Union general William T Sherman

This successful but invariably severe soldier with a Native American middle name – Tecumseh – was born in 1820, went into the Army in his teens, and rose so fast he was commanding a division at Shiloh in the American Civil War. The latter was a real blood-letting affair fought among family and friends between 1861 and 1865. The most important issue is thought to be the rights and wrongs of slavery, but many significant leaders in the North of the US rightly believed that most Southern States were determined on secession before and during the conflagration. This, in a new and blooming, hugely land-rich nation would have meant disaster.

Sherman fought under the direction of Ulysses Grant in the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns of 1863. Then Grant was put in command of all Union armies by President Lincoln and Sherman took over his command in the West. It required a long campaign but he finally succeeded in taking the city of Atlanta in Georgia, a centre of Confederate communications, in September of that year. He then made the decision which darkened his reputation even to this day: he would march from Atlanta to the sea, ‘living off the land’ as he went.

William Sherman knew that the South’s apparently indefatigable ability to wage war depended on the use of its resources; were these to be destroyed, Southern armies would not only be ill-supplied, but their morale would be seriously affected. The General ordered everything in his army’s path destroyed. Farms, crops, towns, plantation mansions, horses went up in smoke. He cut a destructive path fifty miles in width and over two hundred and fifty miles long. Bridges were smashed, livestock slaughtered, their food taken. Railways that had taken valuable time and millions of dollars to plan and build were torn up. Any slaves he found were freed, but what was to happen to them? They could always become Union soldiers, said Sherman, and continued, “I’m going to make Georgia howl!”

He took the capital, Savannah, and immediately turned northwards to set about the spoliation of the Carolinas, North and South. He urged his troops on during a forced march lasting fifty days, covering an almost impossible four hundred and twenty-five miles. By February 1865, in freezing weather and having traversed waterlogged land, he captured Charleston, and started the brief journey to join forces with Grant, but suddenly the Civil War was over. It was Sherman not Grant who accepted the surrender of the last remaining Confederates.

Ulysses Grant became President of the (once more) United States in 1868, and, unsurprisingly, Sherman was his General-in-Chief. He was to remain so for 15 years. When colleagues proposed he should stand as the next President, he scoffed. He was a soldier, he said not without contempt, not a politician. He famously retorted, “if nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.” Sherman died in 1891, loathed, as he still is now, by the people of the Southern states.

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