William Tecumseh Sherman had a lot in common with Ulysses S. Grant. Like Grant, he was born in Ohio. Like Grant, he graduated from the military academy at West Point. Like Grant, he failed as a businessman. Like Grant, he was criticized as an incompetent officer. And like Grant, he became a fierce, uncompromising warrior who helped batter the Confederates into submission during the Civil War. In fact, Sherman spent much of his life providing evidence to support his most famous statement: "War is hell."
Sherman was born in Ohio in 1820. When he was just nine, his father died, and he was sent to be raised by a family friend. Sherman graduated from West Point in 1840. He saw his first action in the U.S. war against the Seminole Indians in Florida. During the Mexican War, he served in California and did not see battle.
In 1853 Sherman resigned from the Army and traveled to San Francisco, which was then a gold boom town. There, he began work as a banker, but the Panic of 1857 put an end to his banking career. He served briefly as the head of a military academy in Louisiana, but when the Civil War broke out, he joined the U.S. Army as a colonel.
Sherman fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, in which Union troops were beaten badly by the Confederate Army. Sent to Kentucky to command troops there, he did poorly. His numerous requests for reinforcements and his generally nervous behavior caused some newspapers to describe him as insane. But with the support of a new commander, Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman found confidence.
The two forged a bond during the appalling battle of Shiloh. After the Confederates attacked the unprepared Union troops, Sherman and Grant struggled furiously to prevent a panicked retreat and drive off the Confederate force. Sherman, who was wounded in the hand and had two horses shot out from under him, performed admirably. From that point on, the men would work together for Union victory.
At Vicksburg, Mississippi, Sherman helped win Grant one of the greatest victories of the war, breaking the Confederates' grip on the Mississippi River. When Grant was appointed commander of the entire Union Army and went east to Washington, he left Sherman as commander of the three armies of the Mississippi military division.
In mid-1864, Sherman began the drive eastward through Georgia that would put an end to Southern hopes of victory. Grant understood that in order to win, the Union would have to break Southerners' will to fight. He ordered Sherman to destroy everything in his path. Later, it would be known as the first instance of "total war."
In September, Sherman took Atlanta, and burned the military resources and many of the buildings there. He then began his "march to the sea," in which he captured Savannah and turned his armies northward. Sherman's men fought through South Carolina, and on into North Carolina, laying waste to not only military supplies, bridges, and railroads, but homes, farms, and livestock. By the time the Confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865, Sherman had reached Raleigh, North Carolina, leaving destruction in his wake.
When Ulysses S. Grant went to the White House in 1869, he named his friend Sherman general commander of the U.S. Army. Sherman, whose middle name, Tecumseh, was that of a Shawnee Indian chief, led brutal campaigns against Native Americans in the West. Just as with the Southerners, he destroyed the Indians' will to fight by not only killing their soldiers, but also destroying the resources they needed to survive. While Sherman believed that Native Americans stood in the way of progress and would probably need to be exterminated, he spoke out forcefully against corrupt government agents who dealt unfairly with Indians on reservations.
William Tecumseh Sherman retired from the military in 1884, nearly 50 years after he had entered West Point. Still popular, he disappointed those who thought he should run 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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