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Home > History > William T. Sherman Biography

William T. Sherman Biography

This is a biography on Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

William T. Sherman stamp

William T. Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman was born on January 11 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. His father, a successful Ohio lawyer, named him after the famous Shawnee leader Tecumseh. William's father died in 1829, and he was left to the care of his mother (who had 10 other children) and family friends. Many of these family friends were influential community and political leaders.

West Point

At the age of 16, William received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The appointment was secured by Senator Thomas Ewing, a family friend. Sherman graduated at the age of 20 and entered the Army as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery. Like many future Civil War generals, he saw action in the Seminole Wars. He did not see military action in the Mexican War, but rather, performed administrative duties in the maintenance of the war.

Banker; Lawyer, Military Man

In 1850, Sherman was promoted to Captain and married Ewing's daughter, Eleanor Boyle ("Ellen") Ewing. Together. they would have eight children. In 1853, Sherman resigned from the U.S. military and became president of a bank in San Francisco. The bank failed in 1857, at which point he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas where he unsuccessfully embarked on a career in law. In 1859, he became superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, which later became Louisiana State University. In 1861, just before the start of the Civil War, Sherman resigned as superintendent and returned North. He strongly opposed the secession of the southern states and warned of the horrors the South would experience during a war with the North. He correctly predicted that the Southern states couldn't possibly hope to match the industrial and manufacturing powers of the North, and that they would be cut off from trade with Europe. Sherman accepted a commission as a colonel in the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment, effective May 14, 1861. He was quickly promoted to brigadier general and was sent to serve in Kentucky and Tennessee.

A Decision to Serve Under (Rather than Above) Grant

Sherman grew increasingly pessimistic as the war progressed. He often complained to the Government about their strategies in the war. In 1861, he was put on administrative leave and returned to Ohio. Many believed he had experienced a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Sherman recovered and returned for military duty. In 1862, he was assigned to serve under Ulysses S. Grant in west Tennessee. This was an unusual assignment as Sherman actually outranked Grant and was offered Grant's position. Sherman declined the invitation stating that he would rather serve under Grant. The two would share a close friendship for the remainder of their lives and called on each other for military strategies often. On April 7, 1862 Sherman led a successful counterattack against Confederate forces at The Battle of Shiloh, in west Tennessee, after Union forces were surprise attacked the day before. In the decisive battle, Sherman was wounded and had three of his horses shot out from under him. Sherman's performance was praised and he was promoted to brigadier general and helped lead the occupation of Corinth, Mississippi. Sherman was next put in charge of the Union Army of Tennessee, and saw action at the Battle of Chattanooga.

Sherman's March and "Total War"

From Chattanooga, Grant gave Sherman permission to invade Georgia. In 1864, Sherman led three separate armies numbering nearly 100,000 soldiers into the state under a "scorched earth" policy. In short, the policy entailed destroying the state. On September 2, 1864, Sherman occupied the city of Atlanta. Confederate resistance led by John Bell Hood was useless. After burning the Georgia capital city to the ground, Sherman's army cut a devastating swath through the heart of Georgia, living off the land, and destroying various towns on the way to Savannah. The purpose of this "total war" was to crush the morale of what was left of the southern resistance. In what came to be known as "Sherman's Match to the Sea," Savannah was captured on December 22, 1864. Savannah was spared the razing suffered by Atlanta. In fact, Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln offering it as a Christmas present. Sherman instantly became a national hero in the North and probably ensured President Lincoln's re-election bid in 1864. He proceeded to march through the Carolinas and destroyed Columbia, South Carolina on February 17, 1865. Sherman and his men had particular disdain for the state of South Carolina, the perceived culprit in the start of the war known as the "cockpit of rebellion."

After the Civil War

In 1869, four years after the Civil War, president Ulysses S. Grant named Sherman Commander of the United States Army.

Today, there are many monuments and statues dedicated to General Sherman, including one at the entrance of Central Park in New York City. The General Sherman tree, a giant sequoia tree in California, is the world's tallest tree. In 1875, he became the first Civil War General to publish his memoirs. Sherman retired from military service in 1883 and lived out the rest of this life in New York City, enjoying theater and art. He died in New York City in 1891. He is buried in St. Louis, Missouri.


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