Few individuals who took part in the American Civil War have come close to causing the amount of controversy as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Even in present times, very strong opinions about this complex man and his deeds are prevalent throughout historical journals and there are an extraordinary amount of books that have been published on the topic.  Some portray Sherman as having an intense hatred of the South, hell-bent on wreaking havoc and causing destruction.[1] Others offer a less extreme portrayal of the man.  All discuss the major role he played in the outcome of the American Civil War, with much focus put on his employment of tactics commonly known as “total war.”  However, there seem to be hardly any works in existence which attempt to explain what may have led Sherman to employ these extreme tactics apart from the naïve argument that he did it for the sole reason of wanting to severely punish the South.  This is shocking, because careful examination of the sources available clearly illustrate that Sherman’s actions were strongly influenced by his personal experiences and that his private life played a major role in him employing the use of total warfare in an effort to bring an end to the war more quickly.  Also, the sources seem to refute the argument that Sherman hated the South.

In order to present the argument that Sherman’s private life and personal experiences played a pivotal role in his decision to practice total war, it must be clearly demonstrated that these tactics did not arise from any deep-held hatred of the South or its people.  To begin with, it is often overlooked that Sherman actually spent a considerable amount of time throughout the South before the outbreak of the war.  Following his graduation from West Point he was stationed in Florida, where he served for over a year combating the Native Americans in the area.  During his time in Florida he became acquainted with, as Sherman himself phrased it, “many pleasant families, among whom was prominent that of United States Judge Bronson.”[2] Also in his memoirs, when reflecting on his time spent in Florida he stated, “I remember the old place with pleasure.”[3]

Following his time in Florida, Sherman spent a short amount of time stationed at Fort Morgan, Alabama.  Although only stationed there for three months, he visited nearby Mobile, Alabama frequently, becoming deeply involved in the city’s society and was impressed by the Mobileans’ genuine friendliness.[4] Immediately following his short stint in Alabama, he was sent to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, in Charleston harbor.  While stationed there, Sherman became friends with many future Confederate officers such as Braxton Bragg and A.C. Myers, to name just two.  In addition, Sherman spent much time while stationed at Fort Moultrie mingling with many of Charleston’s citizens at social gatherings.  In addition to this he also traveled around the surrounding areas to hunt and socialize with the people of the plantations in the area.[5] Perhaps the strongest evidence that Sherman did not hate the South, that he in fact felt very fondly of it and its people, can be seen during his time as the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary.  He was perfectly content to live among his Southern friends in Louisiana.[6] Much more significant in aiding this argument though, was the reaction of his Southern friends upon his decision to resign from his position at the seminary after Louisiana troops started seizing weapons from U.S. arsenals.  He actually cried at the thought of having to fight a war against his southern friends and left Louisiana with “warm” letters from many friends expressing their sadness and “understanding.”[7]

Now that it has been demonstrated that Sherman held no ill will towards the South, it is useful to discuss where Sherman learned the tactics of total war.  In his biography, John F. Marszalek provides convincing evidence that Sherman learned the philosophy of total warfare in a class on moral philosophy while at West Point.  The course assigned James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, from which Sherman learned Kent’s philosophy “that war dissolved all morality and was fought between all the people of one nation versus all the people of the other.”[8] Marszalek also points out that Kent argued that in the case of civil war, “the central government had to defend the laws of the union by force of arms or be disgraced.”[9] Other evidence suggests that this philosophy on war was further instilled into Sherman through his experience fighting the Native Americans in Florida and that this experience “no doubt affected his future military decisions.”[10] Proof of this can be found in a message Sherman sent to the City Council of Atlanta during the Civil War in which he informed them that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” and that they “might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against the terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home is to stop this war.”[11] With the evidence suggesting that the idea that Sherman had a deep-held hatred for the South is likely nothing more than a myth and it has been demonstrated where he picked up his philosophy of total war, one can take a closer look into the personal life of General Sherman and examine the many struggles and hardships that he endured throughout his personal life in an effort to directly connect his personal, emotionally taxing, experiences to his employment of tactics of total war in an effort to bring about a quicker end to the war.

From very early on in his life Sherman experienced hardships and struggles which were emotionally taxing and tough on him.  When he was just nine years old his father died of typhoid fever leaving behind ten children and a widow with only a house and its furnishings.  Due to his mother having no possible way to support all ten children they were split up and sent off to live with relatives or family friends.[12] Throughout his lifetime Sherman never spoke considerably of his father, which demonstrates the deep emotional impact this must have had on him.[13] As a result of his father’s death Sherman went to live in the house of Thomas Ewing, whom for the rest of his life he would look up to and seek the approval of, even more so after he married Thomas’ daughter Ellen, and was frequently “exceedingly anxious to comply with his minutest wishes.”[14]

The death of his father and the resulting separation of his family would have lasting on effects on General Sherman.  For his entire life following his marriage to Ellen and becoming a father, he suffered from anxiety over being able to financially support his family and be there for them.[15] Sherman’s anxiety, caused by financial worries, was not helped much by his wife Ellen.  Coming from a politically elite and affluent family, Ellen required a large amount of funds to support her stylish lifestyle.  Constant anxiety over this issue can be seen time and time again throughout Sherman’s life.  It is present early on in his marriage when he was living in St. Louis and then California.[16] It was again an issue during his time in Louisiana before the war.  Even following the war, when Sherman was considered to be relatively wealthy, he was worried about Ellen’s spending habits.[17]

Apart from obvious anxiety over financial security, Sherman always seemed to be in a constant struggle to keep his family together.  There is no doubt that this would have been extremely important to him given the history of his own family being disbanded during his childhood after his own father’s death.  Interestingly, as was the case with the anxiety over finances, Ellen was often not much help in this instance either.  Throughout their marriage Ellen time and time again attempted to force Sherman to move back to her native Ohio to be with her family.  He had to repeatedly convince his wife and in-laws that Ellen and his children should come live with him; because they were convinced she should stay in their home in Lancaster, Ohio.  He was not even able to witness the birth of his firstborn because Ellen refused to leave her parents.[18] Later, when Sherman was going to live in California, Ellen and her parents decided that it would be best to leave baby Minnie behind in Ohio because her remaining there made Ellen feel that she, herself, “had not altogether left home.”[19] Sherman experienced the constant anxiety of being separated from his family right up to the beginning of the war.  Just before the war’s outbreak, while he was the superintendent of the seminary in Louisiana, Ellen again refused to move with her husband, once more opting to stay in Ohio with her parents.  The war broke out and Sherman resigned from his position before he was able to convince Ellen to move there.[20]

Sherman’s seemingly never-ending anxiety brought on by financial worries and separation from his family would be enough to put any man at risk for a mental breakdown.  Combining those already existing troubles with all the pressure that comes from being a commanding officer in a war would make it inevitable.  That is exactly what happened in Sherman’s case.  In October, 1861 after unexpectedly being placed in command in Kentucky, Sherman suffered a mental breakdown and became severely troubled and depressed, even to the point of contemplating taking his own life.  He told his wife that only thoughts of his children had prevented him from doing so.[21]

Shortly following this breakdown, Sherman seemed to have recovered and played an integral role in the battles of Shiloh and Corinth.  He then went on to capture Vicksburg.  It is in the time following these successes that Sherman employed the use of the total war philosophy.  Interestingly enough, immediately following the capture of Vicksburg, Sherman’s favorite son Willy unexpectedly died while the family comes for a rare visit to the front.  Sherman was devastated.[22] It is not difficult to imagine why Sherman would want to end the war quickly at that point. All throughout which he kept in constant correspondence with his family, always telling them how much he longed to be with them and how sorry he was that he could not be there at that time.[23]

It is clear that William Tecumseh Sherman did not employ the tactics of total war on the South during the Civil War out of hatred or anything of the sort.  He had made many friends throughout the South before the war broke out and was on good terms with them when he joined the fight on the side of the North.  From the examination of his memoirs, correspondence, and biographies it can be determined that Sherman’s private life played a significant role in his decision to employ the tactics of total war.  He wanted bring an end to the war quickly so that he could be with his family to provide for them and relieve the anxieties that had long been plaguing him and were only being worsened by further prolongation of the war.

[1] For one such work see: Mark Coburn, Terrible Innocence: General Sherman at War (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993).

[2] William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) 21-22.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (New York: Free Press, 1993) 40.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] John B. Walters, “General William T. Sherman and Total War,” The Journal of Southern History 14, no. 4, November, 1948, 447-480. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2198124.pdf?acceptTC=true (accessed September 10, 2010).

[7] Marszalek, 137-138.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jane F. Lancaster, “William Tecumseh Sherman’s Introduction to War, 1840-1842: Lesson for Action,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 72, no. 1, July, 1993, 56-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/30148666.pdf?acceptTC=true (accessed September 10, 2010).

[11] William T. Sherman, “Message to the Atlanta City Council,” Message to the Atlanta City Council, 2009, http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=3&hid=113&sid=2656855f-0363-42b0-8ace-2fdacd08fca5%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=21213189 (accessed September 10, 2010).

[12] Sherman makes note of this in his memoirs: Sherman, Memoirs, 10.

[13] Marszalek, 6.

[14] Ibid., 9,41.

[15] This can be seen in Marszalek’s work as well throughout the regular correspondence he kept with numerous acquaintances. Many of the letters written by Sherman illustrating his anxiety over this issue can be found in: William T. Sherman, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, ed. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[16] In his memoirs Sherman makes note of how “extremely anxious about the future” he was while he was in St. Louis: Sherman, Memoirs, 155.

[17] Marszalek, 402-403.

[18] Ibid., 86.

[19] Ibid., 96.

[20] Sherman, Memoirs, 142-152.

[21] Marszalek, 163.  Also see Sherman, Memoirs, 184. He mentions this episode in his memoirs, but attempts to keep it much less serious only stating he was “unnecessarily unhappy” at the time.

[22] William T. Sherman, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, ed. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 551-565.

[23] Ibid., 583-593.


Coburn, Mark. Terrible Innocence: General Sherman at War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993.

Lancaster, Jane F. “William Tecumseh Sherman’s Introduction to War, 1840-1842: Lesson for Action.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 72, no 1 (July 1993): 56-72. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/30148666 (accessed September 10, 2010).

Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Sherman, William T. “Message to the Atlanta City Council.” Message to the Atlanta City Council (2009): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=3&hid=113&sid=2656855f-0363-42b0-8ace-2fdacd08fca5%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=21213189 (accessed September 10, 2010).

Sherman, William T. Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, ed. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Walters, John B. “General William T. Sherman and Total War.” The Journal of Southern History 14, no. 4 (November, 1948): 447-480. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/2198124 (accessed September 10, 2010).


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