A Man Apart: The Political Education of General William Sherman at the Battle of Shiloh

The vicious storm that drenched the battlefield outside the Shiloh meeting house on the night of April 6-7, 1862, was a common feature of springtime in Tennessee. This particular storm battered not only the budding branches of Swamp White and Shingle Oak trees on the shores of the Tennessee River, but also two armies who had spent the prior day locked in vicious combat. Roaring thunder and rain cascading in sheets shrouded the day’s horrific toll by drowning out the cries of the wounded and dying strewn about the ground and cloistered in hospital tents. The carnage was stunning to all involved, save for the prophet whose “gallant and able” leadership under fire prevented a catastrophe.[1] William Sherman’s redemption was at hand.

When the storm clouds cleared, the Union Army of the Tennessee launched a massive counterattack, driving P.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Mississippi back to Corinth.[2] Ulysses Grant praised Sherman’s leadership, cementing him as one of the Union’s up and coming commanders. Yet, as the casualty lists grew, the veil of war’s brutal nature was lifted for all to see. In response, the army’s political masters and some of the men who volunteered for service pounced on the generals in command. Traditional biographies hold that the Battle of Shiloh was the dime that Sherman’s military life turned upon. The ability to clearly connect the political resolve of South to the battlefield supposedly set him apart from his infamously cautious peers. Sherman’s attitude towards his own volunteers and Union politicians at all levels tell a different story. A cautionary tale, even. Shiloh’s aftermath instead shows us just how blind Sherman was to the North’s political resolve.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman (Wikimedia)

Present for the disaster at the Battle of Bull Run, then-Colonel Sherman’s letters home are bracing and frank. The volunteers, citizen-soldiers who swelled the ranks of his regiment, bore the brunt of sarcastic, sometimes vicious tirades he included in correspondence with his wife, Ellen, and his brother, Senator John Sherman of Ohio. Sherman groused to his father-in-law Thomas Ewing regarding military discipline in his camp, “I never did like to serve with volunteers, because instead of being governed they govern.”[3] Any commander would be displeased with troops under their charge who fled in the face of the enemy. In truth, Sherman’s doubts about the volunteer regiments predated his appointment as Colonel of Volunteers. Sherman wrote to John in April 1861, “...but I say volunteers and militia were, and never will be fit for Invasion and whoever tries it will be defeated and dropt by Lincoln like a hot potato.”[4] His was a fatalistic vision of the men who responded to their nation’s call.

The government of the United States fared no better in Sherman’s mind. “I do not say I love my country,” Sherman wrote to Ellen after Bull Run. “It does seem to have fallen into degenerate hands. The old Government was as mild as any on Earth,” he continued, “and it may be that it is the best-but true it is its administration had become very corrupt.”[5] Sherman’s post-Bull Run letters are laced with such sentiments. Prior to his commission as Colonel of Volunteers he was generally supportive of the government’s efforts to combat the burgeoning rebellion but he expressed his doubts. “I think the causes of this Rebellion too deep seated, and too virulent to be composed under our present Democratic System of Govt., though I highly approve Lincoln’s energetic intentions.”[6]

Sherman’s attitude in 1861 is not that of the man who would become Grant’s principal deputy and be known as Uncle Billy to his troops. Instead, the creeping shadow of the mania that would result in his being labeled insane during his command in Kentucky shades his otherwise prescient vision. Disgust was the primary emotion B. H. Liddell Hart attributed to Sherman at this time—disgust for his men, how the war was being handled, and for himself.[7] Others have interpreted his feelings as pushing back against disorder in his private life, a minor hiccup on the road to greatness, or a quirk of a timorous mind.[8] What is clear is that each biographer treats his disdain for the government and the volunteers as a throwaway issue. At his most agitated and dejected, however, Sherman criticizes the volunteers and the government within the same pen stroke in much of his correspondence:

I am still acting as a Brigadier General in command of six Regts. (sic) of volunteers called by courtesy Soldiers, but they are all we have got and God knows the issue- our adversaries have the weakness of slavery in their midst to offset our Democracy, and tis beyond human wisdom to say which is the greater evil.[9]

Sherman held a dubious view of both his men and the government because he implicitly recognized their interrelationship. Even on the eve of the Battle of Shiloh, the doleful general was still struggling to square his raw volunteers and the government they served with the task at hand. Whereas Sherman shuddered after witnessing the unity of purpose between the Confederate government and its people manifest itself in the rebel army’s performance at Bull Run, the actions of his own men and the federal and state governments inspired lassitude in him. “You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth, right at your doors” Sherman said of the Northern people in 1860.[10] Bull Run would disabuse him of this opinion. Instead, clouds of despair shrouded his country’s political landscape from view.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter (Wikimedia)

Upon the first shots fired at Fort Sumter, the political establishment of the North vaulted into action. From the outset the supreme political objective was clear: restoration of the Union by force of arms. Elected officials at the federal, state and local levels affirmed this view as “an enthusiastic uprising of the North in town and country was reported by telegraph.”[11] Northern newspaper editorials thundered for war, especially after Lincoln’s proclamation calling for 75,000 Three Month volunteers. The fatal misperception of a short war was the driving factor behind how the political establishment calculated the means by which they would achieve their objective.

Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, was instrumental in the decision to call up volunteers instead of expanding the size of the regular army. As a cost-saving measure, the scheme worked beautifully. Reflecting the quilt-like nature of the Union, each state was responsible for furnishing its own volunteer regiments. With them came the pride in their state, county, and town. State’s rights and state pride had to be accommodated.[12] In so doing, the North’s politicos also kept to a long cherished American aversion to standing armies. Even in 19th century America, the mystique of the citizen-soldier was alive and well. The lore of the minutemen of the Revolution and Andrew Jackson’s ragtag army at New Orleans were cherished history. Three-Year Volunteer regiments had also successfully marched alongside regulars in Mexico only a decade before. Politicians who fed the fervor for gallant, patriotic men, aggrieved at the injustice done to their country, also frowned upon the expertise of professional soldiers. Exiled like a breakaway religious branch to the frontiers, the regular army was sentenced to scratch out a tedious existence midwifing the nation's’ manifest destiny. Even more distrust was heaped upon the movement’s monks, the West Point officer class. Associated as a group with the elitist politics of the Democratic Party, professional officers educated at West Point were an afterthought as the stingy political establishment bought into the idea that the people could be led by their own. “It was the fashion to sneer at those who had made the profession of arms their study...experience in Congress was apparently regarded as more essential qualification to command than course of study at West Point,” a contributor to the Army and Navy Journal lamented.[13] Sherman, a graduate of West Point, was a member of this maligned military class.

The volunteers who so infuriated General Sherman were the weapon both North and South wielded against the other. A people’s war would be fought by people’s armies. Regiments were raised through various community efforts in cities, towns and rural villages across the North. Citizens at all levels of society pitched in. Groups of men joined their town’s regiments together. They did so as much out of pride for their homes as they did for the preservation of the Union. Local political leaders were in the best position to not only manage the raising of these regiments, but also to command them when the men elected their leaders. An unwritten, yet nevertheless binding, agreement came into place between the soldiers and the community: if either one failed in this mutual undertaking, the other quickly heard about it.[14] In addition, the men viewed their service to the government as transactional, and their communities followed suit. One would always hold the other accountable. As a democratic norm, this accountability would be enforced after Shiloh, much to Sherman’s chagrin.

"The Peacemakers" by George Peter Alexander Healy (Wikimedia)

While the weaknesses and follies of the United States’ political system and the volunteer system it produced are well trodden, it is worth recognizing the ample spring from which the Union drew its armies. Each volunteer represented a part of the grassroots political movement that shared the Lincoln Administration’s ultimate goal: the restoration of the Union by force of arms. Communities would be connected to the battlefield as never before by troops with a level of education beyond those of the past and their elected representatives would need to both react to and anticipate their constituents’ reactions to events as they unfolded.[15] An army borne of politics would be destined to be governed by it. In this way, now-Major General Sherman’s disgust at being held accountable by civilians as his division encamped around Shiloh church in Tennessee, placed him firmly in line with the likes of fellow West Pointers George McClellan, Henry Halleck, and Joseph Hooker. Soldiers whom Sherman admired, but looked past their own political games.

Shiloh Church Before the Battle of Shiloh (Baptists and the American Civil War)

Fought between April 6th-7th, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was the largest engagement of the Civil War to date. Major General William Sherman was a central player in the chaotic battle. From the moment Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate army fell upon Sherman’s division in its camp outside Shiloh meetinghouse until Grant’s furious counterattack of the 7th, Sherman led from the front, sustaining multiple wounds and having three horses shot from under him. Anchoring the Union’s right, Sherman’s management of his green volunteers, along with their own pluck in the fight, prevented Grant’s army from being driven into the swamps that line the Tennessee River. The Battle of Shiloh proved to be a standing rebuke to McClellan, proof that inexperienced troops could emerge victorious in battle without months of laborious training.[16] Sherman emerged a hero.

The Battle of Shiloh was also the costliest battle fought in North America at that time. The losses were felt acutely back home. Letters from survivors flowed in a torrent. Complicating matters were rumors that Grant, and Sherman, were surprised by Johnston’s Confederates on the morning of April 6th. Bearing the brunt of Johnston’s initial attack, several Ohio volunteer regiments under Sherman’s command broke and ran. One such Ohio volunteer wrote home of Sherman, “For some reason, inexplicable to me, our General seemed to place no reliance in the report (of enemy movements) or at least paid very little attention to it—and we were once more ordered back to our quarters, without even a caution to be ready for battle.”[17] Worse still for Sherman, these soldiers were the first participants of the battle the press came into contact with. It was not long before newspaper columns presented rumors and half-truths as facts. Sherman, for all his talents, did not see his next battle coming.

The casualty count at Shiloh eclipsed the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined.[18] Predating the slaughter at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, the 13,000 casualties suffered by the Union Army at Shiloh was unlike anything Americans had yet experienced. Private Whitelaw Reid’s inaccurate yet compelling serialized narrative of the battle spread the ugliest tales of the battle like wildfire. While press coverage of Shiloh like Reid’s was unfair, the political reaction to the battle was deadly serious. Facing such losses amidst rumors of men bayoneted in their sleep, politicians throughout the North acted upon the outcry from their constituents. The governor of Ohio, whose men in Sherman’s division initially fled the battle’s first volleys, was particularly irate. Sending the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Benjamin Stanton to Pittsburgh Landing to interview Ohio volunteers, was enough to provoke Sherman’s rage by itself. Following his interviews, Stanton published an article in an Ohio newspaper on April 12, 1862, in which he repeated rumors that Grant was drunk and “ought to be shot.”[19] Even President Lincoln began to inquire as to why the Army of the Tennessee was surprised.

Decoration Day activities at Shiloh National Cemetery, c. 1895 (Shiloh NMP)

Whereas Grant took the criticism with a stoic’s silence, Sherman, with his newfound self-confidence blazing, unleashed his fury. Contrary to his portrayal in popular histories, Sherman could only muster muted praise for his volunteers who stayed and fought with him. His attitude towards the volunteers remained negative in the months after Shiloh. “We have had the same games that were attempted at Bull Run,” Sherman wrote to Charles Ewing in the weeks after the battle. “Men run away, won’t obey their officers, won’t listen to the threats, remonstrances and prayers of their superiors.”[20] Responding to Lieutenant Governor Stanton once settled into the occupation of Tennessee, Sherman’s rage could not be contained:

You knew our men were raw and undisciplined and that all our time was taken up in organization, drill and discipline, leaving us no time to meet your malicious slanders, and resent your insults. The hour of reckoning, therefore was distant and uncertain. You have had your day, but the retreat of the enemy and a day of comparative rest has given me leisure to write this for your benefit. Grant and Hurlbut and Prentiss still live and will in due time pay their respects to you. If you have no respect for the honor and reputation of the Generals who lead the Armies of your Country, you should have some regard for the honor and welfare of the country itself.[21]

Major General Henry Halleck, then in overall command of the Union’s western armies, had to personally intervene with Sherman to end the public spat with so senior a public official.

Major General Henry Halleck (Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Due to the size of the battle, the number of casualties, and the insinuation of unpreparedness, it would have been political malpractice to not launch inquiries into the conduct of the battle. The flow of information back home in the form of letters, telegraphed reports, and firsthand accounts uncritically reported in partisan rags was more than the army was prepared to contain. Here, the transactional nature of the volunteers’ service was activated. The people of the country placed their faith in the federal government and the generals it selected to lead the army. Of all the unwritten democratic norms practiced in the United States, oversight over government activities is cherished. Oversight should lead to accountability. Political leaders were within their rights to exercise oversight after Shiloh, even when the motives for doing so were misinformed at best and malicious at worst.

Sherman’s myopic rage blinded him to the massive political movement at his back. Political recriminations followed each battle the Union fought. President Lincoln utilized this transparency as a political weapon, as he understood he could not be ruled by a mob but had to mind the political forces he needed to continue the war. Sherman’s feelings were the price of achieving the ultimate objective, a point of view that was not beyond Sherman’s talents. Nevertheless, at no point after Shiloh did the public or politicians demand an end to hostilities in reaction to the casualties sustained during the battle. Reinforcements continued to flow into the army from the states. Volunteer regiments continued to fight, forging themselves into the veterans that Sherman would take into Georgia. What General Sherman interpreted as a self-destructive proclivity for destroying those in command of the army was actually a recalibration on the part of the people and their representatives. Establishing accountability for commanders in the field through oversight was a natural reaction to the price of victory rising. Grant, McClellan, Hooker, and other Union generals took pains to cultivate positive images in the populace for this reason. The shared objective, the restoration of the Union by force of arms, remained in place. The acceptance of the rising cost of victory would be reaffirmed again and again.

William Sherman would become the man the United States needed him to be. “Uncle Billy” would come to gain the love and respect of his men, and they would gain his. Acknowledging his greatest weakness, his inability to grasp the resolve within the Union’s messy political system and the volunteer army it produced, is critical to understanding what lessons future leaders should take from Sherman’s military life. The time will come again when the country will have to call upon the citizenry to augment the existing professional military. Recognizing that even America’s own God of War needed to catch up to his countrymen as much as they needed to catch up to him is a valuable lesson that might make up the difference between victory and defeat.

Kyle Gaffney earned his master’s degree in History from William Paterson University in New Jersey.

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Header Image: "Battle of Shiloh" by Thure de Thulstrup (Wikimedia)


[1] “General Ulysses S. Grant-Shiloh/Pittsburg Landing. Report of Major General U.S. Grant.” Official Records of the Civil War-Battle Reports. www.civil-war.net.

[2] Beauregard took command of the Army of the Mississippi at Shiloh after its original commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed in action.

[3] William Sherman to Thomas Ewing, September 30,1861. Sherman’s Selected Correspondence of the Civil War, 1860-1865. Edited by Brooks D. Simpson & Jean V. Berlin. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999, pg 141.

[4] William Sherman to John Sherman, St. Louis, April 18, 1861. Brooks & Berlin, pg 70.

[5] William Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, Washington D.C. August 17, 1861. Brooks & Berlin, pg 131.

[6] William Sherman to Thomas Ewing Jr., St. Louis, May 1, 1861.

[7] Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. Hart, B.H. Liddell, Boston, Dodd, Mead & Co, 1929, pg 93

[8] For examples of each interpretation, see: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert O’Connell, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order and Sherman’s Other War: The General and the Civil War Press by John F. Marszalek, and Citizen Sherman by Michael Fellman.

[9] William Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, Washington D.C., August 3,1861. Brooks & Berlin, pg 127.

[10] Blaisdell, Robert. The Civil War: A Book of Quotations. 2004.

[11] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, pg 348. Quote is attributed to Fred Seward.

[12] Sears, Stephen W. Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. New York, 2017. Pg 38

[13] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Vintage Books, Random House LLC, New York, NY. Pg 10

[14] Allen, Joseph Frank. Pg 22

[15] Frank, Joseph Allen. Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at The Battle of Shiloh. University of Illinois Press, 1989, pg 17

[16] Chernow, Ron. Grant. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.  Pg 211

[17] 1st Lt. F.M. Posegate, 48th Ohio Volunteers to his Wife, April 11, 1862. www.48ovvi.org 

[18] Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 1. New York, Vintage Books, 1986. Reprint.

[19] Cunningham, Edward, Gary Joiner, Timothy Smith. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. Savas Beatie, New York. Pg 383

[20] William Sherman to Charles Ewing, Camp Shiloh, Tenn- April 25, 1862. Brooks & Berlin, pg 210.

[21] William Sherman to Benjamin Stanton, Camp in Field near Chewalla Tennessee, June 10, 1862, pg 241