Few military commanders in U.S. history have reached the notoriety and adulation achieved by William Tecumseh Sherman. But not everyone is aware of some of Sherman’s personal struggles. For example, this Southern leader resigned his first commission in 1853 to enter for a spell the field of banking; and he thought about leaving the Army a second time after the First Battle of Bull Run left him doubting his abilities. Here are 10 more interesting things about William Tecumseh Sherman.
Learn more about this intriguing man in the upcoming BGES tour: “The Atlanta Campaign Part 4: And Fairly Won! Sherman Captures Atlanta,” on April 24-28, 2019, led by Civil War scholars Gary Ecelbarger and Scott Patchan.
1. HE HAD UNUSUAL NAMES.
As Sherman himself once noted, his unusual middle name came from his father’s “fancy for the great chief of the Shawnees, Tecumseh,” who headed a confederacy of Native American tribes in Ohio. Friends and family, however, simply called him “Cump.”
2. HE MARRIED HIS FOSTER SISTER.
In 1829, when Sherman was 9, his father died unexpectedly. John Ewing, a family friend and U.S. Senator from Ohio, adopted the boy and raised him with his family. Sherman would ultimately marry his foster sister, Ellen, at a wedding at Blair House, across the street from the White House, attended by President Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.
3. HE LOVED PLAYING THE SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN.
Despite the fact that he is probably most remembered for scorching Georgia from Atlanta to the sea, Sherman loved the South. He spent his early military career in various places throughout the South, especially enjoying Charleston, South Carolina. In his letters home he wrote glowingly about fox hunting, dancing, and visiting the stylish resorts of Sullivan’s Island. He once stated about his South Carolina home: “[It’s] so bright and delightful, that I have almost renounced all allegiance to Ohio, although it contains all whom I love and regard as friends.”
4. HE COINED THE PHRASE “WAR IS HELL!”
Though published accounts differ, he was presenting a speech to graduating cadets at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879 when he said something along the lines of: “You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!” The word may have been: “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all Hell!” Whatever the case, his message is the same.
5. HE DID NOT FIGHT IN THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR.
Unlike many of his West Point classmates (and many future Civil War generals, including Lee and Grant), Sherman surprisingly did not fight in the Mexican-American War. Instead, he was sent in 1846 to California to perform administrative duties. He embarked on a harrowing 198-day voyage by sea that took him around Cape Horn to San Francisco.
6. HE PLAYED A PIVOTAL ROLE IN THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH.
After two miners brought half an ounce of placer gold in his office, he convinced military governor Richard Mason to accompany him on a fact-finding mission that confirmed the state’s untapped resource. This mission helped pave the way to opening the land to prospectors.
7. HE SIGNED UP FOR THE CIVIL WAR ALTHOUGH HE DIDN’T SUPPORT IT.
In 1860, Sherman was working as a headmaster of a military academy in Louisiana (which would go on to become LSU). After Louisiana seceded from the Union, he returned to St. Louis with no intent of becoming involved in the conflict. He believed the rising tensions between the North and South were pointless, and that Lincoln was doing little to quell the secessionists. When Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers to end the secession, he responded: “You might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.’ Nevertheless, he signed up with the Army.
8. HE LIKELY SUFFERED FROM MENTAL ILLNESS, MOST NOTABLY DEPRESSION.
After the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and then to commander of Union troops in Kentucky and Tennessee—a role he did not want. He declared publicly that it might take half a million men or more to defeat the South. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, he seemed constantly on edge, even whining to Abraham Lincoln in his dispatches. A headline from an 1861 edition of the Cincinnati Commercial proclaimed, “General William T. Sherman Insane.”
9. HE WAS A BIG FAN OF THE ARTS.
Sherman loved the theater and attended plays whenever he could—including a presentation of Hamlet in Nashville, in the middle of the Civil War (though he ended up leaving midway through, stating the acting was horrible). Sherman also was an avid painter.
10. THE SHERMAN TANK WAS NAMED AFTER THE GENERAL.
The tank most widely used by the Allies during World War II was the M4 General Sherman tank. It was designed by the War Department in 1940 to match the speed, mobility, and versatility of German’s new battle tank. Some 50,000 were produced during the war, and they went on to serve in Korea and even into the 1970s.