William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (May1861-March 1864): The Problem of Occupation

shermanThe next section (continued from last post) of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs cover the first two and a half years of the Civil War, including Sherman’s involvement in the First Battle of Bull Run, his nervous breakdown and pessimism while working to expel Confederates from Kentucky, the Battle of Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, and the Chattanooga Campaign.  The final of these were significant from Sherman’s theory of warfare because its epilogue, the Meridian campaign was led by Sherman and largely involved putting into practice total war.  Since the war’s front lines moved so quickly in the Tennessee and Mississippi campaigns, Sherman often found himself confronting the question of what to do with the cities and towns that he helped seized.  The dilemma seemed to be one between sustaining democratic values and democratic governments, property rights while at war.  Ultimately, as proven by the orders he gave during the Meridian campaign, warfare cannot be compatible with these values.  I suspect Sherman is correct on this point.  At least, modern history has seem to prove it.  I do not know much about the Durutti Column and other efforts to fight wars with democratic values.  But the Durutti Column was fighting a war of defense and was rooted in communities with a functioning anarchy.  Sherman was trying to suppress a rebellion.  In most cases, wars are fought against a people and Sherman’s logic is necessary.  A much better approach is to eliminate war, a goal a soldier like Sherman had little interest in thinking about.

As for the Battle of Bull Run, Sherman is skeptical about labeling it a Confederate victory at all, being really a rumble between two undisciplined armies.  “Both armies were fairly defeated, and whichever had stood fast, the other would have run.”  (199)  In the aftermath of the battle he gained some respect for Lincoln, who reviewed the troops, due to his ability to speak to the troops honestly but “full of feeling.” (207)  At the time, Sherman asked Lincoln to ensure that he never takes a top-level command, thinking instead that he would do better as part of the institution rather than its head.  Sherman certainly believed that he excelled under the leadership of Grant and faced his most traumatic times while in sole command.  That trauma came not long after Bull Run, when Sherman took command of a little more than a thousand troops in Kentucky.  In despair, he predicted that the suppression of the Confederacy in that area would take more than 60,000 troops (he later states 200,000 for the “center”).  He does not say much of anything about his frustrations of late 1861, but does document in detail how he his superiors underestimated the power that would be required to put down the rebellion.  This period certainly contributed to his reputation as a “lunatic.”  But as in many things, the lunatic is often proven right.

Often, Sherman does not write his narrative down from the perspective of the 1870s.  Especially in regards to the memory of battles (which is may be right to mistrust) he relies on his orders, letters, and formal reports to commanders.  He included them into his memoirs unedited and intact.  I was often surprised at how enjoyable and literary some of these official correspondences were.  Although written under incredible stress and sorrows, Sherman includes useful commentary (often praising his troops performance), recommendations, and personal touches.  I wonder how many other Civil War generals were able to produce such reports.  I cannot imagine some of those Southern aristocrats producing much that we would want to read 150 years later in the aftermath of a battle.  Anyway, the battle of Shiloh is given to us completely through these reports.  He only adds a defense of Grant’s performance at the end.

Between Shiloh and the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman had the chance to get a feeling for the occupation of enemy territory.  His opinion that the Southerners need to be dealt with harshly as enemies emerges very early.  In August 1862 he wrote: “This is no trifle; when one nation is at war with another, all the people of one are enemies of the other: then the rules are plain and easy of understanding.  Most unfortunately, the war in which we are now engaged has been complicated with the belief on the one hand that all on the other are not enemies.”  He adds that “not only are they unfriendly, but all who can procure arms now bear them as organized regiments, or as guerrillas.” (286)  He then recommends the wholesale looting of occupied territories of cotton, currency, and bullion.    On the same month, he gave detailed notes to the quartermaster in occupied Memphis to seize rents (but not properties) “because the United States assumes the place of trustee.” (295)  Of course he saw this as all logical and the proper implementation of the Confiscation Act, but he is nevertheless innovative in his brutal honesty about the nature of modern war.

In September 1863, Sherman extends this logic to that of the state itself, when he comments in a private letter to General Halleck, on occupation.  The heart of his argument is that no government should be established in Louisiana until the war is over.  Sherman claims knowledge of the local conditions from his time living and working and serving in New Orleans.  “They had a government so mild and paternal that they gradually forgot they had any at all, save what they themselves controlled; they asserted an absolute right to seize public moneys, forts, arms, and even to shut up the natural avenues of travel and commerce. They chose war.”  (361)  The elite cannot be easily replaced and must be forced to accept the new conditions (primarily the end of slavery).  “A civil government of the representative type would suit this class far less than a purely military rule.” (362)  The poor whites, which Sherman paints with a broad brush, are untrustworthy and easily manipulated by the elite.  The “Union men” are timid and prone to demagoguery.  They are not capable of forming a government.  The “young bloods” are basically dumb jocks who are only cut out to strive for fruitless valor on the battlefield.  In short, “a civil government . . . would be simply ridiculous.” (363)  Sherman knew that political power was backed by the gun and therefore he recommends the maintenance of a military government in Louisiana.  The justification for this requires no more than 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 it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty.”  (365)  Sherman identified the horrifying truth of the state and inadvertently makes the case for its abolition.

The first volume of Sherman’s Memoirs ends with his narrative on the Meridian campaign in Mississippi, which was planned and executed from the beginning as an exercise in total war by destroying the infrastructure of southern Mississippi.  But given that the Atlantic campaign and the “march to the sea” is next, I will reserve the remainder of my thoughts on this till then.

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (1820-1861)

As with my reading of the letters and writings of George Washington, I am not expecting to find in William Tecumseh Sherman a libertarian writer or even many libertarian themes.  Like Washington, he was a soldier and ran an authoritarian institution.  But also like Washington he was a key player in a revolution that certainly did expand human liberty.  Unlike Washington, Sherman was from humble origins and rose up through the ranks through his ability.  Like many other mid-nineteenth century Americans, Sherman was restless, anxious, and always eager to experiments and take risks.  Of course when we talk about the antebellum period, we also need to place an asterisk next to the term ‘democracy.’  There is something in the period when we look at people like Sherman or John Brown, who seemed to be comfortable in a certain liquidity even if they were not always successful in their attempts.  To the degree capitalism can be democratic, it must be fully participatory for all people.  I am not sure that is possible but maybe the U.S. got closest before the Civil War in certain frontier areas. 


The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman was published in 1875, two years after he began writing them.  They were reworked ten years later into the form that we have today.  According to the introduction, his motivation was largely for historical preservation.  At the time of his writing he had doubts about when the official records from the Civil War would be released.  He also seems eager to get his side of the story down.  I suppose he was already a controversial figure a decade after the war.  “In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witnesses who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested.  I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on the details.” (5)  I rather like this attitude.  It is one often ignored by freshmen history students who gobble up whatever document they read or whatever article they find online.

Sherman’s father was a lawyer, who became a state Supreme Court judge for Ohio, after his family moved there (Sherman was born in Ohio).  But since his father died when Sherman was nine years old, leaving his mother destitute with too many children, the Sherman’s were more or less placed under the protection of a family friend, Thomas Ewing.  The Ewing’s are the ones who move Sherman into a military career.  He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1836, at 16 years old.  He did well at West Point, graduating in 1840.  He then served in Florida, where he participated in a small way with the removal of the Seminoles. He married Ellen Ewing, Thomas Ewing’s daughter.  At the time of the Mexican War, Sherman was engaged in recruitment efforts.  He spent most of the Mexican War in California where he performed his military duties but also engaged in various business enterprises, many connected to the gold rush.  Considered leaving the army to engage in various business deals but decided to stay in, taking up a commissary post in New Orleans.  (This may be where he learned some of his logistical skills that served him so greatly during the war.)  In 1853 he left the army to become a banker in San Francisco.  While there he remained in the California militia as an officer and had various adventures in that post.  In 1858, his bank failed and he returned to Louisiana  and took a teaching job.  When Louisiana seceded, he moved to St. Louis and later returned to the army at the rank of Colonel.  Although Sherman remained aloof from politics during the politically vibrant 1850s, he was from time to time prophetic, seeing slavery as the major division in the nation, predicting the rise of the free labor economy, and viewing Lincoln’s hopes of a short war as naive.  All of these events are described in the first eight chapters of the first volume of the memoirs.  Like Grant’s Memoirs, Sherman’s are by and large Civil War memoirs, as you might expect.

Sherman lived a quite liquid life in his first forty years.  At the age of 38, Sherman liquidated all of his debts, leaving himself with only $1,000.  Sherman does not really comment on the ethos that led him to this restlessness, but he does point out the type of energy that drove the gold rush because it complicated his life in the military there.  Many soldiers deserted because there was more money to be made in the gold rush economy (often paying wages 2 or 3 times what the military received).  Sherman describes some of his efforts to stop this type of desertion but he is not very judging, seeming to understand their motivations.  I was reminded of Melville’s Omoo (see here and here) when reading the first part of Sherman’s Memoirs because they exemplified the restless spirit that drove the protagonist of that novel to never be satisfied with the job he held.


With the outbreak of the war, we start to get some of Sherman’s ideas about violence.  One thing he stresses from the beginning is the brutal equality of war.  (This is in Bierce’s work as well.)  He tells one woman that “young men of the best families  did not like to be killed better than ordinary people.”  Allow me to quote at length one of his first experiences of violence during the war.  “One of the regular sergeant file-closers ordered him back, but he attempted to pass through the ranks, when the sergeant barred his progress with his musket “a-port.” The drunken man seized his musket, when the sergeant threw him off with violence, and he rolled over and over down the bank. By the time this man had picked himself up and got his hat, which had fallen off, and had again mounted the embankment, the regulars had passed, and the head of Osterhaus’ regiment of Home Guards had come up. The man had in his hand a small pistol, which he fired off, and I heard that the ball had struck the leg of one of Osterhaus’s staff; the regiment stopped; there was a moment of confusion, when the soldiers of that regiment began to fire over our heads in the grove. I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads, and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded. Of course there was a general stampede.  Charles Ewing threw Willie on the ground and covered him with his body.  Hunter ran behind the hill, and I also threw myself on the ground. The fire ran back from the head of the regiment toward its rear, and as I saw the men reloading their pieces, I jerked Willie up, ran back with him into a gulley which covered us, lay there until I saw that the fire had ceased, and that the column was again moving on, when I took up Willie and started back for home round by way of Market Street. A woman and child were killed outright; two or three men were also killed, and several others were wounded. The great mass of the people on that occasion were simply curious spectators, though men were sprinkled through the crowd calling out, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis” and others were particularly abusive of the “damned Dutch.” (191–192)  It was events like this that may have convinced Sherman, very early on, that the war would be long, bitter, and indiscriminate in its violence and that the proper response to such insanity is acceptance.