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Sherman, Grant, and Depression

May 1, 2016
Gen. William T. Sherman, ca. 1864-65. Mathew Brady Collection. (Army)

Gen. William T. Sherman, ca. 1864-65. Mathew Brady Collection. (Army) – Source: Wikipedia

William Tecumseh Sherman is remembered as a fierce warrior, a force of nature, who once famously stated that “war is cruelty.” However, he was a man who harbored intense doubts about his own abilities at the beginning of the war, and suffered a mental breakdown related to what we would now term clinical depression. Through his family and friends, he managed to overcome his doubts and fears to become one of the most important men in the Union.

When the Civil War broke out Sherman was teaching at a military academy in Louisiana. Seeing that secession was a fools errand, he wrote to Professor David F. Boyd of the Louisiana State Seminary,

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.[1]

Representative John Sherman, William's brother, and constant advocate - Source: Wikipedia

Representative and later Senator John Sherman, William’s brother, and constant advocate – Source: Wikipedia

Following his move back north he put himself at the disposal of the Union, where his brother – Senator John Sherman – seemingly managed to get the Lincoln administration to offer him the post of Assistant Secretary of War. Sherman, acutely aware of his own shortcomings, turned down the offer, and called on President Lincoln to explicitly ask not to be given any substantial command. Nonetheless, he was given command of Union forces in the west along the upper Mississippi. While in command, he began to despair at the readiness of his army. He believed that in order to bring the rebels to heel he would need 200,000 to 250,000 men. The War Department thought him overly cautious, and the press called him mad.[2]

This last fact drove him further down. As he stated in his memoirs,

But the newspapers kept harping on my insanity and paralyzed my efforts. In spite of myself, they tortured from me some words and acts of imprudence.[3]

Those imprudent acts and words, were the cries for hundreds of thousands of men, and the insistence that the Confederate army opposite him was going to destroy him. The mounting pressure of command, the War Department, and the press, brought him to the conclusion that he ought to be relieved of his command. Upon this he went home to Ohio and recovered with the help of his wife. Later, he would admit to his brother, John, that while he had been home, he had contemplated suicide.[4]

Ellen Ewing Sherman, a devoted Unionist, she would help her husband overcome his depression in the winter of 1861 - Source: Wikipedia

Ellen Ewing Sherman, a devoted Unionist, she would help her husband overcome his depression in the winter of 1861 – Source: Wikipedia

However, with the help of his wife, Ellen, he was considered once again fit for service by the end of 1861. He was then offered a command in the west, which he eagerly accepted, for he knew that he might be able to serve under General Grant who had distinguished himself at Fort Henry. Sherman had his wish granted and was given command of a division of Grant’s army. At the Battle of Shiloh, with the support of Grant, he would regain his confidence.

Before the battle, Sherman deployed few pickets in front of his force, and made no attempts to fortify his line. He feared that such actions would be attributed to his fears or, worse, his “insanity.” Thus when the Confederate Army attacked, it ripped through his line, nearly driving his men into the Tennessee River. However, Sherman, displaying the poise that would become the hallmark of his later campaigns, rallied his men to hold their lines. At the end of the day would come one of my favorite interaction between Sherman and Grant, one that best sums up their friendship. Sherman found Grant leaning against a tree, smoking one of his trademark cigars. Sherman tells him, “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replies with a puff of his cigar, and says, “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow though.” The second day of the Battle of Shiloh was a decisive Union victory.[5]

Sherman (Far Left), and Grant (Center Left) meet with President Lincoln, Spring 1865. The friendship between Sherman and Grant helped win the Civil War - Source: Wikipedia

Sherman (Far Left), and Grant (Center Left) meet with President Lincoln, Spring 1865. The friendship between Sherman and Grant helped win the Civil War – Source: Wikipedia

Grant and Sherman would fight the rest of the war together. Even after Grant would go east to command the Overland Campaign in 1864, the two would stay in nearly daily contact. After Shiloh and the capture of Corinth, Grant had wanted to go home himself. The fighting had been terribly bloody, and Grant was feeling that he was not up to the responsibilities that had been thrust upon him. Upon hearing this, Sherman was astonished, and rode hard for Grant’s headquarters to talk to him. Sherman told Grant that he (Sherman) had gone through the same thing, and that the victory at Shiloh had put new life into him. He further stated that the army and the country needed Grant, and made him promise that he would make no plans for leaving the army with consulting Sherman. Grant had been supportive of Sherman when the later had been feeling low, now it was Sherman’s turn to support his commander. Grant stayed in the army, and the Union was preserved.[6]

Two quotes that I found during my research for this post speak to the dynamic between Grant and Sherman:

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.[7]


I am a damned sight smarter man than Grant. I know more about military history, strategy, and grand tactics than he does. I know more about supply, administration, and everything else than he does. I’ll tell you where he beats me though and where he beats the world. He doesn’t give a damn about what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell. … I am more nervous than he is. I am more likely to change my orders or to countermarch my command than he is. He uses such information as he has according to his best judgment; he issues his orders and does his level best to carry them out without much reference to what is going on about him and, so far, experience seems to have fully justified him.[8]

Sherman remains a towering figure in American military history, and this is almost certainly due to the support of his friends and family. It is easy to think of the man who stated that Atlanta would be better off, “appealing to the thunderstorm” than appealing to him to stop his army from burning it to the ground, as a warmonger, with no personal feelings. I hope that I have humanized the man in some small form here. I know that when I am feeling low, I have looked to Sherman’s life between 1861 and 1862 and his friendship with Grant, as inspiration of how to keep moving.


[1] Quoted in The Civil War: A Narrative. Shelby Foote. 1986, 58.

[2] William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. (United States,, 2010), 120-121, 138-141.

[3] Sherman, 150.

[4] Sherman to John Sherman, January 4, 8, 1862, in Simpson and Berlin, Sherman’s Civil War, 174, 176.

[5] H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 184.

[6] Sherman, 178.

[7] L.P. Brockett, Our Great Captains: Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and Farragut (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866), 162.

[8] James Harrison Wilson, Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish War, the Boxer Rebellion, etc Vol. 2 (1912), 17.


From → Civil War

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