Sherman, The Toastmaster
by Thomas Noland
Rain – rain outside – inside naught but drowning floods of tears.
I could not bear it, so I rushed down in that rainstorm to the Martins. He met me at the door.
“Madame, Columbia is burned to the ground.”
I bowed my head and sobbed aloud.
“Stop that,” he said, trying to speak cheerfully. “Come here, wife. This woman cries with her whole heart – just as she laughs.” But in spite of his words, his voice broke down – he was hardly calmer than myself.
– Mary Chesnut of South Carolina, in flight from Sherman’s army, February 23, 1865.
GAYLESVILLE, Alabama – You could say it began here, the March to the Sea. A highway marker notes it. This Cherokee County hamlet is where Gen. William T. Sherman, in pursuit of John Bell Hood’s Confederate army, pursued no more. Sherman stopped, considered. It was October 1864. The month before he had beaten Hood in Atlanta – “Atlanta is ours and fairly won,” he cabled Washington with triumphant pride – and as he’d been taught at West Point, he was pursuing his adversary, conventionally, with the intent of destroying him, conventionally. Having suffered serious losses in and around Atlanta, Hood’s was now much the smaller army, more mobile, traveling light, outpacing the Yankees.
The man who worshipped economy of effort the way his pious wife worshipped her Catholic God pondered – but not for long. Hood seemed to be making for Nashville. There, Sherman knew, a more than adequate Federal force under George Thomas awaited him. Let him go, Sherman concluded. He had formed a novel idea – born of his years of pre-war service in the South, of his knowledge of Southern people, of his friendship with many of them, of his personal reconnaissance of the Georgia terrain 20 years before – and of his unshakeable conviction that the self-seeking hotheads who had led the South to rebel, idiotically, against “the mildest government on Earth” must be taught a lesson. He would march through the heart of their country and live off their land. What his army didn’t consume, it would destroy. They – the friends of his youth – had sown the wind; they would now reap the whirlwind. “Pierce the Confederacy and it’s all hollow inside,” he once wrote. He cabled again, this time to Grant, his commanding officer, stalemated against Lee in the Petersburg trenches. “I can make this march,” he wrote, “and make Georgia howl.”
Happy families are all alike. Sherman’s wasn’t even a family. With his indigent father dead and his widowed mother overwhelmed caring for nine children, he was taken in at age nine, in 1829, by a prominent neighbor in his hometown of Lancaster, Ohio. (Five other young Shermans were similarly dispersed, never to be reunited.) Thomas Ewing – eventually U.S. Sen. Thomas Ewing – helped Sherman get an appointment to the United States Military Academy. There he developed habits of mind – steely logic, hard-headed calculation, a resolution “never to make the same mistake twice” – that have been transmuted over time to equal the cruelty for which he is notorious. But on his first posting after graduating in 1842, as a 22-year-old second lieutenant, a buried aspect of his being blossomed, for the first and last time. During easy duty at Fort Moultrie, in Charleston (S.C.) harbor, he came to know and love the sons and daughters of the local grandees. It is not inconceivable that he picnicked and partied with Mrs. Chesnut’s classmates at Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies. One highlight of his time at Fort Moultrie was a surveying expedition to Georgia, covering the very ground he would traverse at the head of a 60,000-man fighting force a generation later.
At length the idyll ended. He was transferred to harsher duty on the California frontier. War with Mexico erupted. Sherman itched to join the fighting – as has been justly said of both Lee and Jackson, he loved war as a technical art, and wanted to test his mettle and training. It was not to be. While Grant, Lee, and Jefferson Davis won their spurs as young field officers – Davis emerged a genuine war hero, lionized throughout the country – Sherman fretted and brooded. He convinced himself that the great chance of his lifetime had slipped away. He fell into depression. By 1860 he was back in the Deep South, superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy (today’s LSU). As South Carolina and then 10 other Southern states seceded, he excoriated Northern political leaders for their lack of preparedness. From a new post-secession posting as head of the Federal garrison in Louisville, Kentucky, he warned high officialdom in late 1861 not to underestimate the South’s strength, resolve, and resourcefulness. Secession may be lunacy, but he knew the Confederacy was in earnest. Opining (which he never shied away from) that it would take multiple years and multiple hundreds of thousands of troops to subdue the South, he was called a lunatic himself by the Washington ladies and gentlemen who had packed their picnic-hampers to ride out in their carriages and observe the July, 1861, Battle of Bull Run – the first and only battle there would be, they were sure. They sent him home to Ohio, to recover his wits under the ministrations of his wife, Ellen (nee Ewing – the senator’s daughter).
And there it might all have ended. Sherman did have a melancholic bent; perhaps he was too unstable to lead men into combat; the Ewing family had plenty of money; he could have lived out the war in obscurity – Mexico redux. His restlessness, his patriotism, his ambition wouldn’t allow it. Petitioning for a second chance, he had the good fortune to be assigned to the army of Gen. U.S. Grant, just then making ready for the campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862.
Much has been written of the Grant-Sherman partnership. They had a great deal in common – both Ohioans, both with a history of failure or frustration in the years leading up to the war, both with a no-nonsense approach to military matters that has left them, in the long light of history, somewhat colorless in comparison to their dashing defeated adversaries – Jeb Stuart, Wade Hampton, Beauregard, Lee. To Grant and Sherman the war was not a crusade. It was a job. The sooner done, the better. As a parallel to Sherman’s rustication for mental fatigue, Grant was accused of alcoholism and consequent neglect of duty. They befriended each other through their mutual adversity. “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk,” is the way Sherman described it.
Militarily, what Grant taught Sherman was perseverance and the genius of solving a problem counter intuitively. In 1863, as Lee and Meade fought it out at Gettysburg, Grant’s long siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was finally grinding to an end. The day after Pickett’s Charge, on July 4, the city surrendered after a seven-month campaign, cutting the South in half. Grant’s genius tactic was to run past the Vicksburg batteries on the Mississippi River to a point 30 miles below the town. He landed his troops, then slowly made his way around and behind the city, finally starving it into submission. “Sometimes,” observed the British military historian Basil Liddell-Hart, “the longest way round is the shortest way there.” And sometimes the way to defeat your enemy is not to face him in battle, but to turn from him and march the other way, devastating his country and strangling his capacity to resist.
Sherman’s March to the Sea was brutal, leaving sad destruction in its wake. Previously, in the campaign against Hood, he had instituted the practice of setting homes ablaze for signaling purposes – “making smokes,” he called it. There now followed such directives from his pen as this: “Destroy in the most effective manner, by fire or otherwise, all bridges, foundries, shops of all kinds or description, barracks, warehouses, and buildings especially adapted to military use.”
But he explicitly reserved his worst cruelties for what came after. His army left Atlanta on November 15, 1864, reached Savannah – which he famously offered President Lincoln as a Christmas gift – one month later, paused for a short while, then entered South Carolina, the cradle of secession. Here the depredations of his troops were more severe, less disciplined, more personal. As a supreme logician, Sherman took it as a personal affront that, with Georgia laid waste, the South wouldn’t have seen, finally, the folly of its ways. When it didn’t – when it fought on despite all – Sherman determined to exact maximum revenge.
Like many another South Carolina family, Mary Chesnut’s fled. They charted a bedraggled course, by carriage, horseback, and on foot, to Flat Rock, in the North Carolina mountains. “Here I am brokenhearted – an exile,” she wrote on February 16, 1865. “Such a place. Bare floors. For a feathered bed, a pine table, and two chairs I pay 30 dollars a day. Such sheets! – but I have some of my own.” The pride in that last sentence, that was what Sherman was trying, in the end, to break. He couldn’t. But when he did break the South’s material ability to resist, he was, like Grant, magnanimous. At the Bennett House near Durham, North Carolina, on April 26, 1865, two-weeks-plus after Appomatox, he signed with Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston a surrender document that granted amnesty to all Southern combatants, officers and enlisted men alike. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was furious. Sherman was publicly upbraided. At the triumphant army parade through Washington the next month, Sherman in plain view of thousands refused to shake Stanton’s hand. Ellen was mortified and penned an immediate apology. Sherman never forgave.
Sherman himself did not emerge from the war unscathed. Like Lincoln, he lost a young son to disease – also named Willie. Heartbroken, he wrote a letter to a soldier who had expressed sympathy, saying if that man ever faced need of any sort, the Sherman family would gladly share with him “our last bread – our last crust.” After retiring as General of the Army of the United States, he lived out his life in Gilded Age New York, as something of a gay blade. He became a popular after-dinner speaker, a sort of toastmaster general; it was at one of these engagements that he supposedly uttered “War is hell.” A more precise rendition of his thinking on the topic was his letter to the mayor of Atlanta, rejecting the mayor’s petition to evacuate women and children from the city shortly before it burned: “War is not popularity-seeking. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”
In New York, he joined the Broadway First Nighters Club. He was importuned constantly to run for office, but his war experience with “political generals” had formed in him a disdain for politics that he made no effort to overcome (the experience with Stanton didn’t help). Toward the close of his life, which ended in 1891, he was heard to remark that the reason he went to so many dances is that “I was always fond of seeing young people happy.” Perhaps his truest epitaph was uttered by, of all people, Jefferson Davis. At the end of a late-in-life interview with a journalist, the Confederate ex-president was asked for a summing-up. “Tell them,” Davis said, “that I only loved America.” So did the man who made Georgia howl.
Tom Noland, who won awards as a writer for the Anniston Star in the 70s, left for an idyllic couple of years in Paris, then moved to the corporate world where he is now senior vice president of corporate communications for Humana, Inc. He lives in Louisville with his wife Vivian Ruth Sawyer. They are occasionally visited by their two children, daughter Sidney, a student at Yale, and son Andrew, a law student at the University of Louisville.