. This time Johnston was willing to accept the same terms that Grant had offered to Lee. The only remaining awkwardness came at the grand victory review in Washington, where Sherman refused to shake hands with Stanton. The two were eventually reconciled.
Post war Sherman remained in the army. He was posted to St. Louis, in command of the Division of the Mississippi. This meant that he was in command for many of the Indian wars that followed, and has to take some blame for the destruction of the buffalo. He also aided the construction of the transcontinental railway. In 1866 Grant was promoted to full General, and Sherman to lieutenant-general. In 1869, Grant was elected President, and Sherman now promoted to general commanding the army. He did not thrive in Washington, even going as far as moving the entire department to St. Louis between 1871 and 1874. He retired in 1883, living first in St. Louis, and then in New York. Attempts were made to nominate him for the presidency, to which he famously responded that "If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve."
Sherman’s fame rests on his Atlanta campaign and the march through the Confederacy. Basil Liddell Hart called him the first modern general, and credited Sherman’s campaigns with providing inspiration for many of his ideas for armoured warfare. Although he retained his unpopularity in Georgia, Joseph Johnston did not share that opinion, acting as a pallbearer at his funeral in 1891, himself dying a month later of pneumonia. Sherman made a massive contribution to the eventual Union victory. His march to the sea and then through the Carolinas removed Lee’s last sources of supplies and reinforcements, and hastened the collapse of resistance around Richmond. By the end of the war his armies were threatening Lee from the south.