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)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Fall of William Tecumseh Sherman

150 years ago, on November 21, 1861, William Tecumseh Sherman was a man consumed by depression and anxiety. He wrote two letters that day, one to his friend General Robert Anderson, and the other to his brother, Senator John Sherman. Earlier in the month, on November 9, Sherman had been relieved of his command in the state of Kentucky. After weeks of worrying and sending frantic notices to Washington regarding the rebel menace and the threat of Kentucky falling to Confederate forces, Sherman’s superiors, Henry Halleck, Lorenzo Thomas, and George McClellan, finally had enough of his complaints. Many thought Sherman had indeed gone insane. Sherman was a man predicting that victory would take a force of hundreds of thousands of men fighting against determined Confederates in equal or greater numbers. The telegrams and letters which Sherman sent during October and early November of 1861 portray a man who believed his command and his own life were threatened by the growing Confederate threat and a lack of adequate forces to stop it. Many throughout the country thought that surely such notions of a long and protracted conflict requiring so many men must be either off base or insane.

In Sherman's letters, his inner battles and frustrations poured out to his readers. To Robert Anderson, he apprised his former commander of the situation in Kentucky and his many concerns regarding the state, as well as his own feelings of inadequacy to the task at hand:

We have now a pretty large force in Kentucky, but the Regiments are hastily assembled and poorly disciplined, and being still in a manner dependant on the Railroad they are scattered. My deep earnest conviction from the secession feeling wherever I went, and from my knowledge of the forces collected round about Kentucky I made my declaration that  we should need in this Department a very large force, and the very gingerly way in which they came induced me to think the War Department did not share with me these fears and apprehensions at not only the loss of Kentucky, but the forces sent here—I asked that Halleck or any one else be sent here, and Buell has been here a week, in command and I am ordered to Saint Louis.

I confess I never have seen daylight in the midst of the troubles that now envelope us. I am therefore disqualified to lead, and must follow—you know with what reluctance I entered on my command and have always felt that Somehow or other I would be disgraced by it.

In the letter which he wrote to his brother John, Sherman again elucidated his fears and worries regarding not only Kentucky, but the perilous state in which the nation rested:

                Your letter was received yesterday. I know that others than yourself think I take a gloomy view of affairs without cause. I hope to God tis so. All I know is the fact that all over Kentucky the People are allied by birth interest and preference to the South…
                One soldier less than two hundred thousand will be imperiled the moment the Confederates choose… I suppose I have been morose and cross—and could I now hide myself in some obscure corner I would so, for my conviction is that our Government is destroyed, and that no human power can restore it—They have sent me here old Condemned European muskets, and have sent no arms for Cavalry, and when I bought pistols wherewith to arm some scouts, the accounts have been disallowed at Washington because I had not procured authority beforehand. Troops came from Wisconsin and Minnesota without arms, and receive such as we have here for the first time, and I cannot but look upon it as absolutely sacrificing them. I see no hope for them. In their present raw and undisciplined condition they are helpless, and some terrible disaster is inevitable—Buell is however imbued with the same spirit that prevails in Washington that there are plenty of Union people, South, in Tennessee and Kentucky, and does not share with me in my fear of the People among whom we live.

                In closing, Sherman proclaims that as long as the attitude in Washington went unchanged, he would not desire or seek a command for himself. Thus, following his dismissal from Kentucky, he had only to move on to his next post. “For myself I will blindly obey my orders and report to General Halleck in Missouri—but till I can see daylight ahead I will never allow myself to be in command.”

While Sherman's next post was in Missouri with General Henry Halleck, his fears and worries followed him from Kentucky. Rumors began to spread that the general had gone insane. Some even feared he would take his own life; to that end, Sherman’s wife, Ellen Ewing Sherman, was sent to comfort and rescue her beleaguered and troubled husband. Sherman later told his wife that during this stretch of time he had thoughts of suicide. When in Missouri in late November, Halleck had Dr. J.B. Wright, the medical director for his department, examine Sherman to discover what was troubling him. Wright’s analysis suggested that Sherman was so riddled by nerves “that he was unfit for command” (Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order, 164). Because of such conclusions, as well as Sherman’s persistent worrying regarding an imminent Confederate attack all along the Union positions in the West, he was given a 20 day leave. Thus, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman was sent home to Lancaster, Ohio, with his wife. Today, Sherman’s name evokes images of Atlanta in flames, a long column of Union troops snaking its way through Georgia, and a victorious march down the streets of Washington for the Grand Review of May, 1865. However, in November of 1861, all of that was but an impossible dream, as William Tecumseh Sherman had fallen from grace due to uncertainty, nerves, and fear. 

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