David Aaron Gray

"Don't believe everything 
you hear on the radio"
- Charles Foster Kane

David Aaron Gray (Blog)

'War is Hell' - Second Acts in Life and the Art of the Comeback, cont'd

Posted by davidaarongray on February 7, 2013 at 12:30 PM

6) William Tecumseh Sherman (Union General during American Civil War)

Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, military historians have come to regard the service of General Sherman as one of the most accomplished and talented of any military officer of the United States. Besides being instrumental in securing Union victory through his famous doctrine of “total war,” Sherman became only the third general in U.S. history (after George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant) to receive the supreme four-star distinction.

However, few Americans know that during the first year of the Civil War, General Sherman, paralyzed by bipolar disorder was relieved of his command in Kentucky. Five weeks later, the wire services proclaimed to the nation: “GENERAL WILLIAM T. SHERMAN INSANE.” Just after his participation in the Civil War had begun, Sherman’s reputation was nearly destroyed.


ABOVE: Sherman's birthplace in Lancaster, Ohio

Sherman was born in 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio, near the banks of the Hocking River. His father Charles Robert Sherman, a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, died unexpectedly in 1829. He left his widow, Mary Hoyt Sherman, with eleven children and no inheritance.

After his father's death, the nine-year-old Sherman was raised by a Lancaster neighbor and family friend, attorney Thomas Ewing, a prominent member of the Whig Party who served as senator from Ohio and as the first Secretary of the Interior.

Senator Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point. There Sherman excelled academically, but he treated the demerit system with indifference. Fellow cadet William Rosecrans would later remember Sherman at West Point as "one of the brightest and most popular fellows" and "a bright-eyed, red-headed fellow, who was always prepared for a lark of any kind."

ABOVE: A young Sherman

Despite his numerous demerits while at West Point, Sherman would graduate 6th in his class in 1840 entering the Army as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery.

He was first stationed in Georgia and South Carolina (the terrain of which he would call upon later in life) but saw no military action which was concentrated to the southeast in Florida during the Second Seminole War. As the foster son of a prominent Whig politician, in Charleston, the popular Lt. Sherman moved within the upper circles of Old South society.

Later, while many of his colleagues saw action in the Mexican-American War, Sherman performed administrative duties in the captured territory of California. It was there, in late 1848 that Sherman accompanied the military governor of California, Col. Richard Barnes Mason, in the inspection that officially confirmed that gold had been discovered in the region, thus inaugurating the California Gold Rush of the following year.

In 1850 (after a promotion to Captain), Sherman married Thomas Ewing's daughter (and basically Sherman's own step sister), Eleanor Boyle ("Ellen") Ewing, in a Washington ceremony attended by President Zachary Taylor and other political luminaries. Thomas Ewing was serving as the first Secretary of the Interior at the time.

ABOVE: Mrs. William T. Sherman

In 1853, at the request of both his wife and father-in-law, Sherman resigned his captaincy and became manager of the San Francisco branch of a St. Louis-based bank.

He returned to San Francisco at a time of great financial turmoil in the West. The discovery of gold and subsequent rush led to unprecedented real estate speculation and rapid inflation.

Late in life, regarding his time in San Francisco, Sherman recalled: "I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco."

Sherman's San Francisco branch closed in May 1857, and he relocated to New York on behalf of the same bank. When the bank failed during the financial Panic of 1857, he closed the New York branch and then left the industry entirely.

ABOVE: Location of San Francisco bank branch Sherman ran

In 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he first tried his hand as a lawyer without much success (maybe law school might have helped?) then moved his family to St. Louis where he ran a streetcar company into bankruptcy in just under two months. This guy is sort of a Rumpelstiltskin of the business world...except instead of everything he touches turning into gold, it turns to s**t.  He's even sort of responsible for ruining the worth of actual gold by verifying its existence in California in 1848 causing an insane rush and the worst name of a professional sports franchise in history.

Realizing that any chance of a successful life resided within the ranks of the military, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville in 1859. He proved an effective and popular leader of that institution, which would later become Louisiana State University (LSU).

Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, the brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared at the time that "if you had hunted the whole army, from one end of it to the other, you could not have found a man in it more admirably suited for the position in every respect than Sherman."

Although his brother John was well known as an antislavery congressman, Sherman did not oppose slavery and was sympathetic to Southerners' defense of the institution (spoiler alert...he'll make up for his prejudice soon). He did oppose, however, any attempt at dissolving the Union. On hearing of South Carolina's secession from the United States, Sherman observed to a close friend, Professor David F. Boyd of Virginia, an enthusiastic secessionist, almost perfectly describing the four years of war to come:

“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... 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.”

In January 1861, as more Southern states were seceding from the Union, Sherman was required to accept receipt of arms surrendered to the State Militia by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent and returned to the North, declaring to the governor of Louisiana, "On no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile ... to the ... United States."

After the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Sherman offered himself for service in the Union army. On June 3, he wrote to his brother: "I still think it is to be a long war – very long – much longer than any Politician thinks."

ABOVE: Map of the newly formed CSA

At this point in Sherman’s life, we meet a man who is overflowing with deep insecurity. After missing the only military campaign of his generation (the Mexican-American War) and then failing at virtually every other private endeavor, Sherman had good reason to doubt his leadership capabilities, especially when under fire.

In late June of 1861, Sherman’s political connections facilitated a private meeting with President Lincoln. Their conversation was brief. They spoke on only two topics. On the first, Sherman expressed his view that the war would last much longer and be much bloodier than the President or any of his advisors estimated. The second topic dealt with Sherman’s place in this “much longer war.” Giving the President no explanation, no reason why, Sherman requested that he never be placed in command of a large number of troops. "I only wish to serve in a subordinate capacity.” The President agreed.

Sherman’s request must have seemed strange to Lincoln. After all, from what he knew of Sherman, he was an effective and respected military officer and after missing the Mexican-American War, it would be unprecedented for a graduate of West Point to proactively demand NOT to command troops in the field. At a time when every northern soldier (from 16 to 60 years of age) would do just about anything to earn a spot among the nation’s top brass, Sherman’s request by definition, would prevent him from ever achieving the coveted rank of army General.

Again, given Lincoln’s view at this juncture that the "rebellion" (which the Civil War was referred to in those early days) would last a matter of months, along with a surplus of West Point graduates demanding top commands, it’s easy to understand why the President so easily granted Sherman’s wish.

Sherman was first commissioned as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment serving under General Irvin McDowell. This was a new regiment yet to be raised, and Sherman's first command was actually of a brigade of three-month volunteers, at the head of which he became one of the few Union officers to distinguish himself at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 where he was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder.

Despite the positive feedback he received from superiors, the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run led Sherman to further question his own judgment as an officer and the capacities of his small platoon of volunteer troops. President Lincoln, however, was impressed by Sherman while visiting the troops on July 23 and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (with seniority in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander). He was assigned to serve under General Robert Anderson in the Department of the Cumberland in Louisville, Kentucky, and in October Sherman succeeded Anderson in command of the department.

Now, in direct charge of over 10,000 soldiers, Sherman considered that his new assignment broke the promise Lincoln made earlier in June.


Despite Sherman’s deep disappointment and lack of self-confidence, he did as he was told and took command of the Army of the Cumberland. The first day he assumed leadership, following a reconnaissance into the Kentucky hinterland, Sherman wrote anxiously to civilian supporters, and to Lincoln as well, that the whole countryside seethed with disunion, that the enemy was conspiring to create a “vast force” that would soon overwhelm Louisville. His own units were green, “too weak, far too weak” to resist the expected onslaught. He anticipated being “overwhelmed” — a defeat that would be “disastrous to the nation. Do not conclude…that I exaggerate the facts. They are as stated, and the future looks as dark as possible. It would be better if a more sanguine mind were here, for I am forced to order according to my expectations.” Thoroughly alarmed by Sherman’s correspondence, Lincoln dispatched his secretary of war, Simon Cameron, to make a personal inspection.

On Oct 17, Sherman repeated these apprehensions to Cameron, and insisted that only a force of 200,000 men could hold Kentucky. Cameron replied that he was astonished by this analysis and that he had no idea where such an army might come from. Also, despite telling Sherman that he was among friends during this interview, Cameron had included Samuel Wilkerson of the New York Tribune in his party, who would later write the story declaring Sherman insane. The other Union generals in Kentucky whom Cameron and Lincoln consulted assured them that the Confederate side was even more disorganized than they were, and that they did not share Sherman’s negative certainties, which amounted, they said to “delusions.”

Over the following weeks, Sherman’s fears only intensified, while others observed a tortured man suffering what has long been defined in psychiatric terms as intense mania.

On one occasion two New York journalists who shared long nights at the Louisville telegraph office with the General grew deeply alarmed by his behavior. Sherman talked incessantly while never listening, all the while repeatedly making “quick, sharp…odd gestures,” pacing the floor, chain-smoking cigars, “twitching his red whiskers — his coat buttons — playing a tattoo on the table” with his fingers. All in all he was “a bundle of nerves all strung to the highest tension.”

Back at his hotel, other guests observed him pacing all night in the corridors, smoking and brooding, and it was soon whispered about that he was suffering from some sort of mental psychosis.

Upon recently reviewing Sherman’s behavior through second hand sources, historians and clinical psychologists alike concluded that Sherman suffered from bipolar disorder. Such increased energy, talkativeness and hyperactivity (which can sometimes become impulsive and even psychotic), followed abruptly by periods of prolonged depression point to this diagnosis.

In letters to his wife, Ellen, Sherman himself confirmed and amplified what others observed. Everyone around him seemed poised to betray him, he wrote her. “I am up all night.” He had lost his appetite. Viewing his situation from the perspective of this mental turmoil, he was convinced that he was caught in an impossible military contradiction where “to advance would be madness and to stand still, folly.” And he entirely lacked the means to lead others and to control himself: “I find myself riding a whirlwind unable to guide the storm.” In the near future he anticipated total “failure and humiliation,” an onrushing infamy that “nearly makes me crazy — indeed I may be so now.”

Then, in November 1861, a captain on Sherman’s staff telegraphed Ellen Sherman to ask her to come down to see the General. In a series of letters to the extended Ewing/Sherman clan over the next week, Ellen described what she found in Louisville: understanding that depression had what we would now call a genetic predisposition, she recalled that one of Sherman’s uncles was a chronic “melancholic.” And she also remembered quite vividly “having seen him in the seize of it in California,” when the bank had failed, a mental event that was repeated at least twice prior to the war. To inheritance and personal history, Ellen Sherman added descriptions of his behavior: he seldom ate or slept, had lost human contact with others, and scarcely talked unless repeating his obsessions that “the whole country is gone irrevocably and ruin and desolation are at hand!” Sherman was relieved of his command on Nov 8 and reassigned to a lesser post in St. Louis where he continued his downward mental spiral. Finally, on Dec 1, Ellen Sherman came to collect him and bring him home to Lancaster, Ohio after President Lincoln himself demanded Sherman take immediate military leave for an indefinite period of time.

In Lancaster, Ellen embarked on a multi-month strategy to nurse Sherman back to health. At the suggestion of a family physician she began with a rest cure, the frequently effective 19th-century therapy, supplemented with favorite foods, reading him his most cherished books, especially Shakespeare, and calming him sufficiently so that he could sleep. In short, Sherman had regressed from general to small scared child and no one knew when (or if) his state would improve.


After a little over a month away from the battlefield, Sherman began reading about one Union defeat after another in the local paper. He would later recall in his memoirs that he felt a sort of necessity to “return to the fight,” that there was no other option.

Despite hopeless pleas from Ellen to remain in Lancaster and continue his recovery, Sherman took the next transport train to Washington and had his brother arrange another private meeting with Lincoln (and General Henry Halleck, now the commander of the Army of the Cumberland).

Despite the public’s awareness of his insanity, the President and General Halleck observed that Sherman seemed somewhat strengthened. His mood appeared to have leveled out after the lengthy period of self-repair. Since things were going poorly for the Union (which Lincoln could not help but concede that Sherman had fairly predicted months earlier), the President left Sherman’s fate in the hands of General Halleck.

Besides being described as a sympathetic General by those who knew him, Henry Halleck also graduated with Sherman at West Point and served with him in California. Through the years he had come to respect Sherman’s intelligence and dedication to whatever task was assigned. He therefore decided to give Sherman the proverbial “second chance” and placed Sherman in charge of the training camp in St. Louis under his direct supervision.

Seven weeks later, trusting Sherman’s recovery sufficiently, Halleck assigned him to Cairo, Illinois to serve as the logistical coordinator for General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army, the beginning of a long and intense friendship between two emotionally wounded warriors.

ABOVE: (Left) Grant, (Right) Sherman. The former higher in rank, the latter older in years


Grant soon brought Sherman down to the front at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, and put him in charge of a division. There, on Apr 6, a vast surprise attack on Grant’s Army led to the horrific Battle of Shiloh, in which the casualties totaled 20,000 men. In the thick of things, Sherman led his men with considerable personal bravery and tactical skill. In dispatches back to Washington, it appears that Sherman was everywhere throughout the battle.




Following Shiloh, his spirits soared. He experienced an almost instant internal transformation: from the despairing, self-proclaimed loser in Kentucky to the confident and brilliantly creative commander.




The careers of both Grant and Sherman ascended considerably after Shiloh. During the long and complicated campaign against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, one newspaper complained that the "army was being ruined in mud-turtle expeditions, under the leadership of a drunkard [Grant], whose confidential adviser [Sherman] was a lunatic."




Such a public headline would have certainly driven Sherman to near suicide years earlier, but he no longer cared about public perception. When Grant expressed to Sherman, his own self doubts after the rather harsh criticism from the journalist, Sherman remarked: “you must focus on the task at hand, they brought me down once and as long as we are victorious by the end then newspaper men be hanged!” As an aside, to my knowledge, no journalist was harmed in the making of Sherman's Comeback.




Sherman's military record in 1862–63 was mixed. In December 1862, forces under his command suffered a severe repulse at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg. The historian John D. Winters in The Civil War in Louisiana (1963) describes Sherman during this critical time:




“He had yet before Vicksburg to display any marked talents for leadership. Sherman, beset by hallucinations and unreasonable fears and finally contemplating suicide, had been relieved from command in Kentucky. He later began a new climb to success at Shiloh and Corinth under Grant. Still, if he muffed his Vicksburg assignment, which had begun unfavorably, he would rise no higher. As a man, Sherman was an eccentric mixture of strength and weakness. Although he was impatient, often irritable and depressed, petulant, headstrong, and unreasonably gruff, he had solid soldierly qualities. His men swore by him, and most of his fellow officers admired him.”




After the surrender of Vicksburg to Union forces under Grant on July 4, 1863 (the day after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg), Sherman was given the rank of major general. Command in the West was unified under Grant and Sherman succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee.





Despite his mixed record, Sherman’s unyielding loyalty earned Grant's confidence and friendship. When Lincoln called Grant east in the spring of 1864 to take command of all the Union armies, Grant appointed Sherman (by then known to his soldiers as "Uncle Billy") to succeed him as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of Union troops in the Western Theater of the war.

As Grant took overall command of the armies of the United States, Sherman wrote to him outlining his strategy to bring the war to an end concluding that "if you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol' Uncle Abe will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks."

Sherman proceeded to invade the state of Georgia with three armies: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield. He fought a lengthy campaign of maneuver through mountainous terrain against Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, attempting a direct assault only at the disastrous Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.


In July, the cautious Johnston was replaced by the more aggressive John Bell Hood, who played to Sherman's strength by challenging him to direct battles on open ground. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city, which Hood had been forced to abandon. This success made Sherman a household name and helped ensure Lincoln's presidential re-election in November.


Had Sherman not taken Atlanta, it has been speculated that Lincoln would have lost his bid for re-election to former General George McClelland who ran on a platform of negotiated peace with the Confederacy. Thus, it would be far from outrageous to claim that Sherman’s victory at Atlanta ultimately led to a Union victory in the Civil War.


After ordering almost all civilians to leave the city in September, Sherman gave instructions that all military and government buildings in Atlanta be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies. He began referring to this type of targeted civilian and military engagement as “hard war.” History would come to call it the first example of “total war,” and its results were disturbing yet clearly effective. Years later, when the United States faced another enemy who refused to surrender during the Second World War, Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur all cited Sherman’s doctrine of “total war” as justification for the indiscriminate fire bombing of German and Japanese cities and President Truman privately confided with aids that Sherman would have “dropped the bomb” if it meant ending the war sooner.


After Atlanta was safely under Union control, Sherman began to move. There was still the Confederate army of General John Bell Hood in the area, and cavalry leaders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Joe Wheeler, who could threaten Sherman's supply lines.


In late November 1864, Sherman dispatched part of his force back to Nashville, Tennessee, to deal with Hood while Sherman cut free from his supply lines and headed south and east across Georgia. Along the way, his troops destroyed nearly everything in their path. Sherman's intent was to wreck the morale of the South and bring the war to a swift end. 

For nearly six weeks, nothing was heard from Sherman's army. No one knew where they were or what they were succeeding or failing at doing. Finally, just before Christmas, Sherman wired Lincoln with the message,

"I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

Lincoln forgave Sherman’s six week unauthorized radio silence.



ABOVE: General Sherman's invasion of Georgia, March to the Sea and final assault through the Carolinas

Sherman's success in Georgia received ample coverage in the Northern press at a time when Grant seemed to be making little progress in his fight against Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. A bill was introduced in Congress to promote Sherman to Grant's rank of lieutenant general, probably with a view towards having him replace Grant as commander of the Union Army. In response to this, Sherman wrote both to his brother, Senator John Sherman, and to General Grant vehemently repudiating any such promotion. According to a wartime account, it was around this time that Sherman made his memorable declaration of loyalty to Grant:

"General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always."

Sherman soon left Savannah and marched north through the Carolinas to link up with Grant’s main Army on a final attack on Lee. Sherman's last significant military engagement was a victory over General Johnston's troops at the Battle of Bentonville in March, 1865 . After the victory, he arranged the formal surrender of Johnston’s army and all the Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, in what was the largest single capitulation of the war.

Lee surrendered the remainder of Confederate forces to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

In June 1865, General Sherman was given his first postwar command, originally called the Military Division of the Mississippi and later the Military Division of the Missouri. After changes, his command covered territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains. On July 25, 1866, Congress created the rank of General of the Army for Grant and then promoted Sherman to lieutenant general. When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army. After the death of John A. Rawlins, Sherman also served for one month as interim Secretary of War.

ABOVE: Sherman in his twilight

Sherman stepped down as commanding general on November 1, 1883, and retired from the army on February 8, 1884. He lived most of the rest of his life in New York City. He was devoted to the theater and to amateur painting and was much in demand as a colorful speaker at dinners and banquets, in which he indulged a fondness for quoting Shakespeare. Sherman was proposed as a Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1884, but declined as emphatically as possible, saying,

"I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected."

Such a categorical rejection of a candidacy is now referred to as a "Shermanesque statement." 

Perhaps the greatest tribute to William T. Sherman was paid by his old Civil War opponent Confederate General Joseph Johnston, who had fought him in Georgia and had signed with him an armistice after the Battle of Bentonville in April 1865. After the war, the two actually became friends. General Johnston attended Sherman's funeral in New York in 1891, and even acted as one of the pallbearers. Due in part to Johnston's poor health at the time and the unseasonably cold weather the day of the funeral, Johnston ended up catching a cold and died two weeks later.

ABOVE: Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and the tombstone of General Sherman

Categories: Top Comebacks of All Time

Oops! This site has expired.

If you are the site owner, please renew your premium subscription or contact support.