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Sacagawea
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Photo of William Tecumseh ShermanWilliam Tecumseh Sherman

(1820-1891)

Most famous for his scorched-earth tactics in the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman brought that same military philosophy to the West, where he shaped a policy and strategy that would finally subjugate all the native peoples of the plains. Sherman was born in Ohio in 1820 and named after the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who had tried unsuccessfully in the first decade of the nineteenth century to unite the tribes of the Ohio River Valley against American intrusions on their land. When his father died in 1829, Sherman was raised by a family friend.

After graduating sixth in his class from West Point in 1840, Sherman served in South Carolina and Georgia, but saw very little action in the Mexican-American war. He resigned from the Army in 1853 to pursue a career in banking, then a career as a lawyer, but with little success. The Civil War brought him back to active service in 1861, and brought him lasting fame (or infamy) for his "march to the sea," on which he cut a swathe through the heart of the Confederacy, burning Atlanta and laying waste to vast stretches of farmland.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, Sherman was appointed commander of the Missouri district, which stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. Here he deployed troops to protect transcontinental railroad workers from Indians who feared that the railroad would mean further encroachment on their territory. He also established military outposts across the region, expanding the network of federal authority.

In these years, Sherman was outspoken in his belief that Indian policy should be set by the army, and that the aim of Indian policy should be to place the various tribes on reservations and force them to stay there. He once declared that all Indians not on reservations "are hostile and will remain so until killed off." As a member of the peace commission that negotiated the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, he was partly able to put his beliefs into practice, influencing the assignment of tribes each to its own separate and limited territory.

Sherman became general commander of the United States Army in 1869, and in this position directed a series of campaigns that finally crushed Indian resistance across the plains. He perceived clearly the devastating effectiveness of striking at the economic basis of the Plains Indians' lives, once commenting to General Philip Sheridan that "it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America... for a Grand Buffalo Hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all." And he endorsed Sheridan's innovation of attacking Indian encampments during the winter, when their supplies and mobility were both severely limited. With Sheridan as his field commander, Sherman moved first against the Kiowas and Comanches of the southern Plains, then against the Lakota and Cheyenne of the north. By the late 1870s, these and the other once free-roaming warrior tribes of the plains had been forced onto reservations.

Sherman retired from the army in 1884 and famously refused to become a candidate for president, saying "If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve." He died in New York in 1891.


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