Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, September 9, 2011

"If they are united, and we disunited or indifferent they will succeed..."

As some of you may have noticed, I have been tracking key speeches and events in the Civil War as they unfolded 150 years ago. Among the story lines I have been discussing are the speeches and acts of Abraham Lincoln, as well as key battles. I would like to begin introducing new figures and events to this narrative. Next to Abraham Lincoln, I find William Tecumseh Sherman to be one of the most fascinating men of the war from either North or South. His story is one I intend to tell on this blog. 
For William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as for many others, the Civil War began in earnest on the plains of Manassas on July 21, 1861. On that date, Sherman led a brigade of infantry against Confederate troops positioned on Henry Hill. Along with the rest of the Union army that day, Sherman's men were sent back toward Washington in great haste and in defeat. In a letter to his wife Ellen three days after the battle, Sherman showed his disgust and frustration with the military effort thus far by writing at the close of his letter, "courage our people have, but no government." (WTS to Ellen Ewing Sherman, July 24, 1861, in Sherman's Civil War, 122)

The frustration embodied in this statement would define the year of 1861 for Sherman. This frustration was not attributed entirely to a lack of personal success for Sherman; indeed, in August he rose to the rank of Brigadier General. However, along with that rank and the war came burdens, responsibilities, and stresses which Sherman struggled to handle. Also in August, Sherman's friend Major General Robert Anderson requested that he come to Kentucky to help organize Union forces in and near that state. Sherman agreed, and went west, where he would eventually find his destiny.

Upon arriving in Kentucky, perhaps one of the most crucial states in the Union at the time, Sherman realized he was in a position of great responsibility and great pressure. Should Kentucky leave the Union, the game would be up for the Lincoln Administration and the Union forces. While Kentucky did remain loyal, the threat of secession was real, and Sherman saw first hand the degree to which Southerners were rejecting their allegiances to the United States. Kentucky was such a pressure filled situation that in October, Anderson resigned from his position there, elevating Sherman to commander of Union forces in that region.

Much of this story is borne out in Sherman's letters from this period of time. These letters show a man torn by pressures of command in an increasingly stressful situation. Few understood the gravity of the crisis facing the nation. Many sill felt that the war would be a simple affair that might not require thousands upon thousands of men to fight to the death in a four year bloodbath. Sherman was not one of those. Early on, he began to realize the serious nature of the ever growing conflict.

On September 9, 150 years ago today, Sherman wrote to his brother John, a Senator from Ohio, of the need for arming more men and preparing to deal with the situation as it truly was. Sherman's letter offered tremendous foresight about the strategic needs of the Union war effort.
I think it is of vast importance that Ohio, Indiana and Illinois must sooner or later arm every inhabitant and the sooner the better... We ought to have here a well apportioned army of a hundred thousand men. I don't see where they are to come from, but this is the great center. I still think the Mississippi will be the Grand field of operations. Memphis out to be taken in all October, even if we have to fortify and hold it a year. I think it of more importance than Richmond. It may be that the Southern Leaders have made such tremendous calls upon their people and resources, that if we remain on the defensive they will exhaust themselves, but upon the first manifest symptoms of such a result we should follow it up. Here we have no means of offense, and but little of defense, and if you are full of Zeal you could not do better than to raise your voice to call the young and middle aged men of Ohio to arms. If they can't get muskets, then let them get such arms as can be gathered together or if not that, then let them organize in companies in every township and be ready to collect together and move on short notice... If they [the rebels] are united, and we disunited or indifferent they will succeed.... (WTS to John Sherman, Sept. 9, 1861, in Sherman's Civil War, 136).

Not only did Sherman realize that massive forces were needed, but he also noted that Memphis was a more important military target than Richmond. In this statement, Sherman is discussing one of the crucial sticking points among the members of the Union high command between 1861 and 1863. While others, such as George McClellan, saw victory as capturing Richmond, Sherman saw the Mississippi River as crucial to victory, as its capture and control by Union forces would lead to a tactical and strategic defeat of the Confederate armies and the destruction of the Confederacy's ability to wage war.
In the days and weeks to come, Sherman's position became ever more perilous. Eventually, the pressures became too much, and as his calls for help escalated, so did voices of opposition, some even claiming that Sherman had gone insane. But, on September 9, as Sherman apprised his brother of his situation, he wasn't displaying insanity; rather, Sherman was showing great forbearance regarding the terrible nature of the burgeoning Civil War that was engulfing the nation.

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