William T. Sherman, Union Army general in the American Civil War, born 1820. Library of Congress.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a Union general of the American Civil War (1861-1865). He became most famous for his “march to the sea,” across Georgia, in 1864, and for his march through the Carolinas in 1865. On these controversial marches, Sherman’s troops destroyed much of the South’s military and economic resources.
William Tecumseh Sherman was born on Feb. 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. His father, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, died when William was 9 years old. After his father’s death, William went to live with the family of Thomas Ewing, an Ohio politician. In 1840, Sherman graduated 6th out of a class of 42 from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Sherman fought in Florida in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). He was stationed in California during the Mexican War (1846-1848). In 1853, he left the army to become a businessman. Six years later, he became the superintendent of the Seminary of Learning of the State of Louisiana (precursor to Louisiana State University). Sherman resigned this position when Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861.
In 1861, Sherman served as a colonel in the First Battle of Bull Run, also called the First Battle of Manassas. After the battle, he was promoted to brigadier general. In 1862, Sherman fought under General Ulysses S. Grant in the Battle of Shiloh. In July 1863, he helped Grant capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, a major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. In November, he helped drive Confederate forces from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln gave Grant command of all Union armies. Sherman was promoted to overall commander of the Western theater. In May 1864, Sherman and an army of about 100,000 men advanced from Chattanooga, Tennessee, toward Atlanta, Georgia. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston opposed him with about 60,000 troops. Sherman forced Johnston south to the outskirts of Atlanta. On July 17, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with General John Bell Hood. Hood made several failed attacks that depleted his army, and on September 1, he evacuated Atlanta. Union troops occupied the city the next day.
On November 15, Sherman left Atlanta and headed for Savannah, Georgia, with 62,000 troops. (Sherman sent some of his remaining troops to fight Hood’s army.) The Union army burned much of Atlanta before leaving. Relatively few Confederate troops were stationed between Atlanta and Savannah, so Sherman spread out his troops by dividing his army into two wings that marched on a 50-mile (80-kilometer) front across Georgia. During the march, Sherman had no communication with the North. Not even Lincoln or Grant knew where he was. On the march, his troops stripped barns, fields, and some houses. Sherman hoped that the terrible destruction would break the South’s will to continue fighting.
Sherman occupied Savannah on December 21 and sent a message to Lincoln: “I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” From Savannah, Sherman swung north into South Carolina. His troops continued to seize or destroy property in their path. Most of Columbia, the state capital, was burned. The Confederates blamed Sherman for the fire, but Sherman denied that his troops had set it.
After leaving Columbia, Sherman continued north into North Carolina. There, he clashed again with Confederate troops led by General Johnston. Johnston, who had only about a third as many troops as Sherman did, failed to stop Sherman, who continued his march. On April 18, 1865, Johnston surrendered to Sherman. However, President Andrew Johnson—who had recently taken over the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination—thought the terms granted by Sherman were too generous. President Johnson rejected the terms and instructed Sherman to renegotiate with Johnston. On April 26, Johnston formally surrendered his army to Sherman.
From 1869 to 1883, Sherman served as commanding general of the United States Army. Both the Democratic and Republican parties repeatedly asked him to run for president, but he refused. In 1884, he told the Republicans, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” He died in New York City on Feb. 14, 1891.