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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Sherman, the Soldier

By Whitelaw Reid (1837–1912)

[Born near Xenia, Ohio, 1837. Died in London, England, 1912. Ohio in the War. 1868.]

PERHAPS the briefest expression of General Sherman’s professional character may be found in the reversal of a well-known apothegm by Kinglake. He is too warlike to be military. Yet, like most applications of such sayings, this is only partially just. He is indeed warlike by nature, and his ardor often carries him beyond mere military rules—sometimes to evil, as at Kenesaw, sometimes to great glory, as in the march to the sea. Yet in many things he is devoted to the severest military methods. In moving, supplying, and manœuvring great armies—undertakings in which rigid adherence to method is vital—he is without a rival or an equal. In the whole branch of the logistics of war he is the foremost general of the country, and worthy to be named beside the foremost of the century.

As a strategist he has displayed inferior but still brilliant powers. He cannot here be declared without a rival. He is indeed to be named after one or two generals who have achieved a much smaller measure of success. But the single campaign in which he was enabled to make a worthy display of his strategy against a worthy antagonist will long be studied as a happy exemplification of the art of war. In the campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas he was unworthily opposed, and his superiority of force was for the most part overwhelming; but he still carried the same skill into the management of his columns, and drew an impenetrable veil of mystery over his movements. His topographical knowledge was wonderful; and it is to be observed that he never seemed burdened with the manifold details which he accumulated, but, rising above them, took in their import with a coup d’œil as comprehensive as it was minute.

In his plans there was often a happy mingling of audacity with system; of defiance of military methods in the conception with a skilful use of them in the execution. It was unmilitary, as he himself said, to turn his back on Hood and set out for Savannah; but there was no unmilitary looseness in the order of march or in the handling of the cavalry. It was audacious to project his army into the heart of Georgia, along a thread of railroad that for hundreds of miles was vulnerable at almost every point; but there was no unmilitary audacity in the care which established secondary depots along the route, or in the system which pervaded the whole railroad management and made it a marvel forever. Into all these details, too, he personally entered. He turned from a study of Joseph E. Johnston’s latest move to specify the kinds of return-freight the railroad might carry; from the problem of what to do with Atlanta after he got it, to the status of news-agents, and the issue of a decree that the newspapers might be transported but not the news-boys. Through such minute matters his wonderful energy carried him; and when he turned to the larger problems before him, not one trace of fatigue from the labor or confusion from the details blurred the clearness of vision which he brought to the determination of Hood’s purposes, or to the estimate of the difficulties between him and Savannah.

There was unconscious egotism in his beginning a long letter to Grant about his plans with the phrase: “I still have some thoughts in my busy brain that should be confided to you.” But it expressed the embodied energy and force of the man. His brain was a busy one—always seeking something new, always revolving a thousand chances that might never occur, always roving over the whole field that he filled, and into many an obscure quarter besides. Physically and mentally he was the most uniformly restless man in the army.

Out of this sprang many of those hasty opinions—dashed off on the spur of the moment, and expressed with his usual looseness of language and habit of exaggerating for the sake of emphasis—to which, in their literal meanings, it would be so hard to hold him. No man at the close of the war was probably more opposed at heart to the policy of confiscation: but, in the heat of an argument with the people of Huntsville, in the first days of 1864, he declared himself in favor of confiscation if the war should last another year. No man probably knew better than he how hollow was the shell of the Confederacy, and how near its collapse; but in the heat of an argument with the Secretary of War against negro recruiting he declared, late in the autumn of 1864, that the war was but fairly begun. No man was more committed to the theory of overwhelmingly large armies, and for himself he demanded at least a hundred thousand on starting for Atlanta; but, in arguing with Halleck against a concentration with Grant, he declared that no general could handle more than sixty thousand men in battle….

He was liable, too, to amazing twists of logic in defence of positions to which he had once committed himself. Before the Committee on the Conduct of the War he swore to his knowledge that, if President Lincoln had lived, he would have sanctioned the treaty with Johnston. Yet, when he took this oath, he had seen Mr. Lincoln’s despatch to Grant peremptorily forbidding him to meddle in civil affairs. He considered himself fully authorized by the President to undertake civil negotiations. Yet, when he was asked to produce his authority, the most tangible thing he could show was this: “I feel great interest in the subjects of your despatch mentioning corn and sorghum, and contemplate a visit to you.—A. Lincoln.” And the only feature in the despatch, to which this cautious and non-committal reply was sent, that referred to civil negotiations, was as follows: “Governor Brown has disbanded his militia to gather the corn and sorghum of the State. I have reason to believe that he and Stephens want to visit me, and I have sent them a hearty invitation.” Such, on the oath of General Sherman, was authority for making peace with General Johnston and the rebel Secretary of War, “from the Potomac to the Rio Grande.” Nay, it was even more. It was a ground for the arraignment of the new administration because of the neglect to explain its civil policy to him. “It is not fair,” he exclaimed, “to withhold plans and policy from me (if any there be) and expect me to guess at them.”…

In his logical processes there was little stopping-place between absolute disbelief or absolute conviction. By consequence he was apt to be either vehemently right or vehemently wrong—in any event, vehement in all things. If he agreed with the Government, well. If he disagreed with it, the Government was wrong! That this dangerous quality did not lead to irreparable mischief was due partly to fortunate circumstances, but largely also to that instinctive loyalty which led the conservative principal of the Louisiana Military Institute to abandon his congenial position rather than “raise a hand against the Union of these States.”

He was as prompt to learn his mistakes as he was to deny that he had made mistakes. He learned indeed with a rapidity that showed not only the extent of his theoretical knowledge, but his remarkable natural capacity for war. He made many mistakes after Pittsburg Landing, but he rarely repeated old ones. With every campaign he learned and rose. When Grant, turning eastward, left him the Valley of the Mississippi for his Department, he was equal to it. When, before Savannah, he faced north, to bear his part in the colossal campaign that ended the war, be was not indeed the safest, but beyond question the most brilliant general in the army. More than Grant, more, perhaps, than any of the less noted generals who might be named beside him, he had displayed not merely military talent but military genius.