General William Tecumseh Sherman: Facts & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) was one of the most famous Union generals of the Civil War. Most notably, he captured Atlanta in September 1864 and led the famed March to the Sea in November and December 1864. His contributions were vital to the Union winning the Civil War.

In late 1861, while in command of the Department of Kentucky, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman had a nervous breakdown. Many thought him to be insane because of his predictions of how long and tough the war would be. Yet, several years later, on May 24, 1865, Sherman led thousands of soldiers through the streets of Washington while taking part in the Grand Review of the Armies, celebrating the Union victory in the Civil War. How did this man turn his life and career around? Let's learn more about this fascinating Civil War general.

Early Life and Antebellum Years

With a middle name like Tecumseh, Sherman was destined to be a military man. Born in Ohio in 1820, young William Tecumseh Sherman encountered difficulties early on when his father died when Sherman was only nine. He was then raised by Thomas Ewing, a prominent politician and senator, who helped Sherman gain admittance to West Point, where Sherman was a member of the class of 1840. In his early army career, Sherman saw some action fighting against the Seminoles in Florida. However, during the Mexican War, where many other future Civil War generals were gaining combat experience, Sherman was in California.

After marrying Ellen Ewing in 1850, Sherman left the army in 1853 to manage a bank in San Francisco. His civilian career was largely unsuccessful, and in 1859 he became the head of a military academy in Louisiana. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sherman left the academy and went north to serve.

Civil War Career

Sherman saw his first combat of the war as a colonel commanding a brigade at the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861, where Federal forces were thoroughly defeated. By late 1861, having been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, he was given the command of the Department of Kentucky. Because of worries over not having enough men and not being able to defend Kentucky, Sherman had what can be described as a nervous breakdown late that year. His reputation suffered when many in the press ran headlines declaring him to be crazy or insane. Sherman was removed from command and sent to Missouri to a less stressful position.

By the spring of 1862, however, Sherman was back in the heat of battle. In mid-March, he oversaw an expedition that encamped at Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River in a move against Corinth, Mississippi. It was here where Union forces under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant were camped when Confederates attacked at the Battle of Shiloh. Despite being caught off guard initially, Grant and Sherman performed well at Shiloh. By nightfall on April 6, Union forces had been driven back toward Pittsburgh Landing; yet, they still held on. On April 7, Grant launched a counter-attack, driving the Confederates from the field. Shiloh was a Union victory, and it cemented a friendship and partnership between Sherman and Grant that would last for the rest of their lives. Sherman fought well at Shiloh, and it began to rehabilitate his Civil War career. After the battle, he was promoted to the rank of Major General.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

Throughout 1862 and 1863, Sherman served in several notable battles and campaigns. He took part in the Vicksburg Campaign where, despite leading forces to a defeat at Chickasaw Bayou in late 1862, Sherman was largely successful with Grant as his commander. With Vicksburg's fall in July 1863, Grant was promoted, and Sherman took the helm of the Army of the Tennessee. In November of 1863, Sherman led that force in Grant's successful victory at Chattanooga. With Grant's promotion to Lieutenant General in command of all Federal forces in early 1864, Sherman once again took his friend's old post, becoming the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi.


Sherman is best known for his campaigns of 1864. That year, when Grant was in the East fighting against Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Sherman led Union forces deep into Georgia. Starting in May, Sherman drove south toward the crucial rail junction of Atlanta. In his way stood the Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by Confederate General Joseph Johnston. For several months, Sherman and Johnston went head to head, yet there weren't many major battles. Sherman did not want to lose men in costly attacks against Johnston, who was often well-positioned on good defensive ground.

The rare exception to this was the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman sent over 15,000 men against Johnston's positions around Kennesaw Mountain, just west of Marietta, Georgia. After sustaining 3,000 casualties (men listed as killed, wounded, or missing/captured) in three hours, Sherman stopped the attack. He had learned his lesson; never again would he assault entrenched positions such as those at Kennesaw.

For the rest of the campaign, Sherman focused on flanking movements and entrenchments. After Johnston was replaced by John Bell Hood in mid-July, Confederates launched a series of assaults against Sherman, all of which were repulsed. Sherman then focused on cutting the remaining rail lines into Atlanta. This ultimately paid off when on September 2, 1864, Sherman's men entered Atlanta, achieving a tremendous victory. The fall of Atlanta helped secure the reelection of Abraham Lincoln that autumn and delivered a staggering blow to the Confederacy.

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