Lincoln, Sherman and Grant plan final stages of Civil War

Lincoln, Sherman and Grant plan final stages of Civil War

On March 27, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln meets with Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman at City Point, Virginia, to plot the last stages of the Civil War.

Lincoln went to Virginia just as Grant was preparing to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s lines around Petersburg and Richmond, an assault that promised to end the siege that had dragged on for 10 months. Meanwhile, Sherman’s force was steamrolling northward through the Carolinas. The three architects of Union victory convened for the first time as a group—Lincoln and Sherman had never met—at Grant’s City Point headquarters at the general-in-chief’s request.

As part of the trip, Lincoln went to the Petersburg lines and witnessed a Union bombardment and a small skirmish. Prior to meeting with his generals, the president also reviewed troops and visited wounded soldiers. Once he sat down with Grant and Sherman, Lincoln expressed concern that Lee might escape Petersburg and flee to North Carolina, where he could join forces with Joseph Johnston to forge a new Confederate army that could continue the war for months. Grant and Sherman assured the president the end was in sight. Lincoln emphasized to his generals that any surrender terms must preserve the Union aims of emancipation and a pledge of equality for the formerly enslaved people.

After meeting with Admiral David Dixon Porter on March 28, the president and his two generals went their separate ways. Less than four weeks later, Grant and Sherman had secured the surrender of the Confederacy.

READ MORE: Why the Civil War Actually Ended 16 Months After Lee Surrendered

Ulysses S. Grant's Path to Victory: The 1864 Overland Campaign

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

Lithograph by A. Hoen (Library of Congress)

When Ulysses S. Grant took command of all United States armies in March of 1864, he promised to change how the Union war effort was being conducted. 1864 was a crucial "make it or break it" year in the Civil War. The nation had already gone through unspeakable bloodshed and war weariness was at an all-time high. Many soldiers who had enlisted in the U.S. military at the beginning of the war in 1861 had signed up for a three-year term that was about to expire. Would they re-enlist? And perhaps most importantly, President Abraham Lincoln was up for re-election as the Union hung in the balance. As commander of all Union armies, the path to victory laid on the shoulders of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, who strove to find a winning strategy and accomplish Union war aims as quickly as possible.

When General Grant formulated his plans for the upcoming spring campaign of 1864, he endeavored to bring a unifying purpose to his forces. Destroying or capturing Confederate armies and restricting their ability to wage war became the foremost objective. Grant hoped that “so far as practicable all the armies are to move together and towards one common [center].” Earlier in the war, Grant observed how “various [Union] armies had acted separately and independently of each other, giving the enemy an opportunity often of depleting one command, not pressed, to reinforce another more actively engaged.” To accomplish this end, Grant’s main objective was defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Defeating Lee was important because his army had been the most successful of all Confederate armies and when that army ultimately fell, the Confederate war effort would be doomed.

Grant relayed the importance to capturing Lee’s army to General George Gordon Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” While previous Union commanders of the Army of the Potomac believed that Richmond itself was a bigger prize, Grant realized that even with Richmond in Union hands, the war would continue as long as Lee’s army was still on the field and supported by the Confederate population. This situation had a precedent in U.S. history. During the American Revolution, the British captured the Continental capitol at Philadelphia. However, Washington’s army remained on the field and the Continental Congress simply moved its base of operations. Grant’s strategy proved true when Richmond was finally captured on April 2-3 1865. Even though the capitol was now in U.S. hands, Lee’s army escaped and fought on for another week. While Grant’s main objective was defeating Lee, he planned simultaneous campaigns in support of his Army of the Potomac to strangle the Confederacy. These included campaigns in the Trans-Mississippi, Shenandoah Valley, the James River east of Richmond, and a major campaign against Atlanta led by Grant’s trusted subordinate, General William T. Sherman.

While Grant was planning offensive strategies, he also assuaged Lincoln’s fears about a possible Confederate northern incursion. “It was necessary to have a great number of troops to guard and hold the territory we had captured, and to prevent incursions into the northern states.” He went on to say that the troops “could perform this service just as well by advancing as by remaining still and by advancing they would compel the enemy to keep detachments to hold them back, or else lay his own territory open to invasion.” Lincoln, seeming to understand Grant’s purpose to use all the Union armies simultaneously towards a common purpose, stated “Oh, yes! I see that. As we say out west, if a man can’t skin, he must hold a leg while somebody else does.”

In formulating his plans for the 1864 campaign, Grant also began his excellent working relationship with President Lincoln. Despite having a mutual respect for each other, they never met personally until late March 1864. Lincoln expressed his disappointment in the “procrastination” of past commanders. He went on to tell Grant that he wanted “someone who would take responsibility and act and call on him for all the assistance needed, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.” Grant responded by assuring Lincoln that he would do his best with the means available to him and to avoid “annoying” Lincoln or the War Department. Lincoln, in his last letter to Grant before the Overland Campaign was set to open on May 4, expressed his “entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time.” He called Grant “self-reliant and vigilant.” He also expressed a wish to not put “any constraints or restraints” upon Grant, thereby showing his trust in Grant’s generalship. He also let Grant know, “if there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it . . . now with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.” On May 4, 1864 Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant put his plan in motion and advanced on all fronts for a push to finally end the American Civil War.


Abraham Lincoln letter to Ulysses S. Grant, April 30, 1864.

Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press 1988.

Lincoln, Sherman and Grant plan final stages of Civil War

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On March 27, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln meets with Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman at City Point, Virginia, to plot the last stages of the Civil War.

Lincoln went to Virginia just as Grant was preparing to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s lines around Petersburg and Richmond, an assault that promised to end the siege that had dragged on for 10 months. Meanwhile, Sherman’s force was steamrolling northward through the Carolinas. The three architects of Union victory convened for the first time as a group—Lincoln and Sherman had never met—at Grant’s City Point headquarters at the general-in-chief’s request.

As part of the trip, Lincoln went to the Petersburg lines and witnessed a Union bombardment and a small skirmish. Prior to meeting with his generals, the president also reviewed troops and visited wounded soldiers. Once he sat down with Grant and Sherman, Lincoln expressed concern that Lee might escape Petersburg and flee to North Carolina, where he could join forces with Joseph Johnston to forge a new Confederate army that could continue the war for months. Grant and Sherman assured the president the end was in sight. Lincoln emphasized to his generals that any surrender terms must preserve the Union war aims of emancipation and a pledge of equality for the formerly enslaved people.

After meeting with Admiral David Dixon Porter on March 28, the president and his two generals went their separate ways. Less than four weeks later, Grant and Sherman had secured the surrender of the Confederacy.

Treasures of the White House: The Peacemakers

The title is the only clue to the import of this solemn painting, a prelude to the end of the Civil War. Seated in the after cabin of the Union steamer River Queen are Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and Rear Adm. David D. Porter. Less than a week before the fall of Petersburg, Virginia, the four men met to discuss the nature of the peace terms to follow.

The events leading up to the scene recorded in The Peacemakers are these. Following his march through Georgia, Sherman with his army had turned to the Carolinas and, on March 19, 1865, had taken Goldsboro, North Carolina. Petersburg, the last defense of Richmond, where Gen. Robert E. Lee had gathered his forces, had been under siege by Grant's army for nine months. The end of the Civil War was at last imaginable.

On March 20 Grant invited Lincoln to visit him at his headquarters at City Point, on the James River near Richmond: "Can you not visit City Point for a day or two? I would like very much to see you and I think the rest would do you good."' Lincoln accepted this opportunity to relax while acquainting himself firsthand with the progress of the war. On March 24 he reached City Point on the River Queen. Sherman, according to his Memoirs, decided coincidentally to pay a visit to Grant at just this time, arriving on the evening of the 27th: "After I had been with him an hour or so, [Grant] remarked that the President [was on the River Queen]. . . and he proposed that we should call and see him."

Since Porter, in charge of the Union fleet on the James River, was also in City Point, he joined the others. On March 27 and again on the 28th, the four gathered aboard the steamer. The first meeting was, according to Sherman, "a good, long, social visit." During the second meeting their conversation, although wide-ranging, turned often to the conclusion of the peace. Only Sherman and Porter left written accounts, and some have suggested that they exaggerated Lincoln's desire for peace, as Porter put it, "on almost any terms" in order to justify Sherman's later, controversial liberal surrender terms to Gen. Joseph Johnston. But Lincoln's generous intentions had been memorably formulated in his Second Inaugural Address, just three weeks before: "With malice toward none with charity for all."

Following the meeting shown in The Peacemakers and preceding the end of the war by one week, Petersburg fell on the night of April 2 after the long siege. Grant and Lincoln entered the city the next day. On his return to the Union base at City Point, Lincoln told Porter: "Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond." Together they sailed upriver to the defenseless capital of the Confederacy. There Lincoln, less than a fortnight before his assassination, walked the streets amid a swelling throng of emancipated black people.

The Peacemakers documents in measured accents this turning point of American history. Its somber figures–less actors than audience–await the denouement, the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Source: William Kloss, et. al., Art in the White House, New York: Abrams, 1992.

Halleck `Pulls a Meade'

Unable to prevent Grant from carrying out his bold, unorthodox, and unprecedented strategy for the seizure of Vicksburg, General Halleck proceeded to ``pull a Meade'' in the aftermath of the victory. Whereas Grant recommended an immediate campaign against the vital Southern port and rail center of Mobile, Alabama, and from there to Atlanta, Halleck instead dispersed the various elements of Grant's army in an arbitrary, timeless, and haphazard fashion. Grant was called back into action in October, only after the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia. His military prowess was needed to raise the seige against the Union forces that were pinned down in Chattanooga, the city to which they had retreated after their defeat in Georgia. General-in-Chief Halleck's lamentable lack of strategic vision and imagination, unfortunately permeated most of the military leadership of the Union. In his lengthy reply to Halleck's August 1863 ill-conceived inquiry about the prospects of reconstruction, General Sherman articulated various elements of his (and Grant's) strategic orientation which shaped the development of their war-winning, as opposed to merely battle-winning strategy, of the rest of the Union high command:

``A civil government now, for any part of it, would be simply ridiculous. The people would not regard it, and even the military commanders of the antagonistic parties would treat it lightly. Governors would be simply petitioners for military assistance, to protect supposed friendly interests, and military commanders would refuse to disperse and weaken their armies for military reasons. Jealousies would arise between the two conflicting powers, and instead of contributing to the end of the war, would actually defer it. Therefore, I contend that the interests of the United States, and of the real parties concerned, demand the continuance of the simple military rule, till after all the organized armies of the South are dispersed, conquered, and subjugated.

``I would banish all minor questions, assert the broad doctrine that as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it--that we will do it in our own time and in our own way that it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty that we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper that we will not cease till the end is attained that all who do not aid us are enemies, and that we will not account to them for our acts. If the people of the South oppose, they do so at their peril and if they stand by, mere lookers-on in this domestic tragedy, they have no right to immunity, protection, or share in the final results.

``War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be `pure and simple' as applied to the belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.

``God knows that I deplore this fratricidal war as much as any man living, but it is upon us, a physical fact and there is only one honorable issue from it. We must fight it out, army against army, and man against man and I know, and you know, and civilians [must] begin to realize the fact, that reconciliation and reconstruction will be easier through and by means of strong, well-equipped, and organized armies than through any species of conventions that can be framed. The issues are made, and all discussion is out of place and ridiculous. The section of thirty-pounder Parrott rifles now drilling before my tent is a more convincing argument than the largest Democratic meeting of the State of New York can possibly assemble at Albany and a simple order of the War Department to draft enough men to fill our skeleton regiments would be more convincing as to our national perpetuity than an humble pardon to Jeff. Davis and all his misled host.

``The only government needed or deserved by the States of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, now exists in Grant's army. This needs, simply, enough privates to fill its ranks all else will follow in due season. This army has its well-defined code of laws and practice, and can adapt itself to the wants and necessities of a city, the country, the rivers, the sea, indeed to all parts of this land. It better subserves the interest and policy of the General Government, and the people here prefer it to any weak or servile combination that would at once, from force of habit, revive and perpetuate local prejudices and passions. The people of this country have forfeited all right to a voice in the councils of the nation. They know it and feel it, and in after-years they will be the better citizens from the dear-bought experience of the present crisis. Let them learn now, and learn it well, that good citizens must obey as well as command. Obedience to law, absolute--yea, even abject--is the lesson that this war, under Providence, will teach the freed and enlightened American citizen. As a nation, we shall be the better for it.

``We must succeed--no other choice is left us except degradation. The South must be ruled by us, or she will rule us. We must conquer them, or ourselves be conquered. There is no middle course. They ask, and will have, nothing else, and talk of compromise is bosh for we know they would even scorn the offer.'' [fn9]

21 Civil War, 1863-65

“Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” — Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 1865

Momentum shifted in the Union’s favor in the summer of 1863. There were times in 1864 when the Confederacy nearly invaded Washington, or the North was on the verge of giving up, but Confederate forces suffered irreparable blows in 1863 on three main fronts: the West (Mississippi River), Upper South (Tennessee), and East, where Robert E. Lee failed a second time to invade the North. Three battles — Vicksburg (MS), Chattanooga (TN), and Gettysburg (PA) — turned the tide in favor of the North. European investors were evenly divided as to whom they predicted would win up until Gettysburg. Afterward, the percentage of speculators bullish on the Confederacy fell to 15%. Stonewall Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville, Virginia that spring also hurt Confederates’ chances, even though his Grays won the battle. Jackson lost his arm to friendly fire and died later from pneumonia. The Jackson-Lee combo had made the Confederates effective in Virginia earlier in the war, so the week-long bloodbath at Chancellorsville was a costly, or pyrrhic victory.

Ulysses S. Grant @ Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864 (left) and Robert E. Lee, 1865, Photo by Mathew Brady, Montage of Two Wikipedia Images by Hal Jespersen

In the Western Theater, Union General Ulysses S. Grant continued his incessant Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where residents were holed up in dugouts under the town. Grant eventually worked his way over the Mississippi River above the point where it widens and snuck in behind the besieged town. His forces rampaged the area in the process, living off the land, demoralizing civilians, and tearing up infrastructure. In combination with another victory at Port Hudson, Louisiana near Baton Rouge, where Confederates surrendered after a 48-day siege upon hearing of Vicksburg’s capitulation on July 7th, the Union now controlled the “Mighty Mississippi.” Animated Map Holding America’s main water route meant that Midwest farmers could export crops to Europe via New Orleans. Further north and east, farmers used the Great Lakes and Erie Canal for shipping, but winning the Lower Mississippi Valley swung many Butternut farmers just north of the Ohio River to the Union cause (they’d been so-called in reference to the yellowish brown color of some Confederate uniforms dyed from copperas and walnut hulls). The Erie Canal and the mines around Syracuse, New York gave the Union a monopoly on salt and means to move it around. Salt gave them a critical advantage on food preservation and health (even brain function) after the Union cut off Confederate licks in the Chesapeake. Lincoln described this violent struggle for control of the Mississippi with an eloquent spin: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

In the Upper South, the Union made headway in its Chattanooga Campaign, giving them a shot at invading the Deep South the following year, in 1864. The Vicksburg campaign divided the Confederacy, isolating the western portion of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and the Union’s post-Chattanooga invasion divided the heart of the Old South in the east.

Leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee couldn’t gloat for long after his 10k outnumbered Grays defeated 20k Blues led by Thomas Hooker at Chancellorsville in early 1863. For one, Stonewall Jackson died after the battle, but Lee also figured that the South couldn’t win a protracted war against the North’s superior resources and decided to gamble on another northern invasion. Lee wanted to invade for many of the same reasons he had in 1862, when the Union thwarted Confederates at Antietam, Maryland. Like before, Lee hoped to make Northern civilians feel the sting of war, steal supplies (including ammo and shoes), kidnap free Blacks to sell into slavery, and gain control of key railheads — in this case, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg was home to Camp Curtin, the largest Union arsenal. Lee hoped that by invading the North he could get to Washington, D.C. through its more exposed northern side or, at least, raze Baltimore or Philadelphia.

The Union’s Army of the Potomac was hot on Lee’s trail as he moved north, buffering itself between Confederates and Washington, D.C. This was one case where Lincoln didn’t want his army to concern itself with Richmond, but rather focus on Lee’s Army and protecting Washington. In fact, Commanding General Joseph Hooker resigned over this disagreement, as he saw Lee’s northern invasion as an ideal opportunity to attack Richmond. Lincoln, though, thought that if the Union took that bait, they’d get trapped south of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. He cabled Hooker: “In case you would find Lee crossing north of the Rappahannock I would by no means cross south of it. If he should leave a rear force at Fredericksburg, tempting you to fall on it…getting an advantage of you Northward…I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence, and liable to be torn by dogs, front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.”

George Meade, ca. 1860-65, Photo by Mathew Brady, Library of Congress

The Army of the Potomac couldn’t stop Lee as he moved north through Winchester, Virginia toward Harrisburg. These were tense times in the Union, with Democrats in Ohio and New York demanding that Lincoln release war protestors and Hooker seemingly unable to slow Lee’s advance. The Confederacy even sent VP Lincoln Stephens to D.C. to negotiate a truce from their seeming position of strength, but Lincoln refused him. Instead, he replaced Hooker with little-known Pennsylvanian George Meade in the middle of the campaign. Meade had a steep learning curve: one day to prepare to defend his home state and, in turn, the entire Union. Confederates cut his telegraph line to Lincoln, so Meade was on his own. Lincoln waited things out anxiously in the telegraph office nonetheless, not even leaving when First Lady Mary Todd was seriously injured in a carriage accident.

The “Stars & Bars” Confederate Battle Flag

Meade was a quick study and Lincoln’s gamble paid off when the two armies met outside the heretofore sleepy village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in early July 1863. Animated Map It started as a skirmish between two small cavalry units. Lee heard that Meade’s main forces were there and, without scouting, ordered his entire army to converge on Gettysburg, even though he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the location. Within a day, around 90k Blues and 75k Grays converged on the town of 2400 — the largest assemblage of troops and artillery in North American history. Soldiers from nearly every state in the country waged relentless war for three days, often in hand-to-hand combat amidst cornfields, streets, barns, boulders, and peach orchards.

On the first day, they fought in and around the village, with victorious Confederates raising their battle flag (right) in the town square to celebrate their first victory on northern soil. Moreover, the Union lost their best general, John Reynolds. But when the initially outnumbered Union troops retreated, they fled to higher ground, giving them a good defensive position. Union reinforcements streamed in and went up the fishhook-shaped Cemetery Ridge south of town. By the time Lee’s Army of Virginia regrouped, their 75k faced a growing Army of the Potomac that swelled to 90k. Union Commander Meade warned that anyone who deserted the ridge would be put to death. Confederate General James Longstreet (left) thought they should attack the Union’s left flank, occupying the space between them and the road to Washington and forcing them to come down and chase them. But Commander Lee stubbornly pointed toward Cemetery Ridge and said, “the enemy is there and I am going to attack him there.” Robert E. Lee was a great general but, in this case, he should’ve heeded Longstreet’s practical advice after all, their goal was to invade Washington. Instead of losing the battle but winning the war, as the phrase goes, Lee could have skipped the battle to win the war or at least forced the Union down off the hill before engaging.

Gettysburg demonstrated the importance of high ground. The Confederates’ frontal, uphill assaults failed on Day Two even in spots where they had the Union outnumbered. When desperate Blues from Maine and Minnesota ran out of ammunition and bayonet-charged down Little Round Top, a Confederate recounted that the Alabama 15th “ran like a herd of wild cattle.” Thousands of John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade and the 3rd Arkansas died in hand-to-hand combat amidst boulders in Devil’s Den, below Cemetery Ridge, as soldiers with no time or room to shoot and reload relied instead on bayonets and rifle butts. On the right flank, 1500 Federals held off 5k North Carolina Tar Heels and Louisiana Tigers. After more failures on Day Three, Lee finally ordered the heroic but futile Pickett’s Charge against Cemetery Ridge, but Union cannons mowed down most of Pickett’s men as they came across the field. When Lee first heard cheers from hundreds of yards away, he thought they’d won, but he was hearing Union soldiers. Honorably owning up to his hubris, he rode among his men and said, “All this is my fault…it is I who’ve lost the battle.” Seven million fired bullets later, the epic three-day Gettysburg battle had resulted in the highest casualty rates of the war, with

50k dead or injured on the two sides.

Northerners saw the war up close for the first time as the small town was left littered with over 8k corpses and thousands of dead horses. Arms and legs dripping with blood and infested with maggots and flies piled up outside hospital tents that bellowed with screams and moans. Spectators who flocked there to rubberneck at the carnage were pressed into service dealing with scores of Union and Confederate wounded, who lay side-by-side. They did their best to bury the dead in lime-covered mass graves, but the stench was so powerful they were still rubbing peppermint oil under their noses when Lincoln arrived to commemorate the battlefield that November.

General Lee’s own health was deteriorating by this point and his Army of Northern Virginia never recovered its full strength after Gettysburg. The Union, meanwhile, consolidated its defenses around Washington. Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ political support eroded in the South. Just as Antietam ended any hope of an overt (public) British alliance, Britain abandoned even its covert (secret) aid to the Confederacy after Gettysburg, cutting off production of two ironclad cruisers. That made it more difficult for Confederates to break through Winfield Scott’s Great Snake (or Anaconda) naval blockade. Here are videos of Blues and Grays uniting at the Gettysburg veterans’ reunions from 1913 (50th) and 1938 (75th):

Vicksburg and Gettysburg were key victories midway through the war, without which the Union wouldn’t have been in a position to win two years later. The most important thing about Gettysburg, though, was what didn’t happen. A Confederate win at Gettysburg might have brought the North to heel, breaking the Army of the Potomac or leading to Washington’s destruction. Lincoln might have been forced to capitulate or even been killed or captured. Had the Confederates made their way up Little Round Top on Day Two or across Emmitsburg Road in Pickett’s Charge on Day Three, the United States might not be here today in its present form. Nonetheless, the famous Pennsylvania battle didn’t win the war for the Union or turn an inevitable tide in their favor. They lost a huge battle at Chickamauga (northern Georgia) in September 1863, that tallied the second-highest casualty rates of the war behind Gettysburg. That temporarily blocked Union plans to invade the Deep South, which would have to wait until the following year. Moreover, at several points in 1864 the North nearly gave up and, if not for Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, made possible more by the fall of Atlanta than Gettysburg, the Confederacy very well could’ve gained independence, or at least maintained slavery. As late as March 1865, a month before the war ended, brokers bought slaves on the Richmond market and Dutch bankers bought Confederate bonds, if both at cut rates.

Battle of Chickamauga, 1863, Kurz & Allison (ca. 1890), Library of Congress

After the Gettysburg win on the Fourth of July 1863, Lincoln was relieved but surprisingly unhappy, even after word of the key victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi arrived on July 7th. He was distraught that General Meade allowed Confederate forces to retreat instead of chasing them down and finishing them off, especially since they were trapped on the northern side of the flooding Potomac River. In Meade’s defense, he was just following Lincoln’s direction to stay between Lee and the capital, and he’d heroically helped defend the country in his first week on the job. Still, the stressed-out Lincoln was dejected and frustrated that the war was going on so long. He penned the commander an angry letter, accusing him of blowing an opportunity to end the war by not chasing down Lee. “You had them in the hollow of your hand…and let them escape…you cannot imagine how upset I am.” But Meade’s battered troops weren’t spoiling for a fight after three horrific days at Gettysburg and who is to say how ferociously Lee’s troops might have fought with their backs to the flooding Potomac. Realizing perhaps that he was asking too much, Lincoln never sent the letter, though he replaced Meade shortly thereafter. Many Union forces were predisposed after Gettysburg, anyway. Less than a week after the battle, exhausted, sore, sunburned, and dehydrated but still healthy troops trekked all the way across the cornfields of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to put down the bloodiest urban riot in American history: the New York City Draft Day Riots.

New York Draft Riots, 1863, Illustrated London News

Draft Day Riots
Some background here is in order. Most Irish immigrants in New York were poor refugees from the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. In America, they got low-paying jobs, often competing with free Blacks for menial labor. Southerners used Irish for dangerous work like loading cotton bales onto ships because black slaves were worth money. Once the war started, the Irish, aka the “Blacks of Europe,” were disproportionately represented on both sides’ front lines. Irishman Mathew Brady, many of whose portraits you’ve seen in the last couple chapters, took graphic photos of the war’s carnage and displayed them at his New York studio. Many of the victims were Irish.

“Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, PA. Dead Federal Soldiers on Battlefield,” Negative by Brady Employee Timothy H. O’Sullivan

The way the Union draft worked, the rich could buy exemptions and the poor and middle classes did most of the fighting (they also scoured Europe for immigrants, including future journalist Joseph Pulitzer). Now, with the Emancipation Proclamation, the war’s aim included abolition and working-class Irish had no interest in helping to free slaves. That would only lower their bargaining power for wages. Fueled by alcohol and aggravated by heat, they took out their frustrations on both Blacks and wealthy Whites in a riot that started during a draft lottery on the corner of 47th Street and 3rd Avenue. The mostly Irish Fire Engine Co. #33 broke up the lottery, arguing that firemen should be exempt from the draft.

Flickr Commons, British Library

The police, many of whom were Irish themselves, lost control of the city and/or purposely gave up. (The term paddy wagon derives both from Irish “patties” arrested and from Irish police driving the wagons.) Twenty thousand troops who were usually stationed nearby had left to fight at Gettysburg. At one point, rioters nailed shut the doors and windows of a black orphanage (above), burning to death the kids inside. Women and children grabbed shovels, tongs, bricks, and coal-scuttles. The mobs went after the mayor’s home, railroads, and telegraph lines and the New York Times would’ve lost their office if not for three Gatling guns manned by newspaper staff. Some heroic police fought back and the department offered refuge to Blacks in its headquarters. Six Union Army regiments finally arrived and joined forces from nearby Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, firing cannons into the streets to put down the mobs. Some troops knew or were even related to the rioters they mowed down.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1860

The Draft Day Riots symbolized broader discontent, as similar riots shook Albany, Newark, Hartford, and Boston on a smaller scale. New York City, especially, had been a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment long after New York state abolished slavery in 1820, because its textiles depended on slave-grown cotton. As we’ve stressed before, slavery was part of an Atlantic economy, not just the Southeast. In the 1850s, New York’s streets teemed with fugitive slave bounty hunters and kidnappers. Lincoln didn’t carry the city’s votes in either of his presidential bids, in 1860 or 󈨄. Not all Northerners, in general, were enthused with Lincoln turning the war into an abolitionist crusade and there were limits to how long the Union could tap working classes through the draft. Confederate arsonists, too, tried to burn New York in 1864, but Irish firemen doused all 19 of the blazes they set. Lincoln gambled with the Emancipation Proclamation, hoping the newfound support he gained from Blacks and abolitionists would outweigh the loss of support from racists or people apathetic to the cause.

After much debate, including lobbying from Frederick Douglass and opposition from George McClellan, Lincoln decided to use black troops in combat. The soldiers fought in segregated units like the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment or the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (recruited from freed slaves), making a strong contribution to their own emancipation as we learned in the previous chapter. By the end of the war, in a statistic that says as much about Confederate attrition as anything else, the North had more black soldiers than the South had white. Douglass’ own son fought for the Union and he lobbied Lincoln for equal pay among all troops. Douglass was now firmly in the president’s camp.

Lincoln Reframes: Gettysburg Address
Lincoln had come a long way in a short time, since promising to preserve southeastern slavery in 1860 and advocating that Blacks be deported to Panama as late as 1862. While now a dedicated abolitionist and supportive of using black troops, he remained true to his earlier cause of preserving the Union. If anything, the cause of keeping the democratic experiment alive had more meaning now than ever.

Lincoln @ Gettysburg, 11.19.1863, Photo by David Bachrach

In November 1863, Lincoln was “asked to provide a few appropriate remarks” as the government consecrated a battlefield for the first time in its history. He traveled to Gettysburg to commemorate the big battle there and spoke about the Union’s mission. The battlefield was still fresh, with wolves having dug up some of the hastily buried corpses and the smell of death in the air. Few paid much attention at the time, but in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln uttered some of his most famous words, recited in northern classrooms for generations and etched onto the interior walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Then he wrapped things up in less than five minutes, amidst an early snow. The entire speech was only ten sentences long — so short that photographers were still setting up their equipment when he finished, which is why our only image is the fuzzy one above. The crowd stood silently at first because they didn’t think he was done. The president’s most inaccurate line was that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” It’s true, at least, that the talk wasn’t strong on specifics. The president never explicitly mentioned the Union, Confederacy, secession, or slavery.

But Lincoln’s words were eloquent and inspiring. Instead of bowing to pressure and backing away from emancipation, Lincoln dedicated the fight to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” a proposition the Founders “brought forth on this continent…four score and seven years ago.” Four score (20) and seven was 87 years back to 1776, in keeping with Lincoln’s usual emphasis on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, ratified in 1788. He framed the Union’s efforts in an even bigger context, underscoring the fragility of democracy internationally and hoping that the men who died there, giving their “last full measure of devotion,” didn’t die in vain, but rather helped in making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” secure, so that it “shall not perish from the earth.” The U.S. would not only endure and outlast the current crisis, however bleak things seemed it would provide a future beacon for other nations. Lincoln was playing to the theme now known as American Exceptionalism. He also issued a reminder to future generations of the ongoing struggle for freedom, saying that it was left “for us the living” to rededicate ourselves to the war’s unfinished cause.

As mentioned in the Secession Winter chapter, Lincoln had a point regarding democracy’s fragility. Representative government was in full retreat in Europe after a spurt of hope in 1848, and the U.S. was one of only a few major republics left, along with Mexico and Switzerland. Lincoln understood that democracy might fail altogether and that the U.S. might not survive dismemberment if the Confederacy broke away. Closer to home, Lincoln had grieving parents and relatives on his hands and had some explaining to do. Being steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Bible imbued him with a flair for expressing his sympathies and framing his cause better than any statesman in American history. Yet after the Gettysburg Address, one Pennsylvania newspaper quipped, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President…they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” A London Times correspondent wrote, “Anything more dull and commonplace it wouldn’t be easy to produce.” Lincoln wasn’t too high on it either, grumbling as he sat down, “That speech won’t scour [as in soil falling off a plow]. It is a flat failure.” Yet, Lincoln understood that quality trumps quantity and the short speech was ideally suited to the telegraph, much like the 140 characters in a Tweet®. It spread quickly to newspapers around the country and became famous even before the war was over.

Lincoln contracted smallpox on the trip but got over it in a couple of weeks. His trusted black servant/valet, William Johnson, wasn’t so lucky. Lincoln said, “he did not catch it from me…at least I think not.” Typical of the convention of his times, Lincoln referred to the adult Mr. Johnson as his “colored boy.” An unsubstantiated legend grew that, when Johnson died, Lincoln engraved citizen on his tombstone in order to repudiate the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Dred Scott.

Lincoln Retools: Cabinet & Generals
Despite the victories of 1863, the Union was still nowhere near winning the war by then. Nor was the South about to give up. In fact, the South now had a more compelling reason to fight because it had turned into an all-or-nothing struggle. Abolition would upend their economy and disrupt their social structure. Prior to emancipation, the South could’ve lost, tucked their tail between their legs for a few years, and maintained slavery.

Lincoln, meanwhile, was not then viewed as the successful president most of us look back on him as being. Whatever he did displeased one faction or another in the North. He was, of course, hated in the Deep South and most of the Upper South. Ohio Republican William Dickson wrote that Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity…and his spirit necessarily infuses itself downward through all departments.”

Edwin Stanton, ca. 1855-65, Library of Congress

Lincoln continued to revamp his command structure. He’d been hiring and firing generals throughout and found a winner at the top with a new Secretary of War. He fired the corrupt Simon Cameron and replaced him with an old adversary, Edwin Stanton. Years earlier, Lincoln had been hired to represent the defendants in a patent suit brought by the McCormick Harvest Machine Company (now International Harvester). After preparing for weeks and traveling to Cincinnati, he arrived at the trial only to learn that the better-known Stanton had replaced him. No one even bothered to notify Lincoln and Stanton didn’t acknowledge his presence, except to lampoon him behind his back as a hick. But Lincoln stayed and watched the trial. He was impressed with Stanton and filed that away instead of harboring personal animosity. Then Stanton, a Democrat, was a harsh critic of Lincoln during the first year of the war, ripping him in the newspapers. Yet, Lincoln hired him and basically said (I’m paraphrasing), “Okay hotshot, I’m out of answers. You run the war if you’re so smart.” It was a wise move, as Stanton ended up being superior to Cameron in managing day-to-day operations. He worked 15-hour days at a stand-up desk and wrote an old colleague, “No men were ever so deceived as we at Cincinnati.” Such stories, common in Lincoln lore, didn’t unfold in the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis stubbornly refused advice and Southern congressmen fought amongst themselves.

William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865, Photo by Mathew Brady, LOC

Lincoln also shook things up on the battlefield in 1863. He brought his less highly reputed but more ruthless western generals to the fore: U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, commanders of the Army of the Tennessee. These warriors hadn’t graduated high in their classes at West Point and were known to be rough around the edges. This is another way that Gettysburg was a turning point – not just because of the damage to Lee’s army, but also because of Lincoln replacing Meade.

Sherman became a Southerner prior to the war, serving as superintendent of what became Louisiana State University (LSU), but he supported the Union. Grant had once owned a slave named Jones in Missouri but set him free even though he was short on money. He had failed at various businesses. Many politicians and newspapers were appalled that Lincoln would hire Grant to oversee the Army of the Potomac. He was falsely rumored to fight drunk while smoking his trademark cigars. Rival officers, jealous that Grant was promoted over them because of his talent training inexperienced draftees, claimed that he was drunk at breakfast the morning Confederates launched a surprise attack on his forces at Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, in 1862 (his men rallied and won a costly two-day victory). In response, Lincoln retorted, “Find out the brand of his whiskey, and I’ll give it to my other generals.” In truth, Grant didn’t hold liquor well with his 5𔄂″ slight frame, and he binged away from work, but he wasn’t an alcoholic. When asked the reason for promoting Grant, Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man…he fights.”

Sherman pushed for an invasive scorched earth policy that Grant and Lincoln were both skeptical about at first because it involved Sherman leaving his army exposed, deep in enemy territory. His troops could’ve been swallowed up whole, never to be heard from again except as the subject of victorious anthems commemorating the birth of a new Confederate nation. The British Army & Navy Gazette called the idea either the most brilliant or foolish thing a military leader had ever done.

But Sherman’s plan was the type of strategy Lincoln himself had tried to impress on McClellan, Meade, and the others, at least toward Richmond. Now, Lincoln wanted to take the fight to the “sunny South,” as he called it. It wasn’t a matter of malice toward Southerners. Without tangible results on the battlefield, Lincoln thought he’d lose his reelection in 1864, in which case the war would likely be lost because he’d naturally attract an opposing candidate that appealed to the many Northerners who wanted to give up.

Without realizing it, Lincoln, Sherman, and Grant were putting the strategy in play that Frederich Engels described to Karl Marx in a letter two years earlier: “The loss of both these states [Tennessee and Kentucky] drives an enormous wedge into their territory. The sole route [then connecting the slave states] goes through Georgia…the key to the secessionists’ territory. With the loss of Georgia, the Confederacy would be cut in two sections, which would have lost all connection to one another.”

Panoramic View From Top of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, February 1864, Photo by George Barnard

Sherman Skins the Hide
Sherman broke out of Chattanooga, Tennessee from Lookout Mountain and steamrolled through Georgia, decimating everything in his path. He promised to make “the South feel the heavy hand of war…to make war so terrible that the rebels would never take up arms again.” Sherman’s hard war was something akin to what we’d call total war today. Meanwhile, Grant would fight Lee in the war’s epicenter, Virginia, as Philip Sheridan pillaged farms and villages in that state’s Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln cabled Grant, “You hold the hind legs, while Sherman skins the hide.” Their goal was to destroy the South’s economy and the will of its people, expanding on the Anaconda Strategy to divide the Southeast in two, so the two snakes could then squeeze off two regions isolated from each other. Lincoln countered hard war critics by asking if they would prefer fighting with “elder-stalk squirts charged with rosewater.”

During Sherman’s March to the Sea, his “Little Devils” (mostly Midwestern teenagers) killed and stole livestock, burned crops, barns, and homes, broke levees, and tore up railroad tracks in a 50-100 mile-wide path of four columns. In a way, Sherman’s March wasn’t entirely dissimilar to a tornado cluster moving through Georgia, except slower. The official march portion of the campaign kicked off with the Battle of Atlanta, immortalized in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, culminating in the capture of Savannah on the Atlantic coast. Instructed to destroy everything of military value, the soldiers burned over 30% of Atlanta, the South’s major railroad hub and industrial center. Atlanta’s destruction helped secure Lincoln’s victory in the upcoming November election. Then, completely cut off from Union contact and supplies, Sherman issued a field order to his 60k troops to take what food they needed on their way to Savannah, bringing them into more conflict with the civilian population. Sherman had a map with census records including crop yields, so he knew where to send his “Bummers” to forage. Bummers/Little Devils looted and vandalized their way to infamy in Southern lore and even robbed graves in the Battle of Atlanta.

Sherman’s Men Destroying Railroad, Atlanta, Georgia, 1864, Photo by George N. Barnard

Sherman divided the inexperienced Confederate forces that blocked his path by feigning toward both Augusta and Macon, pulling them off in either direction, then forging between them. When Confederates did confront them, Union soldiers with Spencer repeating rifles mowed down the outgunned, mostly young and middle-aged militias. When Confederates planted land mines on the road, Sherman forced prisoners to march at the front of the line to search for them. Meanwhile, vigilantes hunted down Union foragers. Georgians destroyed some towns and crops preemptively in front of Sherman that’s the flip side of scorched earth strategy, done to starve invading armies. Soviets employed that successfully against the German Wehrmacht in WWII, just as their Russian forebears had against Napoleon the previous century.

Sherman’s March, Ken Burns’ Civil War (PBS)

Sherman also freed slaves but didn’t want to take them along because that would’ve required yet more food. Despite his wishes, many refugee slaves joined the growing sea of humanity as it made its way toward the Atlantic. Refugees slowed the increasingly hungry army as it lumbered its way toward Savannah at 10-15 miles per day. A Union general by chance named Jefferson C. Davis took matters into his own hands in one of the columns. The Union built a floating pontoon bridge to cross Ebenezer Creek, just 25 miles from Savannah. After the white soldiers crossed, the pro-slavery Union general ordered the bridge cut away, leaving 600 recently freed slaves on the opposite bank, trapped between the water and pursuing Confederates led by Joe Wheeler. Several hundred perished trying to swim across while most of the rest were re-captured. Sherman approved of the heartless (and ironic) tactic and Davis went on to lead the first American soldiers ever stationed in Alaska.

Sherman’s March to the Sea, 1864, Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie, 1868, Library of Congress

“Sherman’s Boys” reached the coast after seizing Fort McAllister and would’ve destroyed Savannah just as they had Atlanta, but city leaders ransomed the cotton stored in their silos in exchange for preserving the city. Sherman presented Savannah as a Christmas gift to Lincoln in a letter. Around the same time, Lincoln got another Christmas present with Union victory at the Battle of Nashville, eroding the Confederates’ prospects in the western war. Then, Sherman’s Boys were on to South Carolina where, to the amazement of military planners on both sides, they waded through swamps at over ten miles per day holding their rifles aloft. Local Lumbee Indians, some of whom fought for the Confederacy earlier in the war, and a gang led by free Black Henry Berry Lowrie, helped them navigate the terrain. Sherman also had Oneidas from Wisconsin among his troops. Around 20-30k Indians fought in the Civil War, including slave-holding Cherokees for the Confederacy. In exchange for their service, they were allowed to sit in the Confederates’ Congress.

Though Sherman doesn’t seem to have ordered it himself, and even slept through it, his drunken soldiers reduced South Carolina’s state’s capital of Columbia to ashes, burning 84 square blocks. Sherman’s army wanted to burn the church where South Carolina voted to secede in 1860 but locals pointed them toward a different Methodist church, which they burned while leaving the intended target, First Baptist Church, standing. Since Charleston could be invaded from the sea — which it was that December, with Union ships taking Fort Sumter and Confederates moving John C. Calhoun’s coffin to avoid Union troops raiding his grave — Sherman’s army veered toward North Carolina, where the war wound down before he could link up with Grant in Virginia. In January, Union troops took Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, the last remaining Confederate port. Sherman went easy on North Carolina because they’d only narrowly decided to secede, but he exacted revenge on South Carolina because, “Here is where treason began, and here is where it will end.”

Capture of Fort Fisher By Union Troops, Chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison, Library of Congress, 1890

Sherman was successful, losing only 600 of his 60k troops, but left a trail of destruction along a fairly narrow path. I say narrow because the legend of his campaign grew in subsequent years so that you’d think his army marched along a 500-mile wide band rather than 50-100, killing everyone in sight. Sherman’s army revered him, calling him “Uncle Billy,” and he helped end the war by executing a daring campaign, preferring to destroy property rather than men as best he could. They say the victor writes the history but, in this case, Sherman played a bigger part in Confederate lore than Union. Even a century-and-a-half later, the name Sherman isn’t likely to pop up on any of the annual most-commonly-given-names-for-newborns lists, at least not in the Southeast. Sherman in Georgia, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and Grant around Vicksburg are why resentful Southerners referred to the “War of Northern Aggression” with some accuracy. The “War Between the States” moniker popular among some post-war Southerners probably wouldn’t have made sense during the war because it conceded that it was a civil conflict whereas contemporary Confederates saw themselves as founding a new nation and fighting the “War for Southern Independence.” (Names of the Civil War)

Grant Holds The Hind Legs
Further north in Virginia, Grant’s men and their opponents hadn’t fared so well in terms of avoiding casualties. Grant calculated that Lee would run out of troops long before he did, even if he lost men at a higher rate. He thus fought a war of attrition against Lee, slamming into Lee’s troops relentlessly with frontal assaults and racking up staggering casualties on both sides in the spring and summer of 1864 during the Overland Campaign. Some called Grant “the Butcher,” while Lee’s men killed more Americans than Hitler or Tojo in the 1940s. In truth, neither liked war, but neither was one to shy away from a brawl. In the North, Grant’s jealous rivals and a war-weary public stuck him with the unfair “butcher” label and Southerners looking for another villainous scapegoat (besides Sherman) after the war perpetuated the myth.

At one grisly confrontation, the Battle of the Wilderness, thousands burned to death in forest fires set off by artillery. Grant refused to give up even though the Army of the Potomac had clearly lost the battle, taking a stand in the road and refusing to let the Confederates by. At Cold Harbor, neither Lee nor Grant would agree to stop fighting as wounded men baked in the sun for days, most of them dying.

Arlington Mansion, Virginia, War Department-Pentagon Records, National Archives

Unable to keep up with mounting corpses, the Union built a new National Cemetery outside Washington, next to Lee’s mansion in Arlington, Virginia so that he would have to spend his retirement looking at the tombstones. To Abraham Lincoln’s embarrassment, Mary Todd maneuvered to keep their oldest boy Robert out of the fray until things died down. He served as a captain under Grant in 1865. After Grant’s two-month bloodletting in the late spring of 1864, the Union was poised to lay siege to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.

The Union’s “Dictator” Siege Mortar @ Petersburg, Virginia Symbolized Its Industrial Advantage,

1864 Election
The 1864 presidential election was arguably the most important in U.S. history. Many fellow Republicans wanted Lincoln out, seeing him as a decent person but unqualified for such a high office. While we normally dislike our presidents when they’re in office, it’s surprising that contemporaries also viewed Lincoln as a poor writer and speaker. Lincoln seemed to rise above the noise, even as his wife Mary Todd felt the sting of his criticism. The Republicans re-nominated him, but opposing Lincoln for the Democrats was none other than his old nemesis, General George McClellan.

This Cartoon From New York’s Currier & Ives Firm Shows McClellan As The Only Hope for Peace, Keeping Lincoln and Jefferson From Tearing the Country Apart. However, While Only McClellan Favored Peace, Only Lincoln Was Likely To Keep the Map From Ripping (At Least From Ripping Apart a Country Free of Slavery)

McClellan wanted to drop the Emancipation Proclamation and Democrats invented the pseudo-scientific term miscegenation (mixed-race relations) to stoke interracial fears of “amalgamation.” Moreover, McClellan wanted to negotiate a settlement, a stance most historians and many voters at the time interpret/ed as meaning he would’ve given up. Lincoln not only wouldn’t give up, he steadfastly refused to drop emancipation from the Republican platform, arguing that the causes of unionism and abolition had fused. Yet the Republicans also toned down abolitionist rhetoric, instructing Frederick Douglass to lay low and completely avoiding the word slavery. To gain more votes, the Republicans carved out Union-held parts of northwest Virginia and formed the new state of West Virginia. The 39 counties actually voted on their own to secede from Virginia. Since many out west supported Lincoln, they rushed Nevada into statehood before it hit the customary threshold of 100k citizens.

Technically, Lincoln didn’t run as a Republican, though, because he added loyal Southern “War Democrat” Andrew Johnson to his ticket, creating a new National Union Party. The Senator made a name supporting universal white manhood suffrage in Tennessee, took a controversial stand against secession there in 1860, and helped Union troops defend Nashville during the war. The cartoon above shows the former tailor Johnson helping Lincoln mend the Union back together. Meanwhile, with what little money they had, the Confederacy supported their old foe, McClellan, because they figured that if he won, he’d give up and they’d win. Northern Copperheads (Peace Democrats and Confederate sympathizers) also threw in their support for McClellan, along with other pacifists, churches, and some Republicans tired of the bloodshed.

If their exhaustion seems weak in hindsight, remember that Grant was losing more troops per month than the U.S. lost in Vietnam in eleven years, from 1964-1973. If the Civil War took place today, then by the spring of 1864 around five million would’ve been dead and no one knew that the war would end within a year. How many of us today would really think that any cause other than mere survival, which wasn’t at stake in 1864, was worth that?

Because of the stepped-up efforts of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, most crucially the Battle of Atlanta that July, Lincoln won reelection. Lincoln’s electoral fortunes swung when newspapers printed Sherman’s cable to Lincoln after the battle: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Union soldiers were allowed to vote, of which 78% voted for Lincoln, while Lincoln and McClellan split votes among northern white males.

The 1864 election is one problem with the common interpretation that Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. It was important, for sure, weakening Lee’s army for the upcoming battles of 1864-65 but if it had been that decisive the war would’ve ended in 1863 not nearly two years later. In July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops attacked Washington, D.C. Had the Confederates won the Battle of Monocacy outside Frederick, Maryland and/or the Battle of Fort Stevens three days later, in what’s now northwest D.C., Lincoln could have lost the presidency and maybe the war. The Union easily defended the fort, with Lincoln making a rare battlefield appearance and being told to get down so rebel snipers wouldn’t spot his conspicuous stovepipe hat. Had Lincoln lost re-election and the new Union president sought peace, the Confederacy likely would have become a nation. Sidenote: The Union hero at Monocacy, (Indianan) Major General Lew Wallace (left), went on to write the best-selling novel of the 19th century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) .

Democratic-Copperhead Pamphlet, 1864, Mocking President Abraham Lincoln, Published by J.F. Feeks, New York

What Lincoln would’ve done in the interim (November-March) had he lost the 1864 election, we’ll never know. He might have stepped up the pressure to try to secure a victory before McClellan took office if his generals and army went along with it. Instead, Lincoln won and Union forces won a decisive victory at Franklin, Tennessee in late November, dealing a crippling blow to Confederate forces in the Upper South. New VP Andrew Johnson had ruled with an iron fist keeping parts of eastern Tennessee loyal to the Union, contributing to the Union’s important victories in the Upper South. But Johnson surprised Lincoln after the election by asking if he should attend the inauguration party. Then he showed up drunk and embarrassed himself with a speech before the Senate. Johnson was suffering from typhoid fever at the time and had three glasses of “medicinal whiskey” to prep for the occasion. Frederick Douglass sensed right away that Johnson hated Blacks, a potential problem if Lincoln didn’t live out his second term.

By winter 1865, Union victory was a virtual foregone conclusion and Lincoln focused on getting a Thirteenth Amendment passed abolishing slavery. It was no easy task and involved a considerable amount of political maneuvering, though Congress rather than Lincoln spearheaded the amendment, just as they had pushed hardest for the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln mainly hoped that states would abolish slavery on their own, which several did, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana. The President has no formal role in the amendment process so Lincoln worked behind the scenes bribing, cajoling, persuading, etc. In 1861, Lincoln was only trying to hold the Union together, but the war transformed him and the country. Later, Lincoln thought that, without abolition, the war would barely have been worth fighting and only return the country to where it was to start with. He understood that the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime act, wasn’t binding they needed a real Constitutional amendment. In April 1864, the House of Representatives rejected the idea of an abolitionist amendment and many northern politicians either didn’t favor abolition or feared that it would complicate a potential capitulation on the part of the Confederacy.

Perhaps the South could be persuaded to quit the war and stay in the country if they were allowed to keep their slaves, similar to the original arrangement proposed by Lincoln in 1861. This was under discussion when Lincoln and William Seward met with Confederate representatives on a sidewheel steamer ferry at the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865. Historians, unfortunately, don’t know many details as to what transpired aboard the River Queen because our only primary sources are retrospectives written by two Confederates, including VP Alexander Stephens. Lincoln’s old friend Stephens discussed Americans uniting in opposition to France’s invasion of Mexico (to bond by ganging up on a third party, the way Buchanan had proposed against Mormons in 1856), but Lincoln cut him off, redirecting the conversation to the all-important question of southern independence. Stephens reported that Seward was flexible on slavery but that the only ground Lincoln would yield other than financial compensation to slaveowners ($400,000,000) was a (legally problematic) delayed implementation of an abolitionist amendment. Lincoln believed that, under the Constitution, states had the right to maintain slavery, which is why the prospect of changing the Constitution permanently with an amendment was so important. The only agreement representatives struck at Hampton Roads was to resume prisoner exchanges.

Lincoln was negotiating from a strong position by early 1865 and he wanted both victory and abolition. As he put it, they “had the harpoon in the whale,” but the injured whale threatened to thrash its tail and overturn the boat. They needed to kill the whale, regardless of how many lives it cost over the late winter and early spring of 1865. He got his way, barely, when a lame-duck congress proposed the Thirteenth Amendment and sent it to the states. It only managed to pass the approval of ¾ of the states because the South wasn’t in the Union. The North fought the war to keep the South in the country, but already it saw the advantage of keeping the rebellious states out long enough to pass legislation favorable to its cause. With language drawn from the old Northwest Ordinance of 1787, that banned slavery north of the Ohio River, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the U.S. except for prison labor.

Lincoln Channels John Brown
In his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, Lincoln returned to the more reconciliatory stance he’d signaled at Gettysburg, concluding that the war would wind down with “malice toward none, and charity for all.” He could’ve pointed out that a little extra malice helped get him over the top the previous fall, especially in Georgia. Indeed, Lincoln went on to point out that the bloodletting would continue until the South gave up. So he was reconciliatory and he wasn’t.

John Wilkes Booth @ Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural In One Of The Loupes Above, With Fellow Conspirators Below, March 1864

Lincoln surprised everyone in the audience that day, including Frederick Douglass and John Wilkes Booth, by putting a religious, abolitionist-like spin on the war as a cosmic struggle resulting from God’s will to purge the sin of slavery from American soil. He’d hinted at something similar in Gettysburg. These words could’ve come out of John Brown’s mouth five years earlier, which is extraordinary considering that Lincoln had been viewed as a moderate early in the war. In 1861, Radical Republican Benjamin Wade said that Lincoln’s views on slavery were, “of one born of poor white trash and educated in a slave state [Kentucky].” That was a cheap smear even then, but Wade surely wouldn’t have said that by 1865. Only by understanding how radical true moral abolitionism was in the North can one appreciate Lincoln’s evolution on race and slavery. Or was he a pragmatic, closet abolitionist all along, doing what he had to do to put himself in a position to end slavery?

If you’ll pardon one psychoanalytic observation, only such a dramatic, history-changing cause could explain and justify to Lincoln the carnage his 1860 election and decision to fight had unleashed mere preservation of the Union didn’t suffice. Abolitionism might have been a psychological necessity, along with being good politics. The Second Inaugural also explains why it’s difficult to categorize John Brown as a terrorist or fanatic, at least without qualifying or diluting the label considerably. The ideas of run-of-the-mill fanatics aren’t vindicated by the mainstream establishment five years after their crimes.

At no point in the Second Inaugural did Lincoln mention earlier promises to compensate slaveholders for emancipation. The speech was short and didn’t go over very well at the time, partly because Lincoln didn’t present any concrete plans for Reconstruction. But, if Lincoln had made the speech in our time, the part that would have occupied cable stations, Tweeters, and bloggers for the next week would’ve been his equation of the Civil War’s violence with the 250 years of violence toward enslaved Blacks that led up to it. “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” Only after that whopper did Lincoln proceed to the more famous and generous “with malice toward none, and charity for all” line. The South should’ve grabbed the $400 million Lincoln put on the table at Hampton Roads when they had the chance.

The New York World, that only printed the speech “with a blush of shame,” was outraged that Lincoln would equate the blood that “trickled from the lacerated backs of the Negroes” with the carnage of “the bloodiest war in history.” The Chicago Times was likewise unfavorable: “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” Tough audience. Even Lincoln? These scathing criticisms came from New York and Illinois, Lincoln’s home state, not Alabama. Imagine how those incendiary lines went over with his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was looming over the president’s left shoulder (above). Unlike Gettysburg, though, Lincoln liked the speech and said it would “wear as well – perhaps better than – anything I’ve produced.” It, too, is etched into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.

Richmond Falls & Lee Runs Out Of Steam
By Spring 1865, Sherman had already rampaged through the Southeast and Grant’s war of attrition on Lee in Virginia was taking its toll. The South was running out of men and supplies, its soldiers now outnumbered by a 10:1 ratio. Richmond fell to Union troops on April 3rd, 1865. After Davis fled the Confederate capital in Richmond, Lincoln followed the army in and sat at Davis’ desk for hours. He had always wondered what his rival’s office looked like. The gossip was that Davis escaped in drag, but that was probably just editorial revenge for the stories of Lincoln covering himself in a shawl as he switched train cars in Baltimore on his way to Washington in 1861. Union troops finally tracked down Davis and temporarily jailed him, though he retired in relative luxury to his plantation in Biloxi, Mississippi and in New Orleans.

Richmond in Ruins, 1865, War Department: Office of the Chief Signal Officer

On April 9th, Lee sought re-supplies at a rail station near Appomattox, Virginia, but Grant beat him there in the “race to the rail.” Animated Map Lee’s trusted subordinate, General Porter Alexander, suggested dispersing the men into the woods to fight a guerrilla-type campaign against Grant, but Lee was having none of it. It was best, he said, to “look the fact in the face that the Confederacy has failed.” Grant and Lee met in a private Appomattox home adjacent to the courthouse and agreed to wind down their part of the war, which was the heart of the struggle even though smaller battles were still flickering across other parts of the country. Grant said, “Let us have peace.” In his Personal Memoirs (1885), Grant wrote:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us…We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army.

The Union general fed the Confederates and told them to keep their guns for hunting and horses for farming, and to go home. The war died out over the coming weeks as word spread of Lee’s surrender.

McLean House @ Appomattox Court House Where General Lee Surrendered to General Grant, Major & Knapp Eng. Mfg. & Lith. Co. 71 Broadway, Library of Congress

The last battle was at Palmetto Ranch, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville. The last Confederate general to surrender was Cherokee Chief Stand Watie in Oklahoma. The outnumbered South had fought hard but finally crumbled in the face of superior firepower and numbers, along with the collective weight of railroads, telegraphs, industrial labor, and mechanized farming. CSA President Jefferson Davis said the South had gone to war without counting the costs. The Confederacy’s dream of founding a sovereign empire built around slavery and free trade was dead. Lincoln, the GOP, the Union Army (white and black), and abolitionists bent the arc of history.

The Last Victim
Lincoln, though, was about to make the same train trip as 1861 in reverse, this time back to Springfield, Illinois as part of his own funeral procession. He was killed a week after Lee’s surrender while viewing a play called Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Lincoln loved the theater and was even a fan of his own assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth. But Booth was a Confederate who despised Lincoln, especially Lincoln’s recent willingness to consider black suffrage for literate Blacks and army veterans (he mentioned as much regarding the legal status of Freedman in post-war Louisiana). According to witnesses, Booth said, “That means n****r citizenship, that’s the last speech he’s ever going to give, by God I’m going to run him through.” He thought the president had become a monarch by accepting a second term. Then, as with Andrew Jackson in the 1830s and today, people often thought democratically-elected leaders they didn’t like were dictators. Booth told his mother that he felt guilty having spent the war in theater while others fought on the battlefield, and it was too late for his original idea of kidnapping Lincoln to be worthwhile. Perhaps Booth could put his talents to even better use by killing him instead. Amazingly, Booth was engaged at the time to the daughter of an abolitionist senator, Lucy Hale. The actor was also locked in a bitter rivalry with his brother, Edwin Booth, a Unionist and abolitionist who was perhaps the most famous actor in America. Ironically, Edwin saved Lincoln’s son Robert by pulling him off railroad tracks earlier in Jersey City.

John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators all rented at the boarding house of Mary Surratt, in Washington. Surratt’s son John worked as a courier in the Confederate army. Together, they resolved to take out the upper tier of the Lincoln administration, including the president, vice-president, and secretary of state. Booth knew that Ulysses Grant was supposed to attend the play that night with Lincoln and he planned to kill him, too. However, Grant’s wife Julia didn’t get along with Mary Todd Lincoln and they opted out, perhaps saving his life and the course of American history since Grant went on to become a two-term president.

Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne), Taken On One of the Monitors, U.S.S. Montauk Or Saugus, Where the Conspirators Were Confined, Photo by Alexander Gardner

Booth’s compatriots didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. George Atzerodt (left) chickened out and didn’t try to kill VP Johnson. He never left the tavern he drank in to steel his nerves. Secretary of State William Seward’s would-be assassin, Lewis Powell, a strapping former Confederate POW, fought off Seward’s guards (including his son, Frederick, whom he pistol-whipped), entered his apartment and stabbed him in the cheek, but failed to slit his jugular vein. In the dark, he didn’t realize that Seward was wearing a metal splint around his neck and jaw after having been thrown from a carriage. The Seward men were seriously wounded, but both survived. William was badly scarred but went on to oversee America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Broadside Advertising Reward for Capture of Lincoln Assassination Conspirators, illustrated with Photographic Prints of John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David E. Herold, Library of Congress Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Booth was a recognized actor and familiar with the interior of Ford’s Theater. Earlier that day, in a small antechamber in Lincoln’s box, Booth carved a mortice to brace a tenon (stick of wood) in, the other end of which could be used to bar the door from the inside. During the first act of the play, he drank beer across the street. After intermission, he entered the theater and gave Lincoln’s valet Charles Forbes a calling card that Forbes accepted because of his fame as an actor. Booth entered the box with an eight-ounce .44 caliber Derringer pocket pistol and English hunting knife, locked the door behind him with the wooden stick, and shot Lincoln behind the ear at close range. Major Henry Rathbone, Grant’s replacement, tried to apprehend Booth, but the stronger actor broke free and slashed Rathbone in the cheek and on the arm with his dagger. Then Booth jumped down onto the stage and yelled “Sic semper tyrannis,” Latin for thus always to tyrants. This line from Julius Caesar’s assassin Brutus became Virginia’s state motto in 1776 and Booth likened himself to a modern-day Brutus (also his father’s middle name). Like Brutus, Booth saw himself as a patriot, but his patriotic duty compelled him to slay his tyrannical leader. Suiting his profession, Booth at least had some dramatic flair.

When someone asked if Lincoln’s wound was serious after they broke through the door, Major Rathbone purportedly held out his hand and said, “Yes, these are his brains.” They took Lincoln across the street to a boarding house and spread his 6’3” frame diagonally across a regular double bed where he died the next morning, the last victim of the Civil War. Coincidentally, Booth had napped in the same bed a year earlier when visiting a friend. As Lincoln passed, War Secretary Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton also took charge of the investigation. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was disappointed the other assassins hadn’t gotten Stanton and VP Johnson, which would have “made the job complete.” Coincidently, Lincoln started the Secret Service the day before his assassination, but it was only for ferreting out counterfeiters prior to 1902. They disinterred Lincoln’s beloved son Willie and the two made their way back to Springfield, their procession stopping in major cities along the route. In New York, 500k onlookers, a quarter of the city’s population of two million, swarmed 5th Avenue for the processional. Even in the countryside, mourners lined the tracks to catch a glimpse through an open boxcar door of a soldier guarding two caskets, one big and one small.

The ensuing manhunt was one of the biggest in history, with a $100k price tag on Booth’s head and several unfortunate lookalikes accidentally being shot in the North. After his horse fell on him, breaking his leg, Booth limped across Maryland, getting his leg set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. Others said he broke his leg when he snagged his spur on the bunting below Lincoln’s box and landed awkwardly on stage. Eventually, forces surrounded Booth in a barn at the Garret Farm in Virginia, set it ablaze, and shot him. They drug him out as he choked to death on blood while photos of actresses fell from his pocket. Rumors of his survival and escape to Texas and Oklahoma lingered on because all of the troops present at the barn had a stake in saying it was him to get a portion of the reward. According to the men who shot him, Booth’s last words were “useless, useless.” As indicated by his journal, he’d seen southern newspapers and realized that he wasn’t being lauded as a hero by most Confederates, despite Jeff Davis’ approval.

Like Brutus, Booth only succeeded in elevating his victim to sainthood. Lincoln’s death on Good Friday suggested that, just as Christ died to save souls, Lincoln had died to save the Union. His popularity shot up even among the millions of Northerners who’d loathed him just a week earlier. The following day the Richmond Enquirer, of all papers, headlined with, “The South Has Lost Its Best Friend.” Booth had done the region a disservice because it’s likely the northern government would’ve gone easier on the South had Lincoln not been killed.

Outright slavery was dead in the U.S. after 1865. At least on paper, the war secured the unity of the country, with no sign of secession in the early years of the 21st century other than some marginal grumbling (e.g. Texas under Obama, California under Trump). Linguists have even tracked a subtle change in the language after 1865, as people started saying the United States is this or that, instead of the United States are… Still, the Southeast didn’t re-integrate enthusiastically and, for a century afterward, became instead what journalist Tony Horwitz called (harshly, if somewhat accurately) a “stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation’s progress.” Union and emancipation, the two great achievements of the Civil War, were both compromised in the century that followed as resentment boiled in the South and African Americans transitioned from slavery into lives of poverty, discrimination, violence, intimidation, and second-class citizenship.

But at least full-blown slavery was abolished and the country stayed intact. That unity forged at the cost of 720k lives and possibly another 50-100k civilians — what would be at least seven million proportional to today’s population, including nearly 20% of fighting age Southern males. Civilian casualties are harder to measure, but most historians estimate north of 50k, almost all in the South. Most of the guerrilla fighting around the periphery, extra-judicial executions, and torture never made the history books. Old estimates of 650k soldiers killed have been revised lately as historians have learned how many immigrants died that were never registered with the U.S. Census. Entire towns in the South lost all their eligible husbands and fathers, leaving young women with no one to marry. An astounding 73k Union soldiers died of syphilis contracted from camp-following prostitutes. Another 44k died of dysentery (diarrhea). Counting both sides, dysentery was the biggest killer in the war. A quarter of the 60k who underwent amputations died from diseases caused by unclean saws and hands.

Virtually no one in the South and few in the North were untouched or unaffected by the psychological trauma, as nearly everyone had loved ones killed or wounded in the war. The cost of the war — around $10 billion in 1860 dollars, or $300 billion today — could’ve more than paid for the large-scale planter compensation plan Lincoln advocated at the outset but, then again, the South wasn’t planning then on losing either the war or their slaves.

At stake was the West and America’s future. The North won both, though they never realized the Free Soilers’ dream of an all-white workforce. They freed the slaves but never sent them to South America or Africa. Through Lincoln, the Republicans fused Free Soilers with white evangelical and free black abolitionists, bound together by a commitment to preserve the United States. Backed by superior industry, a bigger population, more food-producing farms, and an army whose leadership improved over the course of the war, they outlasted the Confederacy, eclipsing their dreams of independence, slavocracy, and free trade. Edmund Ruffin, the Fire Eater (and pioneering soil scientist) who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, committed suicide in 1865 rather than “submit to Yankee rule.”

Even as the war was being fought, Northern congressman un-encumbered by southern representatives were giving away western land to farmers and railroads, encouraging expansion. Lincoln launched the first transcontinental railroad during the war as a way to tie the North to the growing California economy, and a telegraph line preceded it. The government and military grew around 10x bigger each, spelling doom for the Plains Indians whom the North turned their wrath on even before finishing off the South. When he arrived in Washington, Lincoln saw three separate countries: the North, the Confederacy, and a remote economy in California spurred by the Gold Rush. In between the Midwest and California, Indians lived freely on the Plains and in the Rockies, obstructing the advance of white settlers and railroads. By the time Lincoln left office, the government was well on its way toward tying the three regions of the country together and subduing Plains and Southwest Indians. There were several horrific but little-known battles between the military and western Indians during the Civil War, including the Dakota War (1862), Snake War (1864-68), and brutal Bear River Massacre of Shoshone Indians in Idaho. The U.S. government gained control over the Lower 48 in the 1860s. Lincoln was also motivated to bring the West under Union control because he feared that the South would encroach on that territory if they won.

Lincoln also wanted to educate workers, especially in frontier areas. In 1862, the government issued land grants to found colleges featuring agriculture and engineering along with liberal arts (including Greek & Latin) — schools that today end in State or A & M, along with Rutgers, Arkansas, Purdue, and Clemson, and some that were private or partially private like Cornell University and M.I.T. in Boston. The first recipient was Kansas State Agricultural College, today Kansas State, in 1863. Many of the colleges in the Upper South, Plains, and Midwest are land grant schools, as is the University of California-Berkeley. Land grant money also built up schools that began before the war, like Louisiana St. (LSU) and Wisconsin.

The country maintained its strong agricultural base, but embraced industry, banking, and construction wholesale, while the Old South faded into memory. Southern aristocrats lost power just as feudal barons and lords would in Europe around the time of World War I, while “new money” industrial magnates rose to the top of the economic ladder. Congress passed tariffs for many years to come, helping to incubate American industry. The Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear and was itself propelled by the war. The Union Army’s need for beef led to the first mechanized factory in world history: Philip Armour’s meatpacking plant in Chicago, a precursor to the assembly lines of the next generation. Samuel Colt won the contract to provide rifles. Government orders demanded that military uniforms be sewn on a mass scale, propelling the advent of sizes in clothing. Before that, tailors measured people individually.

Hospitals with nursing staffs evolved so that the Union could triage casualties. The government stepped into a new role coping with the dead during wartime, using dog-tags, notifying next-of-kin, developing an ambulance corps, building national cemeteries, and establishing Memorial Day. The military started a pension system for survivors. Photography advanced as journalists raced to document the conflict (one reason for all the photos of dead soldiers is that battle scenes would’ve been blurry). Baseball spread from big northeastern cities across the country as bored troops passed the time between battles, spreading to the South and becoming the American Pastime. The war also brought us Thanksgiving, as Lincoln strove to remind Americans of their historical unity, and Cinco de Mayo, as Mexico staved off France’s attempt to take over its country while the U.S. was too pre-occupied to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.

Then there were more intangible costs. How many young men never became husbands and fathers because they died on the battlefield? How much labor did they fail to contribute to the country’s fields, mines, offices, and factories? Were there any geniuses among them, any future Einsteins or Edisons, who might have made a lasting impact, cured cancer, or invented a labor-saving tool we still lack today? How much hate and bitterness was engendered between North and South, and how much lingered for at least a century afterward? Could it all have been avoided by better statesmanship between blundering politicians as some historians have charged or was slavery a logjam that necessitated violent upheaval? Based on slavery’s continuing expansion as of 1860 and the plantation owners’ unwillingness to accept compensation, it seems that war was the only path to emancipation.

Federal Government Diagram, 1862, Masonic Temple of Cincinnati, Library of Congress

American Civil War: Sherman's March through the Confederacy

Until 1864, Georgia had been barely touched by the war. The Confederate victory at Chickamauga in 1863 had seen off a previous Union invasion, and forced the fighting back north into Tennessee. At the start of 1864, the new commander of the Division of the Mississippi was William Tecumseh Sherman. He was in the pleasant situation of being a friend and colleague of General Grant, now General in Chief. Grant appears to have modified his orders to Sherman to take into account his friend&rsquos dislike of major battles. While Grant set out to destroy Lee&rsquos army, Sherman was ordered to move against Johnston&rsquos army and also to do as much damage as possible to the interior of Georgia.

Sherman interpreted his orders as allowing him to concentrate on the capture of Atlanta. While his attitude did allow him to capture the city with suffering heavily losses, it did mean that Johnston&rsquos army survived and had to be defeated elsewhere. This does not mean that Atlanta was not a valid target. It was a key railroad junction, especially important as a connection to Richmond. It had also developed into a major centre of Confederate munitions production.

Sherman&rsquos advance on Atlanta saw two generals with a similar attitude to the major fixed battle engage in one of the most skilful campaigns of the war. Joseph Johnston, the Confederate commander, had held the Virginia command before suffering serious wounds in 1862. In 1863 he had failed to prevent the loss of Vicksburg, partly because he was unwilling to throw away the lives of his men in what he rightly saw as a futile attack on superior Union forces.

Now he had the sort of situation in which he could thrive. Sherman had close to 100,000 men to launch his invasion, while Johnston could muster 75,000 men. If he could persuade Sherman to attack strong positions, then he would have enough men to inflict a heavy defeat on the attacking army. Northern Georgia was perfectly suited to his defensive strategy. Sherman would have to cross a series of rivers and mountain barriers between Chattanooga and Atlanta.

Johnston began his defence close to the Tennessee border. His first plan was to defend Dalton, where two railroads met. His defences ran along Rocky Face Ridge, to the west of the main railroad, before turning to block the line north. Sherman&rsquos advance was still tied to the railroads. Even at the start of his campaign, he had to protect 150 miles of railroad across Tennessee back to Union territory.

The same single track railroad that Sherman was hoping to advance along was also Johnston&rsquos main line of retreat. Faced with the Rocky Face Ridge defences, Sherman attempted to cut Johnston off. He send two thirds of his arm to launch a feint again Johnston&rsquos right, and the remaining third was sent south through the mountains to cut the railway line at Resaca, fifteen miles further down the line. The plan almost succeeded. James McPherson&rsquos flanking attack managed to get through the mountains, but failed to assault weak Confederate defences at Resaca (9 May).

Although Sherman had not cut Johnston off, he was now dangerously close to the railroad, and so Johnston was forced to withdraw from his strong position at Rocky Face Ridge to Resaca. The same pattern repeated itself at Resaca, from where Johnston withdrew to Cassville. There, Johnston had a chance to strike at part of Sherman&rsquos force, isolated from the rest of his army in the search for faster routes through the mountains.

Unfortunately, the counterattack was never launched. Johnston&rsquos strategy of trading space for time, only attacking when he had a chance to fall on an isolated part of the Union army, was probably the best one available to the Confederacy. Stonewall Jackson had certainly agreed with it. However, it was not popular with the Southern population, who expected their generals to fight the invader. As Johnston&rsquos army got closer to Atlanta, the pressure on him to fight increased.

Ironically Sherman provided him with an opportunity to fight the sort of battle Johnston preferred. Johnston had prepared another defensive position at Allatoona, thirty miles from Atlanta. Sherman outflanked this position, and made for Dallas, twenty miles south of Allatoona. Johnston received news of the move just in time to get his men in place to block Sherman at New Hope Church (25-27 May). The weather now played a role. Heavy rain on clay roads meant that there was little chance of any fast flanking moves. Sherman was stuck in front of Johnston&rsquos defensive positions on Kennesaw Mountain.

After a month of skirmishing, Sherman decided to attempt a frontal assault on the Confederate position, partly to encourage his men&rsquos attacking spirit! The attack on 27 June was a total failure. Sherman suffered 1,999 killed and wounded, Johnston only 270. This was the sort of battle that Johnston needed to fight if he was to defeat Sherman&rsquos invasion.

He was not to get another chance. The rain stopped, the roads dried out, and Sherman was finally able to outflank the Kennesaw Mountain position. Johnston was forced to fall back into the defences of Atlanta after Sherman forced him out of two final defensive positions. In Atlanta, Johnston now hoped to use the local militia to defend the city, leaving his army free to deal with Sherman, whose numerical advantage might be negated by the need to maintain a siege. However, President Davis had lost patience with Johnston, and on 18 July replaced him with General John Hood.

Hood was a much more aggressive commander. Sherman was later to say that he welcomed this appointment because Hood was likely to launch the sort of attack that would give Sherman&rsquos men the chance to defeat the Confederate armies. Two days after his appointment, Hood launched his first attack. However, this was not a reckless assault, but an attempt to take advantage of a genuine opportunity, following a plan that was already in place when Hood was appointed.

Two of Sherman&rsquos Armies were to the east of Atlanta, trying to move around the Confederate right. The third, Thomas&rsquos Army of the Cumberland, was crossing over Peach Tree Creek, north of the city, and was at least two miles distant from the nearest reinforcements. Hood planned to fall on this isolated Union army as it was crossing the creek. If his plan had succeeded then he might have inflicted a heavy defeat on one part of Sherman&rsquos army. In the event (battle of Peach Tree Creek, 20 July 1864), Hood&rsquos attack came too late to catch the Union forces in the crossing, and was repulsed with heavy losses.

Undaunted, Hood launched another attack against a potentially isolated section of the Union line, this time McPherson&rsquos army east of the city. Once again, this attack was repulsed (Battle of Atlanta, 22 July 1864), although McPherson was killed in the fighting.

Sherman&rsquos attention now moved to the remaining rail links in Confederate hands, the Macon and Western Central Railroad, heading south, and the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, which split from the first line five miles outside Atlanta and headed south west. He sent McPherson&rsquos army, under its new commander, Oliver O. Howard, on a long march around the back of the Union position to attack the railroad. On 28 July, Howard&rsquos army defeated the Confederate force sent to stop him (Battle of Ezra Church), but the advance was still halted.

For the next month the fighting around Atlanta settled into a regular siege. Public opinion both North and South began to believe that Sherman&rsquos expedition was about to end in failure. On 26 August the Confederates found all but one corps gone from the trenches, they celebrated victory, assuming that cavalry raids against the long Union supply line had worked and forced Sherman to withdraw.

They were wrong. Sherman had withdrawn from the siege lines in order to free his army for one final outflanking march. This time they swept around the Confederate left wing, quickly cutting the Montgomery and West Point railroad far beyond any Confederate defences. If Hood had reacted in time, he could have used the Macon Railroad to at least attempt block Sherman&rsquos move, but he didn&rsquot believe that Sherman&rsquos attack was in earnest until 30 August, by which time it was too late.

Sherman&rsquos men were only four miles from the Macon Railroad on 30 August. The next day they repelled a Confederate attack (Battle of Jonesboro, 31 August) and then seized control of the Railroad. Finally, on 1 September, Hood realised that his last railroad had been cut. Overnight, he withdrew from the city, and on 2 September the corps that Sherman had left in the trenches outside Atlanta was able to occupy the city.

The risks of concentrating on the capture of Atlanta rather than the destruction of the Confederate army were soon demonstrated. With Atlanta lost, Hood was now free to roam around northern Georgia attacking Sherman&rsquos extended supply lines. Sherman spent two months after the fall of Atlanta fending off these attacks, without ever coming to grips with Hood.

Ironically, it was Hood who provided Sherman with the solution to this problem. In an attempt to force Sherman to pull back from Atlanta, Hood decided to invade Tennessee. Sherman&rsquos response was to dispatch General Thomas back to Tennessee with enough men to deal with Hood. This left Sherman free to consider his next move. First, he decided to expel the civilian population of Atlanta. Across the second half of September an orderly evacuation took place. Many civilians had already fled from the city as Sherman&rsquos siege tightened. Now most of those who had remained were shipped south across the Confederate lines. Sherman did this in part to send a message to the southern population and in part to reduce the need for a large garrison in Atlanta.

To the Sea

This was important because Sherman&rsquos new plans would require all of his resources. From late September, Sherman became convinced that he could abandon his supply line, turn east and march across the heart of Georgia to the sea. His army would forage as it marched, living off the land in the same way that the Confederates had often done during the war. By the end of October he had convinced Grant of the wisdom of this plan. Once at the coast, Sherman could turn north into the Carolinas, the most substantial part of the Confederacy as yet to be significantly touched by the war, at least away from the coast.

Sherman saw his expedition as having several complementary aims. The areas he was planning to march through would be physically devastated so that they could neither support a Confederate army nor provide any more aid to the war effort. Civilian morale, crucial to the maintenance of the Confederate war effort, would be badly damaged. Finally, the image of a Union army able to march through the middle of the Confederacy would destroy what little credibility the rebels had internationally. It would be a clear sign that the end of the war was close.

Sherman and Grant were right. On 15 November Sherman&rsquos army began their famous &lsquomarch to the sea&rsquo. It was possible for a large Union army to survive by foraging in enemy territory. Sherman&rsquos 60,000 soldiers became expert scavengers, leaving a trail of devastation behind them. They faced little or no military opposition. Hood marched north to Tennessee and defeat. Between Atlanta and the coast the Confederacy managed to gather no more that a few thousand Georgia militia, who at least attempted one attack on Sherman&rsquos rearguard (22 November) and 3,500 cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, who gained nearly as bad a reputation as Sherman&rsquos foragers. The Confederacy was already fully mobilised by 1864 &ndash there were no more men to be found.

The devastation caused by Sherman&rsquos men was almost entirely material. The people themselves were largely left alone. Even after Sherman&rsquos men liberated a Confederate prisoner of war camp at Millen, the army remained remarkably restrained. On the other hand Sherman was able to report that the army had taken all of the food from a region &lsquothirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah&rsquo and inflicted some $100,000,000 worth of damage.

At Savannah Sherman finally found some opposition. General Hardee had managed to gather 18,000 men to defend the port, but when Sherman&rsquos army appeared he decided not to stand and fight. On 20-21 December the Confederate garrison escaped over a bridge of boats. Sherman had reached the sea.

South Carolina

Now Sherman had reached the coast, he and Grant had to decide what his army should do next. Grant briefly considered shipping the army to Virginia, to help finish off Lee. This suggestion appears to have pleased no one &ndash Sherman was furious, while the veterans of the Army of the Potomac felt that they didn&rsquot need any help to finish the job.

Sherman and Grant did not have to look far to find a better use for Sherman&rsquos army. Just over the Savannah River was South Carolina, the first state to secede and the site of the first fighting at Fort Sumter. Many in Sherman&rsquos army felt that South Carolina had caused the war and should be punished. The foraging in South Carolina was to be markedly more severe than it had been in Georgia. The mood of the army was not improved by taunting messages they had been sent from South Carolina promising a sterner fight in that state.

In reality there was little resistance in South Carolina. General Beauregard, now commanding the resistance to Sherman, could field 22,500 men. Sherman still had his 60,000 men. On 1 February 1865 the offensive began.

Beauregard&rsquos best hope was that the appallingly wet winter weather would combine with the dozens of rivers in his path to stop Sherman. This was to underestimate the skills of the Union army. Despite all the obstacles in their way, Sherman&rsquos men moved north at ten miles per day across swamp and river. The very ease with which they overcame natural barriers that the Confederates had regarded as impassable played a major role in demoralising their opponents.

Sherman also out thought his opponents. The Confederates believed that Sherman would either move north west towards the munitions works at Augusta or north east towards Charleston. They split their forces between the two cities. Sherman took advantage of this, moving his armies in a way that threatened both places. However, neither was his target. He drove straight north between them and on 17 February captured Columbia, the state capital. This move isolated Augusta and Charleston, both of which had to be abandoned.

North Carolina

The final stage of Sherman&rsquos march through the Confederacy finally saw the Confederates offer some significant resistance. Sherman once again faced Joseph Johnston, restored to high command at Lee&rsquos insistence. Johnston had 20,000 men under his direct command at Fayetteville, while Braxton Bragg had another 5,500 to the north east at Goldsboro. Even at this late stage, the Confederate command structure left Bragg in independent command until 6 March.

Once again Sherman advanced along a wide front, threatening Goldsboro, where he would be able to meet up with yet another Union army heading inland from the coast, or Raleigh, from where he would threaten Lee&rsquos last remaining supply line. Johnston decided to make use of this wide front to attack one isolated element of Sherman&rsquos army.

This resulted in the two battles of Sherman&rsquos march. On 16 March at Averasboro the Union left wing encountered a Confederate force, which was pushed back after heavy fighting. This told Johnston where Sherman&rsquos left was, and on 19 March he launched his main attack at Bentonville. After some initial success, this last desperate move was repulsed. Over the next two days Sherman marched the rest of his army into place to deliver a decisive blow against Johnston, but on 21 March he held back, letting the Confederate army slip away. His reasons have been the subject of much debate ever since. The most likely explanation is that Sherman did not want to risk the lives of his men (or those of his enemies) when the war was obviously close to its end.

Sherman&rsquos march through the heart of the Confederacy was greatly aided by the replacement of Johnston by Hood before the fall of Atlanta. Unopposed, Sherman was able to reach the sea in just over two weeks. He could do this because Hood had marched the 40,000 strong Confederate Army of the Tennessee north, hoping to cut Sherman&rsquos supply lines and force him to withdraw north. It is hard to imagine Johnston doing the same thing. If that army had instead been used to skilfully slow Sherman&rsquos advance, the entire basis of that move would have been destroyed. Sherman&rsquos men needed to keep moving, to enter new areas for their foragers to find supplies. If Sherman had been slowed or stopped at any point between leaving Atlanta and reaching the sea, his army would have been in very great danger of running out of food.

In at the Kill

Sherman&rsquos march through the Carolinas was far more significant than his march through Georgia. At the end of it, his army was on the southern border of Virginia. From being a distant threat to Lee, the march had transformed it into a real danger to the Army of Northern Virginia, by now the only effective army left to the Confederacy. On 25 March, Sherman temporarily left his army after a march of over 400 miles through enemy territory, to meet with Grant. On the same day, Lee launched the attack on Fort Stedman that marked the beginning of the end for his army of Northern Virginia.

Sherman returned from his meeting with orders to make sure that Johnston&rsquos army did not escape him. His first movements were aimed at preventing a junction between Lee and Johnston, but news soon reached both Sherman and Johnston of Lee&rsquos surrender. Sherman moved to occupy Raleigh in order to block Johnston&rsquos path south.

Johnston now came under pressure from two directions. Jefferson Davis arrived from Richmond and ordered Johnston to keep fighting while he raised new armies further south. Local leaders, including Governor Vance of North Carolina, were clearer sighted and could see that the Confederacy cause was lost. They wanted Johnston to surrender to avoid unnecessary destruction in their state.

Johnston shared the latter view. He told Davis that he had to made peace and persuaded the Confederate President to give him to authority to meet with Sherman to arrange an armistice. This meeting was to lead to a great deal of controversy and two post-war feuds between Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton and General Halleck. On April 17 Sherman offered Johnston the same terms Lee had accepted at Appomattox. Johnston refused them. On the following day Sherman made a rather more generous offer that included provision (amongst other things) for the existing state governments to re-enter the Union intact. Sherman was motivated by a fear that harsh terms might provoke endless guerrilla warfare throughout the south, a belief encouraged by the assassination of President Lincoln on 14 April. This offer was accepted by Johnston, but was not acceptable to Stanton. Grant was sent to join Sherman, where he was able to calm the situation. On 26 April Johnston and Sherman met again. This time Johnston had no choice but to accept the Appomattox terms. Sherman&rsquos great march through the Confederacy was over.

Next: The Blockade and the War at Sea

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Atlanta 1864 - Sherman Marches South, James Donnell . Covers one of the most important campaigns of the American Civil War, the start of Sherman's devastating march across the heart of the Confederacy, both a crucial military victory and a key element in Lincoln's re-election as President. A good text, supported by a well chosen series of maps, starting with one that covers the opening of the campaign and gives an overview of the entire campaign area, and moving on to maps for each series of battles that give a really good idea of Sherman's fluid movements [read full review]

Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]

Memoirs, William T. Sherman. One of the classic military auto-biographies, this is a very readable account of Sherman's involvement in the American Civil War, supported by a large number of documents. A valuable, generally impartial work that is of great value to anyone interested in Sherman's role in the war.

Who Were the Ten Most Important Generals Of the American Civil War?

About the Author: Mr. Morris is the author of seven well-received books on 19th Century American history and literature. He has served as a consultant for A&E, the History Channel, and edited a three-book series for Purdue University Press on American Civil War and post-Civil War history, journalism and literature. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Boston Review of Books and New Leader, as well as many leading newspapers across the country and abroad. In addition to the Smithsonian Institution, he has also spoken at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Arts Club in New York City, the Atlanta History Center, the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach and the Northern Trust in Miami.

Ulysses S. Grant

Not only did Grant win the first major turning-point battle of the war, at Fort Donelson, he also prevented the South’s first and best attempt at reversing that turning point, at Shiloh. He then captured Vicksburg, clearing the way for Union control of the Mississippi broke the Confederate siege at Chattanooga and appointed strong and capable subordinates in William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan. He fought Robert E. Lee to a standstill in the Battle of the Wilderness, bottled up Lee’s army at Petersburg, and caught up with it at the Battle of Appomattox, winning the Civil War in the process.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

No less a judge than Robert E. Lee reportedly said that the Confederacy’s best general was “a man I have never met. His name is Forrest.” Lee was right. The fierce, unrelenting genius of Forrest prefigured modern warfare, with its emphasis on the enemy’s army, not his territory. “War means fighting and fighting means killing,” Forrest said. He did not say, illiterately, “Git thar fustest with the mostest,” but his concept of highly swift, mobile forces, seen most clearly in his overwhelming victory at Brice’s Crossroads, is still studied by military leaders. Perhaps the highest tribute to Forrest’s self-taught ability as a commander was the fact that Forrest was the only Confederate cavalryman whom Ulysses S. Grant or William T. Sherman feared.

The commander-in-chief of Federal forces during the Civil War, Lincoln had very limited military experience as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War. Being a genius, however, allowed him to master virtually every situation he was in, including war. He clearly saw both the larger outlines and the smaller details of the Union war effort, and he seldom suggested a military course that was not logical and well-considered. Lincoln made his share of mistakes in choosing generals, but he was much quicker than his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, in recognizing his mistakes and correcting them. When he finally found a commander in Ulysses S. Grant who was as relentless as he was in prosecuting the war, he had the good judgment to let him to it.

Robert E. Lee

Possibly rated too high, given the fact that Lee fundamentally misunderstood the most basic aim of the Confederacy, which was to survive until it got stronger, gained foreign recognition, and came to seem a factual inevitability. His two misguided invasions of the North, besides giving up the South’s moral high ground as an invaded country, bled dry his matchless army, ultimately eliminating its ability to fight on anything like even terms with the North. Lee also commanded badly at the Battle of Gettysburg, the most important battle of the war, and his decision to make a final frontal assault with Pickett’s division surely remains one of the worst and least defensible decisions a great commander ever made. When Lee told the survivors, “It is all my fault,” he was not being noble—he was merely stating the obvious.

Patrick Cleburne

The quiet, gentlemanly, Irish-born Cleburne was a superb commander at the regimental, brigade, division and corps levels. He excelled at both offense and defense, and he never failed to fulfill his assigned role in any battle in which he took part. His unconventional and unpopular advice to arm southern slaves and allow them to fight for their freedom fell on deaf ears, and resulted in the stagnation of Cleburne’s career. (Whether or not this would have worked is debatable, but by that time in the war it would have been worth a try.) No other Civil War general ever went to his death more clear-eyed and unillusioned than Patrick Cleburne at Franklin, which is a pretty good definition of true heroism. “We will do our duty,” he said—and did.

Stonewall Jackson

Old Blue Light was one of the great eccentric geniuses of the Civil War–or any other war. Like his closest counterpart in the western theater, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jackson understood the relentless logic of war. When his men held back from shooting the bravest Union soldiers attacking them out of misguided admiration, Jackson told them those were precisely the soldiers they should be killing. Jackson stumbled at Kernstown and the Seven Days’ Battles, but his Shenandoah Valley campaign is rightly considered one of the outstanding military feats in American military history. He won the Battle of Chancellorsville for Robert E. Lee, and it is certainly arguable that he would have done the same thing at Gettysburg, had he lived. Indeed, with the exception of Cold Harbor, which any competent general could have managed, Lee never won another major battle after Jackson was killed.

Phil Sheridan

The unlovely, unlikable Sheridan was an absolute bulldog on the battlefield, and he excelled at every level. Few generals on either side took part in as many major battles, in both the eastern and western theaters, as Sheridan. He commanded cavalry in Mississippi early in the war before moving over to the infantry, where he played notable roles at Perryville, Stones River, the Battle of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, before joining his mentor, Ulysses S. Grant, in Virginia. His independent command of the Army of the Shenandoah brought crucial victories at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek, and his return to the battlefield at the latter engagement became one of the legendary feats of the war. His relentless pursuit of Lee’s army helped shorten the war and saved lives by inducing the Confederate chieftain, however reluctantly, to face the inevitable and surrender at Appomattox.

George B. McClellan

Little Mac had his glaring weaknesses as a general, chief among them a humane reluctance to sacrifice the lives of his own men, but no one ever questioned his ability to organize and train an army. The creation, from the ground up, of the Army of the Potomac was a great personal feat and a crucial contribution to the Union war effort. In using his army to defeat the enemy, McClellan was cautious, but not nearly as slow as his critics have maintained. He failed to capture Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign, but he brought the battle to the very outskirts of the Confederate capital, and he won his share of the Seven Days’ Battles. Most importantly, McClellan won the Battle of Antietam—perhaps the true turning point in the war. His opponent, Robert E. Lee, always said that McClellan was his toughest opponent.

George H. Thomas

Thomas’s reputation suffered during and after the war because he was not a part of the inner circle of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. He also hurt his cause by twice declining to accept command of the main Union army in the west when it was offered to him. The fact that he was a native-born Virginian also handicapped Thomas, despite his undeniable loyalty to the Union. Still, he won the first major Union victory of the war at Mill Springs, Ky., and his stubborn stand at Chickamauga prevented the utter decimation of the Federal forces there. His men then took Missionary Ridge (not Grant’s original plan), and at Nashville, Thomas won perhaps the most overwhelming victory of the war. Unlike any of the other generals on this list, he never turned in a poor performance.

William T. Sherman

Sherman has always been overrated as a battlefield commander. He tended to be shaky in times of stress, and he came close to single-handedly losing the Battle of Shiloh by carelessly neglecting to picket his position. He completely failed to take Missionary Ridge, which his good friend Ulysses S. Grant badly wanted him to do, and his frontal assaults at Kennesaw Mountain and Pickett’s Mill were murderously ill-considered. Nevertheless, Sherman deserves credit for helping Grant take Vicksburg, and his capture of Atlanta in the late summer of 1864 may well have saved the presidency for Abraham Lincoln—a not inconsiderable accomplishment in itself. His subsequent March to the Sea, although not nearly as destructive as legend has it, nevertheless brought the war to the doorsteps of southern civilians and helped convince them that further resistance was futile. He could probably have been elected president in 1876, had he not refused to accept the Republican nomination.

This article by Roy Morris Jr. first appeared in the Warfare History Network on April 26, 2020.

Image: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. 1866. Constant Mayer. Chrysler Museum of Art. Public Domain.


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, Sr., a prominent member of the Whig Party who served as senator from Ohio and as the first Secretary of the Interior. Sherman was distantly related to American founding father Roger Sherman and grew to admire him. [4]

Sherman's older brother Charles Taylor Sherman became a federal judge. One of his younger brothers, John Sherman, served as a U.S. senator and Cabinet secretary. Another younger brother, Hoyt Sherman, was a successful banker. Two of his foster brothers served as major generals in the Union Army during the Civil War: Hugh Boyle Ewing, later an ambassador and author, and Thomas Ewing, Jr., who would serve as defense attorney in the military trials of the Lincoln conspirators. Sherman would marry his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, at age 30 and have eight children with her. [5]

Sherman's given names

Sherman's unusual given name has always attracted considerable attention. [6] Sherman reported that his middle name came from his father having "caught a fancy for the great chief of the Shawnees, 'Tecumseh ' ". [7] Since an account in a 1932 biography about Sherman, it has often been reported that, as an infant, Sherman was named simply Tecumseh. According to these accounts, Sherman only acquired the name "William" at age nine or ten, after being taken into the Ewing household. His foster mother, Maria Willis Boyle (Maria Ewing), was of Irish ancestry and a devout Roman Catholic. Sherman was raised in a Roman Catholic household, although he later left the church, citing the effect of the Civil War on his religious views. According to a story that may be myth, Sherman was baptized in the Ewing home by a Dominican priest, who named him William for the saint's day: possibly June 25, the feast day of Saint William of Montevergine. [8] The story is contested, however. Sherman wrote in his Memoirs that his father named him William Tecumseh Sherman was baptized by a Presbyterian minister as an infant and given the name William at that time. [9] As an adult, Sherman signed all his correspondence—including to his wife—"W. T. Sherman". [10] His friends and family always called him "Cump". [11]

Military training and service

Senator Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point, [12] where he roomed and became good friends with another important future Civil War General, George H. Thomas. While 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". [13] About his time at West Point, Sherman says only the following in his Memoirs:

At the Academy I was not considered a good soldier, for at no time was I selected for any office, but remained a private throughout the whole four years. Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications required for office, and I suppose I was found not to excel in any of these. In studies I always held a respectable reputation with the professors, and generally ranked among the best, especially in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy. My average demerits, per annum, were about one hundred and fifty, which reduced my final class standing from number four to six. [14]

Upon graduation in 1840, Sherman entered the army as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery and saw action in Florida in the Second Seminole War against the Seminole tribe. He was later stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. As the foster son of a prominent Whig politician, in Charleston the popular Lt. Sherman moved within the upper circles of Old South society. [15]

While many of his colleagues saw action in the Mexican–American War, Sherman was assigned to administrative duties in the captured territory of California. Along with fellow lieutenants Henry Halleck and Edward Ord, Sherman embarked from New York on the 198-day journey around Cape Horn, aboard the converted sloop USS Lexington. During that voyage Sherman grew close to Halleck and Ord, and in his Memoirs relate a hike with Halleck to the summit of Corcovado, overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Sherman and Ord reached the town of Yerba Buena, in California, two days before its name was changed to San Francisco. In 1848, 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. [16] Sherman, along with Ord, assisted in surveys for the sub-divisions of the town that would become Sacramento.

Sherman earned a brevet promotion to captain for his "meritorious service", but his lack of a combat assignment discouraged him and may have contributed to his decision to resign his commission. He would eventually become one of the few high-ranking officers of the US Civil War who had not fought in Mexico. [17]

Marriage and business career

In 1850, Sherman was promoted to the substantive rank of captain and on May 1 of that year he married his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, four years his junior. Rev. James A. Ryder, President of Georgetown College, officiated the Washington D.C. ceremony. President Zachary Taylor, Vice President Millard Fillmore and other political luminaries attended the ceremony. Thomas Ewing was serving as Secretary of the Interior at the time. [18]

Like her mother, Ellen Ewing Sherman was a devout Roman Catholic, and the Shermans' eight children were reared in that faith. In 1864, Ellen took up temporary residence in South Bend, Indiana, to have her young family educated at the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College. [19] In 1874, with Sherman having become world-famous, their eldest child, Marie Ewing ("Minnie") Sherman, also had a politically prominent wedding, attended by President Ulysses S. Grant and commemorated by a generous gift from the Khedive of Egypt. (Eventually, one of Minnie's daughters married a grandson of Confederate general Lewis Addison Armistead.) [20] Another of the Sherman daughters, Eleanor, was married to Alexander Montgomery Thackara at General Sherman's home in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 1880. To Sherman's great displeasure and sorrow, his oldest surviving son, Thomas Ewing Sherman, joined the religious order of the Jesuits in 1878 and was ordained as a priest in 1889. [21]

In 1853, Sherman resigned his captaincy and became manager of the San Francisco branch of the St. Louis-based bank Lucas, Turner & Co. He returned to San Francisco at a time of great turmoil in the West. He survived two shipwrecks and floated through the Golden Gate on the overturned hull of a foundering lumber schooner. [22] Sherman suffered from stress-related asthma because of the city's aggressive business culture. [23] Late in life, regarding his time in a San Francisco experiencing a frenzy of real estate speculation, 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." [24] In 1856, during the vigilante period, he served briefly as a major general of the California militia. [25]

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. In early 1858, he returned to California to wrap up the bank's affairs there. Later in 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he tried his hand at law practice and other ventures without much success. [26]

Military college superintendent

In 1859, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana, a position he sought at the suggestion of Major D. C. Buell and secured because of General George Mason Graham. [28] He proved an effective and popular leader of the institution, which later became Louisiana State University (LSU). [29] Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, the brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared 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." [30]

Although his brother, Congressman John Sherman, was well known for his anti-slavery views, Captain Sherman was not an abolitionist and he had expressed some sympathy for the white Southerners' defense of their agrarian system, including the institution of slavery. On the other hand, Captain Sherman was adamantly opposed to secession. In Louisiana he became a close friend of Professor David F. Boyd, a native of Virginia and an enthusiastic secessionist. Boyd later recalled witnessing that, when news of South Carolina's secession from the United States reached them at the Seminary, "Sherman burst out crying, and began, in his nervous way, pacing the floor and deprecating the step which he feared might bring destruction on the whole country." [31] In what some authors have seen as an accurate prophecy of the conflict that would engulf the United States during the next four years, [32] Boyd recalled Sherman declaring:

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. [33]

In January 1861, as more Southern states seceded from the Union, Sherman was required to accept receipt of arms surrendered to the Louisiana State Militia by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent, declaring to the governor of Louisiana that "on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile . to the . United States." [34] Sherman then left Louisiana and headed north.

St. Louis interlude

Immediately following his departure from Louisiana, Sherman traveled to Washington, D.C., possibly in the hope of securing a position in the army, and met with Abraham Lincoln in the White House during inauguration week. Sherman expressed concern about the North's poor state of preparedness but found Lincoln unresponsive. [35]

Thereafter, Sherman became president of the St. Louis Railroad, a streetcar company, a position he would hold for only a few months. Thus, he was living in the border state of Missouri as the secession crisis came to a climax. While trying to hold himself aloof from controversy, he observed first-hand the efforts of Congressman Frank Blair, who later served under Sherman, to keep Missouri in the Union. In early April, he declined an offer from the Lincoln administration to take a position in the War Department as a prelude to his becoming Assistant Secretary of War. [36] After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Sherman hesitated about committing to military service and ridiculed Lincoln's call for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell secession, reportedly saying: "Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun." [37] However, in May, he offered himself for service in the regular army, and his brother (Senator John Sherman) and other connections maneuvered to get him a commission in the regular army. [38] On June 3, he wrote that "I still think it is to be a long war—very long—much longer than any Politician thinks." [39] He received a telegram summoning him to Washington on June 7. [40]

First commissions and Bull Run

Sherman was first commissioned as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry Regiment, effective May 14, 1861. This was a new regiment yet to be raised, and Sherman's first command was actually of a brigade of three-month volunteers, [41] 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. According to British military historian Brian Holden-Reid, "if Sherman had committed tactical errors during the attack, he more than compensated for these during the subsequent retreat". [42] Holden-Reid also concluded that Sherman "might have been as unseasoned as the men he commanded, but he had not fallen prey to the naïve illusions nursed by so many on the field of First Bull Run." [43]

The disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run led Sherman to question his own judgment as an officer and the capacities of his volunteer troops. President Lincoln was positively impressed by Sherman while visiting the troops on July 23 and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (effective May 17, 1861, with seniority in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander). [44] He was assigned to serve under Robert Anderson in the Department of the Cumberland in Louisville, Kentucky, and in October Sherman succeeded Anderson in command of the department. Sherman considered that his new assignment broke a promise from Lincoln that he would not be given such a prominent position. [45]


Having succeeded Anderson at Louisville, Sherman now had principal military responsibility for Kentucky, a border state in which Confederate troops held Columbus and Bowling Green and were present near the Cumberland Gap. [46] He became exceedingly pessimistic about the outlook for his command and he complained frequently to Washington, D.C. about shortages, while providing exaggerated estimates of the strength of the rebel forces and requesting inordinate numbers of reinforcements. Critical press reports appeared about him after an October visit to Louisville by the secretary of war, Simon Cameron, and in early November 1861 Sherman insisted that he be relieved. [47] He was promptly replaced by Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell and transferred to St. Louis, Missouri. In December, he was put on leave by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri, who considered him unfit for duty. Sherman went to Lancaster, Ohio, to recuperate. While he was at home, his wife Ellen wrote to his brother, Senator John Sherman, seeking advice. She complained of "that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject". [48] In his private correspondence, Sherman later wrote that the concerns of command "broke me down" and admitted to having contemplated suicide. [49] His problems were compounded when the Cincinnati Commercial described him as "insane". [50]

By mid-December 1861 Sherman had recovered sufficiently to return to service under Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. In March, Halleck's command was redesignated the Department of the Mississippi and enlarged to unify command in the West. Sherman's initial assignments were rear-echelon commands, first of an instructional barracks near St. Louis and then in command of the District of Cairo. [51] Operating from Paducah, Kentucky, he provided logistical support for the operations of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to capture Fort Donelson (February 1862). Grant, the previous commander of the District of Cairo, had recently won a major victory at Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and been given command of the ill-defined District of West Tennessee. Although Sherman was technically the senior officer at this time, he wrote to Grant, "I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities [the Confederates] have of concentration by means of the River and R Road, but [I] have faith in you—Command me in any way." [52]


After Grant captured Fort Donelson, Sherman got his wish to serve under Grant when he was assigned on March 1, 1862, to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division. [53] His first major test under Grant was at the Battle of Shiloh. The massive Confederate attack on the morning of April 6, 1862, took most of the senior Union commanders by surprise. Sherman had dismissed the intelligence reports received from militia officers, refusing to believe that Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston would leave his base at Corinth. He took no precautions beyond strengthening his picket lines, and refused to entrench, build abatis, or push out reconnaissance patrols. At Shiloh, he may have wished to avoid appearing overly alarmed in order to escape the kind of criticism he had received in Kentucky. He had written to his wife that, if he took more precautions, "they'd call me crazy again". [54]

Despite being caught unprepared by the attack, Sherman rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout. Finding Grant at the end of the day sitting under an oak tree in the darkness and smoking a cigar, Sherman felt, in his words, "some wise and sudden instinct not to mention retreat". In what would become one of the most notable conversations of the war, Sherman said simply: "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" After a puff of his cigar, Grant replied calmly: "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though." [55] Sherman proved instrumental to the successful Union counterattack of April 7, 1862. At Shiloh, Sherman was wounded twice—in the hand and shoulder—and had three horses shot out from under him. His performance was praised by Grant and Halleck and after the battle he was promoted to major general of volunteers, effective May 1, 1862. [53]

Beginning in late April, a Union force of 100,000 moved slowly against Corinth, under Halleck's command with Grant relegated to second-in-command Sherman commanded the division on the extreme right of the Union's right wing (under George Henry Thomas). Shortly after the Union forces occupied Corinth on May 30, Sherman persuaded Grant not to leave his command, despite the serious difficulties he was having with Halleck. Sherman offered Grant an example from his own life, "Before the battle of Shiloh, I was cast down by a mere newspaper assertion of 'crazy', but that single battle gave me new life, and I'm now in high feather." He told Grant that, if he remained in the army, "some happy accident might restore you to favor and your true place". [56] In July, Grant's situation improved when Halleck left for the East to become general-in-chief, and Sherman became the military governor of occupied Memphis. [57]


According to historian John D. Winters's The Civil War in Louisiana (1963), at this time Sherman

. had yet 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. [58]

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, Mississippi. [59] Soon after, his XV Corps was ordered to join Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand in his successful assault on Arkansas Post, generally regarded as a politically motivated distraction from the effort to take Vicksburg. [60]

Sherman initially expressed reservations about the wisdom of Grant's unorthodox strategy for the Vicksburg campaign in the spring of 1863, which called for the invading Union army to separate from its supply train and subsist by foraging. [61] However, he submitted fully to Grant's leadership and the campaign cemented Sherman's close personal ties to Grant. [62] During the long and complicated maneuvers against Vicksburg, 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". [63] The final fall of the besieged city of Vicksburg was a major strategic victory for the Union, since it put navigation along the Mississippi River entirely under the Union army's control and effectively cut off Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy.

During the siege of Vicksburg, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had gathered a force of 30,000 men in Jackson, Mississippi, with the intention of relieving the garrison under the command of John C. Pemberton that was trapped inside Vicksburg. After Pemberton surrendered to Grant on July 4, Johnston advanced towards the rear of Grant's forces. In response to this threat, Grant instructed Sherman to attack Johnston. Sherman conducted the ensuing Jackson Expedition, which concluded successfully on July 25 with the re-capture of the city of Jackson. This helped ensure that the Mississippi River would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war. According to military historian Brian Holden-Reid, Sherman finally "had cut his teeth as an army commander" with the Jackson Expedition. [64]


After the surrender of Vicksburg and the re-capture of Jackson, Sherman was given the rank of brigadier general in the regular army, in addition to his rank as a major general of volunteers. His family travelled from Ohio to visit him at the camp near Vicksburg. Sherman's nine-year-old son, Willie, the "Little Sergeant", tragically died from typhoid fever contracted during the trip. [65]

Following the defeat of the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga by Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, President Lincoln re-organized the Union forces in the West as the Military Division of the Mississippi, under the command of General Grant. Sherman succeeded Grant at the head of the Army of the Tennessee. Ordered to relieve the Union forces besieged in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, on October 11, 1863 Sherman departed from Memphis on a train bound for Chattanooga. When Sherman's train passed Collierville it came under attack by 3,000 Confederate cavalry and eight guns commanded by Brigadier General James Chalmers. Sherman took command of the infantrymen in the local Union garrison and successfully repelled the Confederate attack. [66]

Sherman proceeded to Chattanooga, where Grant instructed him to attack the right flank of Bragg's forces, which were entrenched along the Missionary Ridge. On November 25, Sherman took his assigned target of Billy Goat Hill at the north end of the ridge, only to find that it was separated from the main spine by a rock-strewn ravine. When he attempted to attack the main spine at Tunnel Hill, his troops were repeatedly repelled by Patrick Cleburne's heavy division, the best unit in Bragg's army. Grant then ordered George Henry Thomas to attack at the center of the Confederate line. This frontal assault was intended as a diversion, but it unexpectedly succeeded in capturing the enemy's entrenchments and routing the Confederate Army of Tennessee, bringing the Union's Chattanooga campaign to a successful completion. [67]

After Chattanooga, Sherman led a column to relieve Union forces under Ambrose Burnside thought to be in peril at Knoxville. In February 1864, he led an expedition to Meridian, Mississippi, to disrupt Confederate infrastructure. [68]


Despite this mixed record, Sherman enjoyed 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." [69]

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. [70] He commanded 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 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. Meanwhile, in August, Sherman "learned that I had been commissioned a major-general in the regular army, which was unexpected, and not desired until successful in the capture of Atlanta". [71]

Sherman's Atlanta campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city, which Hood had been forced to abandon. The fall of Atlanta had a major political impact in the North: it caused the collapse of the once powerful "Copperhead" faction within the Democratic Party, which had advocated immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy. Sherman's military victory thus effectively ensured Abraham Lincoln's presidential re-election in November. [72]

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. [73] This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies. The capture of the city of Atlanta made General Sherman a household name.

March to the Sea

During September and October, Sherman and Hood played cat-and-mouse in north Georgia (and Alabama) as Hood threatened Sherman's communications to the north. Eventually, Sherman won approval from his superiors for a plan to cut loose from his communications and march south, having advised Grant that he could "make Georgia howl". [74] This created the threat that Hood would move north into Tennessee. Trivializing that threat, Sherman reportedly said that he would "give [Hood] his rations" to go in that direction as "my business is down south". [75] However, Sherman left forces under Maj. Gens. George H. Thomas and John M. Schofield to deal with Hood their forces eventually smashed Hood's army in the battles of Franklin (November 30) and Nashville (December 15–16). [76] Meanwhile, after the November elections, Sherman began a march on November 15 [77] with 62,000 men to the port of Savannah, Georgia, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage. [78] Sherman called this harsh tactic of material war "hard war," often seen as a species of total war. [79] At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman's March to the Sea, his troops captured Savannah on December 21, 1864. [80] Sherman then dispatched a message to Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present. [81]

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. Sherman wrote both to his brother, Senator John Sherman, and to General Grant vehemently repudiating any such promotion. [82] According to a war-time account, [83] 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.

While in Savannah, Sherman learned from a newspaper that his infant son Charles Celestine had died during the Savannah campaign the general had never seen the child. [84]

Final campaigns in the Carolinas

Grant then ordered Sherman to embark his army on steamers and join the Union forces confronting Lee in Virginia, but Sherman instead persuaded Grant to allow him to march north through the Carolinas, destroying everything of military value along the way, as he had done in Georgia. He was particularly interested in targeting South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, because of the effect that it would have on Southern morale. [85] His army proceeded north through South Carolina against light resistance from the troops of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. Upon hearing that Sherman's men were advancing on corduroy roads through the Salkehatchie swamps at a rate of a dozen miles per day, Johnston "made up his mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar". [86]

Sherman captured the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865. Fires began that night and by next morning most of the central city was destroyed. The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, others a deliberate act of vengeance, and still others that the retreating Confederates burned bales of cotton on their way out of town. [87]

Local Native American Lumbee guides helped Sherman's army cross the Lumber River, which was flooded by torrential rains, into North Carolina. According to Sherman, the trek across the Lumber River, and through the swamps, pocosins, and creeks of Robeson County was "the damnedest marching I ever saw". [88] Thereafter, his troops did little damage to the civilian infrastructure, as North Carolina, unlike its southern neighbor, was regarded by his men as a reluctant Confederate state, having been the second from last state to secede from the Union, before Tennessee. Sherman's final significant military engagement was a victory over Johnston's troops at the Battle of Bentonville, March 19–21. He soon rendezvoused at Goldsborough, North Carolina, with Union troops awaiting him there after the capture of Fort Fisher and Wilmington.

In late March, Sherman briefly left his forces and traveled to City Point, Virginia, to consult with Grant. Lincoln happened to be at City Point at the same time, allowing the only three-way meetings of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman during the war. [89]

Confederate surrender

Following Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House and the assassination of President Lincoln, Sherman met with Johnston on April 17, 1865 at Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina, to negotiate a Confederate surrender. At the insistence of Johnston, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, Sherman conditionally agreed to generous terms that dealt with both military and political issues. On April 20, Sherman dispatched a memorandum with the proposed term to the government in Washington, D.C. [90]

Sherman believed that the generous terms that he had negotiated were consistent with the views that Lincoln had expressed at City Point, and that they were the best way to prevent Johnston from ordering his men to go into the wilderness and conduct a destructive guerrilla campaign. However, Sherman had proceeded without authority from General Grant, the newly installed President Andrew Johnson, or the Cabinet. The assassination of President Lincoln had caused the political climate in Washington, D.C. to turn against the prospect of a rapid reconciliation with the defeated Confederates, and the Johnson administration rejected Sherman's terms. General Grant may have had to intervene to save Sherman from dismissal for having overstepped his authority. [91] The US Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, leaked Sherman's memorandum to the New York Times, intimating that Sherman might have been bribed to allow Jefferson Davis to escape capture by the Union troops. [92] This precipitated a deep and long-lasting enmity between Sherman and Stanton, and it intensified Sherman's disdain for politicians. [93]

Grant offered Johnston purely military terms similar to those that he had negotiated with Lee at Appomattox. Johnston, ignoring instructions from President Davis, accepted those terms on April 26, 1865. He then formally surrendered his army and all the Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in the largest single capitulation of the war. [94] Sherman proceeded with 60,000 of his troops to Washington, D.C., where they marched in the Grand Review of the Armies, on May 24, 1865, and were then disbanded. Having become the second most important general in the Union army, he thus had come full circle to the city where he started his war-time service as colonel of a non-existent infantry regiment.

Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war and, like others of his time and background, he did not believe in "Negro equality". [95] [96] Before the war, Sherman at times even expressed some sympathy with the view of Southern whites that the black race was benefiting from slavery, although he opposed breaking up slave families and advocated teaching slaves to read and write. [97] During the Civil War, Sherman declined to employ black troops in his armies. [98]

Sherman's military campaigns of 1864 and 1865 freed many slaves, who greeted him "as a second Moses or Aaron" [95] and joined his marches through Georgia and the Carolinas by the tens of thousands. The fate of these refugees became a pressing military and political issue. Some abolitionists accused Sherman of doing little to alleviate the precarious living conditions of the freed slaves. [99] To address this issue, on January 12, 1865, Sherman met in Savannah with Secretary of War Stanton and with twenty local black leaders. After Sherman's departure, Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister, declared in response to an inquiry about the feelings of the black community:

We looked upon General Sherman, prior to his arrival, as a man, in the providence of God, specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously felt inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he did not meet [Secretary Stanton] with more courtesy than he met us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman. [100]

Four days later, Sherman issued his Special Field Orders, No. 15. The orders provided for the settlement of 40,000 freed slaves and black refugees on land expropriated from white landowners in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Sherman appointed Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who had previously directed the recruitment of black soldiers, to implement that plan. [101] Those orders, which became the basis of the claim that the Union government had promised freed slaves "40 acres and a mule", were revoked later that year by President Andrew Johnson.

Although the context is often overlooked, and the quotation usually chopped off, one of Sherman's statements about his hard-war views arose in part from the racial attitudes summarized above. In his Memoirs, Sherman noted political pressures in 1864–1865 to encourage the escape of slaves, in part to avoid the possibility that "able-bodied slaves will be called into the military service of the rebels". [102] Sherman thought concentration on such policies would have delayed the "successful end" of the war and the "[liberation of] all slaves". [103] He went on to summarize vividly his hard-war philosophy and to add, in effect, that he really did not want the help of liberated slaves in subduing the South:

My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." I did not want them to cast in our teeth what General Hood had once done at Atlanta, that we had to call on their slaves to help us to subdue them. But, as regards kindness to the race . I assert that no army ever did more for that race than the one I commanded at Savannah. [104]

Sherman's views on race evolved throughout his life. He dealt in a friendly and unaffected way with the black people that he met during his career, and in 1888, towards the end of his life, he published an essay in the North American Review defending the full civil rights of black citizens in the former Confederacy. [105]

Sherman's record as a tactician was mixed, and his military legacy rests primarily on his command of logistics and on his brilliance as a strategist. The influential 20th-century British military historian and theorist B. H. Liddell Hart ranked Sherman as "the first modern general" and one of the most important strategists in the annals of war, along with Scipio Africanus, Belisarius, Napoleon Bonaparte, T. E. Lawrence, and Erwin Rommel. Liddell Hart credited Sherman with mastery of maneuver warfare (also known as the "indirect approach"), as demonstrated by his series of turning movements against Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Liddell Hart also declared that studying Sherman's campaigns had contributed significantly to his own "theory of strategy and tactics in mechanized warfare", which had in turn influenced Heinz Guderian's doctrine of Blitzkrieg and Rommel's use of tanks during the Second World War. [106] Another World War II-era student of Liddell Hart's writings about Sherman was George S. Patton, who "'spent a long vacation studying Sherman's campaigns on the ground in Georgia and the Carolinas, with the aid of [Liddell Hart's] book'" and later "'carried out his [bold] plans, in super-Sherman style'". [107]

Sherman's greatest contribution to the war, the strategy of total warfare, has been the subject of much controversy. Sherman himself downplayed his role in conducting total war, often saying that he was simply carrying out orders as best he could in order to fulfill his part in Lincoln's and Grant's master plan for ending the war.

Total warfare

Like Grant, Sherman was convinced that the Confederacy's strategic, economic, and psychological ability to wage further war needed to be definitively crushed if the fighting were to end. Therefore, he believed that the North had to conduct its campaign as a war of conquest and employ scorched earth tactics to break the backbone of the rebellion. He called this strategy "hard war".

Sherman's advance through Georgia and South Carolina was characterized by widespread destruction of civilian supplies and infrastructure. Although looting was officially forbidden, historians disagree on how well this regulation was enforced. [108]

The damage done by Sherman was almost entirely limited to the destruction of property. Though exact figures are not available, the loss of civilian life appears to have been very small. [109] Consuming supplies, wrecking infrastructure, and undermining morale were Sherman's stated goals, and several of his Southern contemporaries noted this and commented on it. For instance, Alabama-born Major Henry Hitchcock, who served in Sherman's staff, declared that "it is a terrible thing to consume and destroy the sustenance of thousands of people," but if the scorched earth strategy served "to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting . it is mercy in the end". [110]

The severity of the destructive acts by Union troops was significantly greater in South Carolina than in Georgia or North Carolina. This appears to have been a consequence of the animosity among both Union soldiers and officers to the state that they regarded as the "cockpit of secession". [111] One of the most serious accusations against Sherman was that he allowed his troops to burn the city of Columbia. In 1867, Gen. O. O. Howard, commander of Sherman's 15th Corps, reportedly said, "It is useless to deny that our troops burnt Columbia, for I saw them in the act." [112] However, Sherman himself stated that "[i]f I had made up my mind to burn Columbia I would have burnt it with no more feeling than I would a common prairie dog village but I did not do it . " [113] Sherman's official report on the burning placed the blame on Confederate Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton III, who Sherman said had ordered the burning of cotton in the streets. In his memoirs, Sherman said, "In my official report of this conflagration I distinctly charged it to General Wade Hampton, and confess I did so pointedly to shake the faith of his people in him, for he was in my opinion a braggart and professed to be the special champion of South Carolina." [114] Historian James M. McPherson has concluded that:

The fullest and most dispassionate study of this controversy blames all parties in varying proportions—including the Confederate authorities for the disorder that characterized the evacuation of Columbia, leaving thousands of cotton bales on the streets (some of them burning) and huge quantities of liquor undestroyed . Sherman did not deliberately burn Columbia a majority of Union soldiers, including the general himself, worked through the night to put out the fires. [115]

In this general connection, it is also noteworthy that Sherman and his subordinates (particularly John A. Logan) took steps to protect Raleigh, North Carolina, from acts of revenge after the assassination of President Lincoln. [116]

Modern assessment

After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, Sherman ordered the city's evacuation. When the city council appealed to him to rescind that order, on the grounds that it would cause great hardship to women, children, the elderly, and others who bore no responsibility for the conduct of the war, Sherman sent a written response in which he sought to articulate his conviction that a lasting peace would be possible only if the Union were restored, and that he was therefore prepared to do all he could do to quash the rebellion:

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. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war . 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 anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter. [117]

Literary critic Edmund Wilson found in Sherman's Memoirs a fascinating and disturbing account of an "appetite for warfare" that "grows as it feeds on the South". [118] Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara refers equivocally to the statement that "war is cruelty and you cannot refine it" in both the book Wilson's Ghost [119] and in his interview for the film The Fog of War.

But when comparing Sherman's scorched-earth campaigns to the actions of the British Army during the Second Boer War (1899–1902)—another war in which civilians were targeted because of their central role in sustaining a belligerent power—South African historian Hermann Giliomee claims that it "looks as if Sherman struck a better balance than the British commanders between severity and restraint in taking actions proportional to legitimate needs". [120] The admiration of scholars such as B. H. Liddell Hart, Lloyd Lewis, John F. Marszalek, Victor Davis Hanson, and Brian Holden-Reid for General Sherman owes much to what they see as an approach to the exigencies of modern armed conflict that was both effective and principled.

In May 1865, after the major Confederate armies had surrendered, Sherman wrote in a personal letter:

I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers . tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated . that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation. [121]

In June 1865, two months after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, General Sherman received his first postwar command, originally called the Military Division of the Mississippi, later the Military Division of the Missouri, which came to comprise the territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Sherman's efforts in that position were focused on protecting the main wagon roads, such as the Oregon, Bozeman and Santa Fe Trails. [122] Tasked with guarding a vast territory with a limited force, Sherman was wary of the multitude of requests by territories and settlements for protection. [123] On July 25, 1866, Congress created the rank of General of the Army for Grant and then promoted Sherman to lieutenant general.

Indian Wars

There was little large-scale military action against the Indians during the first three years of Sherman's tenure as divisional commander, as Sherman was willing to let the process of negotiations play out in order to buy time to procure more troops and allow the completion of the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads. During this time Sherman was a member of the Indian Peace Commission. Though the commission was responsible for the negotiation of the Medicine Lodge Treaty and the Sioux Treaty of 1868, Sherman did not play a significant role in the drafting of the treaties because in both cases he was called away Washington during the negotiations. [124] In one instance, he was called to testify in the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. However, Sherman was successful in negotiating other treaties, such as the removal of Navajos from the Bosque Redondo to traditional lands in Western New Mexico. [125] When the Medicine Lodge Treaty was broken in 1868, Sherman authorized his subordinate in Missouri, Philip Sheridan, to conduct the winter campaign of 1868–69, of which the Battle of Washita River was a part. Sheridan used hard-war tactics similar to those he and Sherman had employed in the Civil War. Sherman was also involved with the trial of Satanta and Big Tree: he ordered that the two chiefs should be tried as common criminals for their role in the Warren Wagon Train Raid, a raid in which Sherman himself came dangerously close to being killed.

One of Sherman's main concerns in postbellum service was to protect the construction and operation of the railroads from attack by hostile Indians. Sherman's views on Indian matters were often strongly expressed. He regarded the railroads "as the most important element now in progress to facilitate the military interests of our Frontier". Hence, in 1867, he wrote to Grant that "we are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress of [the railroads]". [126] After the 1866 Fetterman Massacre, in which 81 US soldier were ambushed and killed by Native American warriors, Sherman wrote to Grant that "we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children". [127]

The displacement of Indians was facilitated by the growth of the railroads and the eradication of the buffalo. Sherman believed that the intentional eradication of the buffalo should be encouraged as a means of weakening Indian resistance to assimilation. He voiced this view in remarks to a joint session of the Texas legislature in 1875. However, he never engaged in any program to actually eradicate the buffalo. [128] [129]

General of the Army

When U. S. Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to the rank of full general. After the death of John A. Rawlins, Sherman also served for one month as interim Secretary of War.

Sherman's early tenure as Commanding General was marred by political difficulties, many of which stemmed from disagreements with Secretaries of War Rawlins and William W. Belknap, whom Sherman felt had usurped too much of the Commanding General's powers, reducing it to a sinecure. [123] Sherman also clashed with Eastern humanitarians who were critical of the Army's killing of Indians and who had apparently found an ally in President Grant. [123] To escape these difficulties, from 1874 to 1876, Sherman moved his headquarters to St. Louis, Missouri. He returned to Washington when the new Secretary of War, Alphonso Taft, promised him greater authority. [130]

Much of Sherman's time as Commanding General was devoted to making the Western and Plains states safe for settlement through the continuation of the Indian Wars, which included three significant campaigns: the Modoc War, the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Nez Perce War. Despite his harsh treatment of the warring tribes, Sherman spoke out against the unfair way speculators and government agents treated the natives within the reservations. [131] During this time, Sherman reorganized the US Army forts to reflect the shifting frontier. [132]

In 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War, Sherman became one of the first Civil War generals to publish a memoir. [133] His Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. By Himself, published by D. Appleton & Co., in two volumes, began with the year 1846 (when the Mexican War began) and ended with a chapter about the "military lessons of the [civil] war". The memoirs were controversial, and sparked complaints from many quarters. [134] Grant, who was serving as US President when Sherman's memoirs first appeared, later remarked that others had told him that Sherman treated Grant unfairly but "when I finished the book, I found I approved every word that . it was a true book, an honorable book, creditable to Sherman, just to his companions—to myself particularly so—just such a book as I expected Sherman would write." [135]

According to literary critic Edmund Wilson, Sherman:

[H]ad a trained gift of self-expression and was, as Mark Twain says, a master of narrative. [In his Memoirs] the vigorous account of his pre-war activities and his conduct of his military operations is varied in just the right proportion and to just the right degree of vivacity with anecdotes and personal experiences. We live through his campaigns . in the company of Sherman himself. He tells us what he thought and what he felt, and he never strikes any attitudes or pretends to feel anything he does not feel. [136]

During the election of 1876, Southern Democrats who supported Wade Hampton for governor used mob violence to attack and intimidate African American voters in Charleston, South Carolina. Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain appealed to President Grant for military assistance. In October 1876, Grant, after issuing a proclamation, instructed Sherman to gather all available Atlantic region troops and dispatch them to South Carolina to stop the mob violence. [137]

On June 19, 1879, Sherman delivered an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy, in which he may have uttered the famous phrase "War is Hell". [138] On April 11, 1880, he addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 in Columbus, Ohio: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell." [139] In 1945, President Harry S. Truman would say: "Sherman was wrong. I'm telling you I find peace is hell." [140]

One of Sherman's significant contributions as head of the Army was the establishment of the Command School (now the Command and General Staff College) at Fort Leavenworth in 1881. Sherman stepped down as commanding general on November 1, 1883, and retired from the army on February 8, 1884.

Sherman 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. [141] During this period, he stayed in contact with war veterans, and through them accepted honorary membership into the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and the Irving Literary Society. In 1888 he joined the newly formed Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell. [142]

General Sherman was proposed as a Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1884, but he declined as emphatically as possible, saying, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." [143] Such a categorical rejection of a candidacy is now referred to as a "Shermanesque statement".

In 1886, after the publication of Grant's memoirs, Sherman produced a "second edition, revised and corrected" of his memoirs with Appleton. The new edition added a second preface, a chapter about his life up to 1846, a chapter concerning the post-war period (ending with his 1884 retirement from the army), several appendices, portraits, improved maps, and an index. For the most part, Sherman refused to revise his original text on the ground that "I disclaim the character of historian, but assume to be a witness on the stand before the great tribunal of history" and "any witness who may disagree with me should publish his own version of [the] facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested". However, Sherman did add the appendices, in which he published the views of some others. [144] Subsequently, Sherman shifted to the publishing house of Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher of Grant's memoirs. The new publishing house brought out a "third edition, revised and corrected" in 1890. This difficult-to-find edition was substantively identical to the second (except for the probable omission of Sherman's short 1875 and 1886 prefaces). [145]


Sherman died of pneumonia in New York City at 1:50 PM on February 14, 1891, six days after his 71st birthday. President Benjamin Harrison sent a telegram to General Sherman's family and ordered all national flags to be flown at half mast. Harrison, in a message to the Senate and the House of Representatives, wrote that:

He was an ideal soldier, and shared to the fullest the esprit de corps of the army, but he cherished the civil institutions organized under the Constitution, and was only a soldier that these might be perpetuated in undiminished usefulness and honor. [146]

On February 19, a funeral service was held at his home, followed by a military procession. General Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate officer who had commanded the resistance to Sherman's troops in Georgia and the Carolinas, served as a pallbearer in New York City. It was a bitterly cold day and a friend of Johnston, fearing that the general might become ill, asked him to put on his hat. Johnston replied: "If I were in [Sherman's] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat." Johnston did catch a serious cold and died one month later of pneumonia. [147]

General Sherman's body was then transported to St. Louis, where another service was conducted on February 21, 1891 at a local Catholic church. His son, Thomas Ewing Sherman, a Jesuit priest, presided over his father's funeral mass. Sherman is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

Sherman's birth family was Presbyterian and he was originally baptized as such. His foster family, including his future wife Ellen, were devout Catholics, and Sherman was re-baptized and later married in the Catholic rite. According to his son Thomas Ewing Sherman, who became a Catholic priest, Sherman attended the Catholic Church until the outbreak of the Civil War, but not thereafter. [148] In 1888, Sherman wrote publicly that "my immediate family are strongly Catholic. I am not and cannot be." [149] A memoirist reports that Sherman told him in 1887 that "my family is strongly Roman Catholic, but I am not." [150] Sherman wrote his wife Ellen Ewing in 1842 that "I believe in good works rather than faith." [151]

In his letters to Thomas, his eldest surviving son, General Sherman said "I don’t want you to be a soldier or a priest, but a good useful man", [152] and complained that Thomas's mother Ellen "thinks religion is so important that everything else must give way to it." [153] Thomas's decision to abandon his career as a lawyer in 1878 in order to join the Jesuits and prepare for the Catholic priesthood caused General Sherman profound distress, and he referred to it as a "great calamity". Father and son, however, were reconciled when Thomas returned to the United States in August 1880, after having travelled to England for his religious instruction. [154]

The gilded bronze Sherman Memorial (1902) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens stands at the Grand Army Plaza near the main entrance to Central Park in New York City. The Sherman Monument (1903) by Carl Rohl-Smith stands near President's Park in Washington, D.C. [155] The Sherman Monument (1900) in Muskegon, Michigan features a bronze statue by John Massey Rhind, and the Sherman Monument (1903) in Arlington National Cemetery features a smaller version of Saint-Gaudens's equestrian statue. Copies of Saint-Gaudens's Bust of William Tecumseh Sherman are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and elsewhere. [156]

Other posthumous tributes to General Sherman include Sherman Circle in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the naming of the World War II M4 Sherman tank, [157] and the "General Sherman" Giant Sequoia tree, which is the most massive documented single-trunk tree in the world.

In the years immediately after the war, Sherman's conservative politics was attractive to many white Southerners. By the 1880s, however, Southern "Lost Cause" writers began to demonize Sherman for his attacks on civilians in the "March". The magazine Confederate Veteran, based in Nashville, dedicated more attention to Sherman than to any other figure, in part to enhance the visibility of the Western Theater. Sherman's devastation of railroads and plantations mattered less than the March's insult to southern dignity, especially its unprotected womanhood. American historian Wesley Moody has criticized English commentators such as Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller, and especially Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, for filtering General Sherman's actions and his hard-war strategy through their own ideas about modern warfare, thereby contributing to the exaggeration of his "atrocities". [158] By contrast, Sherman was popular in the North and well regarded by his own soldiers. Military historians have paid special attention to his Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea, generally giving him high marks as an innovative strategist and quick-witted tactician. [159]

Autobiography and memoirs

After Sherman died in 1891, there were dueling new editions of his memoirs. His first publisher, Appleton, reissued the original (1875) edition with two new chapters about Sherman's later years added by the journalist W. Fletcher Johnson. Meanwhile, Charles L. Webster & Co. issued a "fourth edition, revised, corrected, and complete" with the text of Sherman's second edition, a new chapter prepared under the auspices of the Sherman family bringing the general's life from his retirement to his death and funeral, and an appreciation by politician James G. Blaine, who was related to Sherman's wife. Unfortunately, this edition omits Sherman's prefaces to the 1875 and 1886 editions.

In 1904 and 1913, Sherman's youngest son, Philemon Tecumseh Sherman, republished the memoirs, with Appleton rather than Charles L. Webster & Co. This was designated as a "second edition, revised and corrected". This edition contains Sherman's two prefaces, his 1886 text, and the materials added in the 1891 Blaine edition. Thus, this virtually invisible edition of Sherman's memoirs is actually the most comprehensive version.

There are many modern editions of Sherman's memoirs. The edition most useful for research purposes is the 1990 Library of America version, edited by Charles Royster. It contains the entire text of Sherman's 1886 edition, together with annotations, a note on the text, and a detailed chronology of Sherman's life. Missing from this edition is the useful biographical material contained in the 1891 Johnson and Blaine editions.

Published correspondence

Many of Sherman's official war-time letters (and other items) appear in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Some of these letters are rather personal in nature, rather than relating directly to operational activities of the army. There also are at least five published collections of Sherman correspondence:

  • Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–1865, edited by Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999) – a large collection of war-time letters (November 1860 to May 1865).
  • Sherman at War, edited by Joseph H. Ewing (Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1992) – approximately thirty war time letters to Sherman's father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, and one of his brothers-in-law, Philemon B. Ewing. edited by M.A. DeWolfe Howe (New York: Charles Scribner's Son, 1909) – edited letters to his wife, Ellen Ewing Sherman, from 1837 to 1888. edited by Rachel Sherman Thorndike (New York: Charles Scribner's Son, 1894) – edited letters to his brother, Senator John Sherman, from 1837 to 1891. edited by Walter L. Fleming (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1912) – edited letters and other documents from Sherman's 1859–1861 service as superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy.

In popular culture

The presentation of Sherman in popular culture is now discussed at book-length in Sherman's March in Myth and Memory (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), by Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown. Some of the artistic treatments of Sherman's march are the Civil War era song "Marching Through Georgia" by Henry Clay Work Herman Melville's poem "The March to the Sea" Ross McElwee's film Sherman's March and E. L. Doctorow's novel The March.

The Supreme Partnership: Grant and Sherman

Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman formed the most important and successful military partnership of the Civil War. As general in chief of United States armies and commander of what would now be called an army group, Grant and Sherman worked on a larger canvas than R.E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson—the Confederacy’s preeminent team—and proved indispensable to saving the Union. Both Ohio-born leaders had experienced personal and professional setbacks during the antebellum years but during the Civil War discovered they could rely on each other. Abraham Lincoln and the loyal citizenry of the United States relied on them as well. As the president explained in March 1864, Grant’s elevation to lieutenant general represented the “nation’s appreciation of what you have done and its reliance upon you for what remains to do in the existing great struggle….I scarcely need to add that with what I here speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.” A newspaper account of the Grand Review in Washington at the close of the war captured the pervasive opinion across the North that Grant’s and Sherman’s veterans, more than 150,000 of whom had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, “are the champions of free governments” who “have saved the world as they have saved the Union.”

Success during the war did not come immediately—especially for Sherman. He failed as an independent commander in late 1861, magnifying Rebel threats and suffering a crippling loss of confidence. On January 1, 1862, he confessed to his wife, “The idea of having brought disgrace on all associated with me is so horrible to con template that I really cannot endure it.” Only subsequent service under Grant retrieved his reputation. The mercurial Sherman, who never underestimated his own talents, readily acknowledged Grant’s dominant position. “I’m a damned sight smarter than Grant,” he told Union Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson in 1864. “I know more about organization, supply and administration and about everything else than he does but I’ll tell you where he beats me and where he beats the world. He don’t care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight but it scares me like hell.”

Sherman’s assessment got to the heart of Grant’s greatness—steady confidence, imperturbable will and tenacity that, together with a willingness to shoulder ultimate responsibility, provided a calming framework within which Sherman thrived. Grant grasped his friend’s strong points from the outset, writing to his wife in January 1865, “I am glad to say that I appreciated Sherman from the first feeling him to be what he has proven to the world he is.” The two men developed unshakable trust in one another. “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me,” Sherman wrote Grant in reference to their campaigns of 1862-63, “and if I got in a tight place you would come—if alive.”

They fought together from the spring of 1862 until the end, directing storied campaigns in the Western and Eastern theaters and presiding over the surrenders of the two principal Rebel armies in April 1865. Grant learned to allow his lieutenant wide latitude and praised him often. When Sherman’s critics suggested the March to the Sea had originated with others, for example, Grant settled the matter in his Personal Memoirs: “The question of who devised the plan of march from Atlanta to Savannah is easily answered: it was clearly Sherman, and to him also belongs the credit for its brilliant execution.” For his part, Sherman recognized in Grant a rare ability to draw the best from lieutenants. “General Grant possesses in an eminent degree that peculiar & high attribute of using various men to produce a Common result,” he observed in the summer of 1863, “and now that his Character is well established we can easily subordinate ourselves to him with the absolute assurance of serving the Common Cause of our Country.”

Both men wrote memorable accounts of the war. The two thick volumes of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant reveal the strategic vision, willingness to experiment and daring that brought success at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and finally against Lee in Virginia. Grant’s tribute to Zachary Taylor helps illuminate his own success: “General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands….No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.” Similarities between Grant and “Old Rough and Ready” also impressed Sherman, who wrote during the Vicksburg Campaign, “Grant is as honest as old Zack Taylor.”

Grant and Sherman agreed that victory required laying a hard hand on Confederate civilians as well as defeating Rebel armies. Grant’s orders to Sherman following the fall of Atlanta allowed Federals to live off the land to a considerable extent. “You will, no doubt, clean the country where you go of railroad tracks and supplies,” instructed Grant as his lieutenant prepared to strike toward Savannah: “I would also move every wagon, horse, mule, and hoof of stock, as well as the negroes.” As often was the case, Sherman deployed more colorful language to make a similar point. He intended to persuade Confederate civilians that their government was helpless to defend them, and possible accusations of brutality would not dissuade him. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” he stated after ordering civilians to evacuate Atlanta, “I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.”

No artist ever produced a painting of Grant and Sherman that achieved the iconic status of E.B.D. Julio’s The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, an engraving of which hung in countless Southern homes following Appomattox and kept alive the pair’s reputation as Confederate paladins. But few who celebrated United States victory in the conflict needed an artistic reminder of the Union’s transcendent military partnership. The nation stood as Grant’s and Sherman’s imperishable monument, a restored republic for which they, more than anyone else but Abraham Lincoln, could claim credit.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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