The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

September 20, 2013

'War is hell'

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” ~William Tecumseh Sherman

Perhaps no military man in American history has at once both resolute admirers and bitter detractors as one William Tecumseh Sherman.

Abraham Lincoln became a polarizing figure at the time of the American Civil War. With the pall of slavery engulfing everything and everyone in the American experience in 1860, his election was used by the South as the final broken straw triggering secession from the Union.

Sherman, as opposed to the political arena and Lincoln, was both hated and admired for what he did on the field of battle and the grueling military campaigns that closed out the war.

One of 11 children and Ohio born in 1820, Sherman came from a distinguished family, his father serving on the Ohio Supreme Court.

He graduated sixth in his class at West Point in 1840, but had a decidedly unspectacular early military career, serving in California instead of in the Mexican-American War along with most of his colleagues.

He resigned his commission in 1853 and dabbled in banking, law and as a military academy superintendent in Louisiana.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, he headed north and re-entered the U.S. Army as a colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry.

He first saw combat at the First Battle of Bull Run, and despite losing to Confederate forces, Lincoln was impressed with his battlefield performance and promoted him to brigadier general.

His early blunt assessment of the conflict got him into hot political water, when he told everyone the war would not end quickly — not at all a prevailing sentiment of the day among politicians and the public.

However, his assessment more than bore out his words, as four bitter and divisive years ensued, very nearly destroying this nation.

At the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, he commanded a division of infantry that was surprised and overrun by Confederate Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston.

Despite this blemish on his record, he was promoted major general.

He was active during the Vicksburg campaign, and at the Battle of Chattanooga, faced off against the finest field commander the South had in the Western Theatre in Gen. Patrick Cleburne, in a fierce battle at Missionary Ridge.

After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to command all the armies of the United States, Sherman was made commander of all troops in the Western Theatre, and at this point in his career, began to earn notoriety and loathing by waging war on the Confederacy’s civilian population.

Sherman’s view was a particularly blunt and unsympathetic one, that defeating Southern armies was not enough to preserve the Union, but that destroying the Confederacy’s material means of waging war, and the psychological will of the Southern people, was the only way to victory.

His campaign marching through Georgia with three armies is considered the advent of modern warfare, bringing total destruction upon the civilian population in the path of his men.

It brought him popularity in the North for his idea of punishing secession, and enmity in the South, where to this day the name of Sherman is anathema.

The highlight of this bitter and bloody campaign was the capture of Atlanta 149 years ago this month.

Not only did Sherman’s campaign split the South once again (it had been split the previous year when Vicksburg fell on the Mississippi River), he left a wide swath of ruin in his wake.

On his way from Tennessee to the Atlantic Coast and Savannah, Ga., Sherman’s army earned a reputation for destruction and a lack of discipline by his troops — his three armies’ marauding stragglers the worst of the lot, known as “Sherman’s bummers.”

While his tactics still are considered controversial, the North was pleased, twice having the Thanks of Congress bestowed upon him.

After the guns finally fell silent, he remained in military service, promoted to full general and replacing Grant as commander-in-chief of the Army.

One of his important contributions post-war was establishing the Command School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Unlike Grant, who was lured to presidential politics, Sherman was noted for his absolute refusal to be drawn to that arena.

Moving to New York, he died in February 1891.

At his funeral, former Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whom Sherman had faced countless times on the field of battle, served as a pallbearer.

Asked by a friend to don a hat on that bitterly cold day, the 84-year-old Johnston famously replied: “If I were in (Sherman’s) place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat.”

Johnston caught a serious cold and died of pneumonia a month later.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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