Although Sherman held the high rank of colonel at the start of the United States Civil War, he was still fairly untested in battle. Like many other famous U. S. Civil War military leaders, he had served in the army during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), but unlike other future generals, Sherman spent almost all of that war away from the frontlines, doing such tasks as recruiting or hunting down deserters. So, when Sherman first began commanding troops in battle at the start of the Civil War, very few Union generals knew just how good or bad a leader Sherman would be in the field. Unfortunately, Sherman, himself, was one of the doubters of his own ability.
The first year of the Civil War, 1861, did nothing to improve Sherman’s self-confidence. That year, he commanded a brigade in the embarrassing First Battle of Bull Run. In that battle, Union troops advanced against a strongly-positioned rebel force. The general lack of discipline in the Union and Confederate armies at the beginning of the war gave a clear advantage to the Confederacy in the battle of Bull Run. When Sherman and other leaders pressed their men to attack the rebel lines, the Union forces were thrown into disarray by an onslaught of Confederate gunfire. After the Confederate forces had stopped the Union advance, they launched a counter-attack, which threw the Union soldiers into panic and defeat. Watching the Union army flee from the battlefield did little to encourage Sherman’s self-confidence.
In the aftermath of the battle, President Abraham Lincoln rushed over to the demoralized troops, making appearances and delivering speeches to raise the spirits of the defeated soldiers. Interestingly, in a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, Sherman bluntly asked to be kept in a subordinate military position, as he did not trust himself with a superior command.
After the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman was transferred to work under General Robert Anderson, who was leading the defense of the area around Louisville, Kentucky. Not long after he arrived, however, Sherman was placed in the position that he feared—General Anderson resigned his command because of mental stress and Sherman (now a Brigadier General) took over the defense of Kentucky.
While in this position, Sherman had an unfortunate meeting with the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. The secretary had brought along a party of various people to accompany him on the tour of Louisville, and several of them were non-military personnel. When Sherman wanted to discuss private war matters, Secretary Cameron bluntly refused to dismiss any of the men who had accompanied him to Louisville. Therefore, Sherman locked the door and told Cameron about the situation in Kentucky while the other men were still present.
In particular, Sherman wanted the Secretary of War to have reinforcements diverted to Kentucky. Sherman argued that he had only about 18,000 soldiers to defend over 300 miles, while other Union generals, such as McClellan and Fremont, had much more manpower to defend smaller amounts of land. He concluded that he needed at least 60,000 men (about the same amount as Fremont) to mount a feasible defense against a possible Confederate attack. While Sherman’s staff and comrades in the room agreed with him up to this point, his next comment would catch them, and the Secretary of War, all off guard. For whatever reason—possibly due to his lack of self-confidence or an overestimation of Confederate strength—Sherman threw out a huge estimate of soldiers that he thought he would need during the climax and final stages of the war. He told the crowd in the locked room that he would need 200,000 men to carry the war from the defensive stage to that of the offensive. In Sherman’s defense, he was one of the first generals on either side of the Civil War to realize how bloody and destructive the conflict would become. Even so, Sherman would later complete his famously devastating “march to the sea” with an army of only around 62,000 soldiers.
Unfortunately for Sherman, one of Secretary Cameron’s companions in the confidential meeting was a reporter for the New York Tribune, so, naturally, newspapers quickly published out-of-context reports about Sherman requesting 200,000 soldiers for the defense of Kentucky. Several news outlets began releasing regular articles that consistently labeled Sherman with all sorts of unflattering names, such as crazy, mad and insane. Not long after the news stories began, Sherman was relieved from his command in Kentucky and transferred to work under Major-General Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. It was what Sherman wanted—to be back in a subordinate role—but his sudden removal from Kentucky optically reinforced the claims of the newsmen.
The newspaper harassment continued to plague Sherman even after he arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. Sherman was so stressed by all of the negative attention that it prompted him to eventually request twenty days of leave to spend with his family. Major-General Halleck justified his support for this time off in an unfortunate letter to the then Union commander-in-chief, General McClellan. Halleck wrote, “I am satisfied that General Sherman’s physical and mental system is so completely broken by labor and care as to render him, for the present, unfit for duty; perhaps a few weeks’ rest may restore him.” Yet, other than that one line of unflattering wording, General Halleck was a great help to Sherman, both personally and professionally. Most importantly, General Halleck put Sherman in a position to work with Ulysses S. Grant. Together, Grant and Sherman were able to help each other overcome their individual problems and imperfections, resulting in both leaders becoming military legends.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Photograph of General William Tecumseh Sherman, taken between 1865 and 1880, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by W. T. Sherman. Delaware: Renaissance Classics, 2012.