Awesome Pictures: William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

What is it:

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, taken in May of 1865 by Mathew Brady.

Why is it Awesome?

First of all, just look at him. Look at that face. Look at those eyes.

He might be famous as the first modern general, the man who burned his way across the South waging what he called ‘hard war’ to bring the Confederacy to its knees, but that is not the face of a victor. That’s the face of a man who has stared into the abyss until the abyss stared back.

Sherman ended up as the second most powerful general in the United States. His only superior at the end of the war was Ulysses S. Grant, a man who went on to be president. When they were both beginning to rise to prominence, someone tried to play politics about their accomplishments. Sherman’s response speaks volumes about his character: “General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

He might have ended up on the winning side, but the American Civil War took its pound of flesh out of Sherman. He was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder at the First Battle of Bull Run. He had what today would be called a nervous breakdown trying to keep Kentucky in the Union, and the press took to calling him ‘crazy’ and ‘lunatic’ whenever his fortunes reached a low ebb. At Shiloh he was wounded in the hand and shoulder, and had three horses shot out from under him. When his family came out to visit him after the battle of Vicksburg, his nine-year-old son caught typhoid fever and died. Another son, born while he was away at war, died before he ever saw him; he learned of his son’s death from a newspaper.

He once wrote, “I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers.”

That war etched itself into him, and you can see it right there in the picture. He didn’t bother to comb his hair. He didn’t bother to trim his whiskers. The black ribbon around his left arm is a sign of mourning over President Lincoln’s death, and he wasn’t going to take it off just for the sake of immortality. His eyes stare off into a corner of the room, and you can almost hear him thinking, ‘I can’t wait for this damned photograph to be over.’

Fourteen years after the war, Sherman delivered an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy, in which he may have uttered the famous phrase “War Is Hell.” A year later he definitely said to a crowd of thousands in  Columbus, Ohio: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

Most people who follow military history know Sherman’s name. His attitude about war too often is forgotten when experts talk about his gift for it.

Even before the Civil War, Sherman knew what was coming. He wrote to a close friend from Virginia who was in favour of seccession: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…

“Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”

After the war his letter became famous, and Margaret Mitchell borrowed heavily from it when she wrote Rhett Butler’s speech denouncing the war in Gone With the Wind. In that book (and movie), Sherman plays an important role: It was his march to the sea and burning of Atlanta that make up the bulk of the middle of the novel.

The Republican Party wanted Sherman to run for president in 1884, and his refusal was so absolute, it has come to be known in politics as ‘the Sherman Statement’ that a given candidate will not seek office: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”

This photograph really speaks to me. It shows me what even winning a war can do to a person’s soul. Sherman did a lot of terrible things –especially to the Native Americans after this photo was taken– but in his heart he was a decent man. He was also an unbelievably hard man, who took all the weight of the world onto his shoulders and felt every one of his failures like a burn. This is an awesome photo, and I’m happy to share it with you.

One Response to Awesome Pictures: William Tecumseh Sherman

  1. O'Connor says:

    I would just like to say thank you to whoever wrote this beautiful piece. They put to words what I had formed as thought and impressions in my mind and described the essence of the man who understood war totally as had not been for centuries. It brings great gladness to know that someone else understood this great man.

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