How famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman was remembered, for better and for worse

General William Tecumseh Sherman

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The lie that followed famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman to the grave (1961)

By Merton T. Akers – Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, New York) December 10, 1961

The Civil War wasn’t going well for the Union in the early weeks of December 1861 — and it was going still worse for William Tecumseh Sherman.

The Union had half a million or more men under arms but they weren’t fighting the Confederates — they were wearing out blue uniforms, eating huge quantities of rations, and burning powder on target ranges. All this was costing the government a million and a half dollars a day.

Taxpayers were beginning to react. They wanted some action for their money.

But those were minor problems for Sherman.

by Buttre & Momberger, copy after George N. Barnard

The bad news broke December 11 — “Old Cump Sherman was insane.”

William Tecumseh Sherman wasn’t old — just a couple of months away from 42. And Sherman wasn’t insane — eccentric, yes; too much of a realist, perhaps; jumpy and outspoken, certainly,

Dogged to grave

But that was the way the country heard it, and the accusation would dog Sherman to the grave.

The news of Sherman’s “insanity” came in one long paragraph in the Cincinnati Commercial. The first sentence read:

“The painful intelligence reaches us, in. such form that we are not at liberty to disclose it, that Gen, W. T. Sherman, late commander of the Department of the Cumberland, is insane.”


Those words nearly pushed William Tecumseh Sherman into oblivion — Sherman the general who would fight his way to Atlanta and capture it, who would break the back of the Confederacy in his “march to the sea,” and who better than any other Civil War military leader understood what now is called ”total war.”

It was not surprising that Sherman’s alleged insanity broke into the public print. The story had been kicking around Kentucky for several months.

Sherman arrived on the Kentucky scene soon after the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) where, as a colonel, he had helped to form the rear guard to protect the fleeing Federal army. His job in Kentucky was to organize a Union force to invade Tennessee.

He was dissatisfied with his troops, They were untrained and half equipped. Powder was scarce and some of it un-explodable.

Like so many Civil War generals, Sherman was prone to over-estimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate his own.

by George Peter Alexander Healy

Objected to writing

Soon Sherman and the newspaper correspondents were fighting. He objected to correspondents writing material which the Confederates might use.

The correspondents, citing the American doctrine of free speech, demanded news. When they failed to get news they began to write their own opinions of Sherman, the army, and how he was running it.

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Sherman put a Cincinnati Commercial reporter in jail for refusing to leave department headquarters at Louisville when ordered. Others were banished.

The general’s feud was climaxed on Oct. 17 when Secretary of War Simon Cameron arrived in Louisville.

That night Sherman poured out his troubles to Cameron and the secretary’s party, which included several newspapermen. Sherman objected to their presence but Cameron assured him they were “all friends.”

Sherman spoke freely — too freely, it developed, He told Cameron that Confederate Gen. Simon Buckner, then at Bowling Green, Ky., could take Louisville in a day, that Kentucky recruits were going South in droves, that Kentucky Union men would not fight against their own relatives and much more.

For defense, Sherman said he must have 60,000 men — he had about 20,000. “For offense, before you are done, 200,000.”

“You astonish me,” Cameron said, “Where are they to come from?

by Mathew Brady Studio

Number disputed

Whether Sherman meant 200,000 men to conquer Kentucky, or whether he meant he felt that mans were necessary to clear the Mississippi Valley, still is disputed, If he meant the latter his estimate was low, It took many more than 200,000 to win the war in the West.

Whatever Sherman meant, the figure got into the news. papers. That, plus the other bitter stories correspondents had written, insured eventual publication of the insanity dispatch.

But by that time, Sherman was in Missouri inspecting and drilling recruits for Maj. Gen. Henry W, Halleck.

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The transfer had not helped Sherman. He still was nervous, irritable and fearful of Confederate attacks His wife, Ellen Ewing Sherman, went to St. Louis to take him home to Lancaster, Ohio, for a rest.

Halleck seemed glad to give him a 20-day leave, saying the rest would cure him, But the next day Halleck wrote to: Maj. Gen. George M. McClellan, commander-in-chief, that Sherman was “completely stampeded” in Missouri and that his “physical and mental system is… completely broken…”

In Lancaster, Sherman read the Commercial dispatch all the way through.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman portrait by Mathew Brady, c1864
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman portrait by Mathew Brady, c1864
Key sentences

“It appears that he was… ‘Stark mad… He telegraphed the War Department three times in one day for permission to evacuate Louisville… It seems providential that the country has not to mourn the loss of an army through the loss of mind of a general into whose hands was committed the… command of Kentucky.”

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Those were some of the key sentences.

That day Sherman and his brother-in-law, Philemon Ewing, drafted a long and categorical denial.

Ewing went to Cincinnati and demanded a retraction from Editor Murat Halstead.

Halstead explained that he got the story from Henry Villard, correspondent of the New York Herald, and that he had published it because no correspondent in Louisville dared to do it. But he finally agreed to publish the answer Ewing brought.

It appeared Dec. 13, two days after the original dispatch, and branded “every material paragraph false” of the earlier dispatch. (The original was only one paragraph long.)

But the correction came too late. Other newspapers had printed it. Readers all over the country read and believed that “Old Cump was insane.”

by Unidentified artist

A soldier’s funeral: General Sherman laid at rest — the impressive scenes (1891)

Homage to the honored dead — high tribute of reverence, love and regret — services at the grave were of the simplest character

Head of the funeral procession for General William T Sherman, New York City, February 1891

Sunday Herald and Weekly National Intelligencer (Washington DC) February 22, 1891

St Louis, Feb 21 — St Louis today bade an impressive farewell to the soldier whose military genius was excelled by none and equaled by few.

No higher tribute of reverence, love, and regret could be paid any hero in any clime. For the first time in several days, the sun shone out gloriously, but its rays fell upon a city draped in mourning.

The hearts of the people were saddened, and with one accord all manner of men abandoned their earthly pursuits and assembled along the line of the funeral procession to do homage to the honored dead.

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by John C. McRae

It was a hushed and solemn multitude that greeted the trains on its arrival. The deep, ominous tolling of the heavy bell on the engine sounded a reverent, inspiring, but sorrowful funeral knell, and the vast crowd stood uncovered while the train with its silent occupants slowly rolled by.

It was a soldier’s funeral — the funeral of a general — but not alone of such a one, but of an officer beloved by the Army and honored by the people. It was a funeral of a hero, whose worth his fellow men knew, and whose memory they cherished as they would that of their nearest kin.

For miles, the streets were lined with solid walls of people standing at least a dozen deep, and the evidences of the affection and esteem in which his fellow townsmen held him were abundant on all sides.

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general sherman funeral 1891
Military funeral and caisson with General Sherman’s casket turning onto Grand Boulevard during the procession from downtown St Louis to Calvary Cemetery (Courtesy Missouri History Museum)

His comrades of Ransom Post marched in hollow square about the caisson. Their step was measured, their eyes downcast, and every face wore that solemn look which said too plainly the words, “I have lost a friend.”

Following the caisson was the handful of survivors of the old Thirteenth Infantry, a small and grief-stricken body of men, following their old leader over a road which they, too, must travel at no very far distant day.

The march to the cemetery from the depot was through some of the principal streets of the city. The route laid out was through Eleventh, Market, Twelfth and Pine streets and Grand Avenue, thence out Florrisant Avenue to Calvary cemetery.

The entrance to the cemetery was by the rear gate. When the caisson entered the gates of the cemetery, most of the troops remained outside of the cemetery.

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William T. Sherman - Atlanta, Georgia - 1864

On account of the large number of carriages occupied by Grand Army men, members of the Loyal Legion, and Sons of Veterans who were unable to endure the fatigue of the entire march of nearly eight miles, and for whom carriages were provided at the corner of Grand and Eastern Avenues, the roads from the entrance of the cemetery to the grave were soon blocked and many of those who occupied carriages and near the end of the procession were obliged to leave them some distance from the gate and walk to the grave.

This caused some delay in the services, and it was not until 2:30 o’clock that all who had been assigned places took their positions about the open grave, which was lined inside with flags.

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Napoleon Sarony

A short distance to the south was the brave Thirteenth, to the east members of the Grand Army, and directly around it to the north were grouped Senator Sherman, the Misses Sherman, P T Sherman, Col. Hoyt Sherman, Lieuts. Thackera and Fitch and their wives, Judge and Mrs. P B Ewing, General and Mrs Thomas Ewing, General and Mrs Nelson A. Miles, Secretary and Mrs Noble, Secretary and Mrs Rusk, Assistant Secretary Grant, ex-President Hayes, Gen. Schofield, Gen. Howard, Gen. Slocum, and others.

After all had taken their positions, the eight sergeants acting as body-bearers, lifted the casket from the caisson and bore it reverently to the grave, when all that was mortal of Gen. Sherman was lowered to its last resting place.

Funeral procession for General William T Sherman, New York City, February 1891

The casket was draped with flags and bare of any floral tributes. The services at the grave were of the simplest character and were conducted by Rev. Thomas Ewing Sherman, all assembled at the grave standing with uncovered heads. As the casket was being lowered the regimental band played “Plyals hymn.” Father Sherman read the Catholic service, one of the selections being “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” offered fervent prayer, and the services were at end.

As the services progressed, many about the grave were visibly affected. and when the flags surrounding the casket were removed. the sound of low sobbing was heard.

At 3 o’clock, the closing of the grave was completed and the buglers of the Seventh Cavalry sounded “taps,” “lights out.” Volleys were fired over the grave by the Thirteenth Infantry, immediately followed by three salvos by the artillery, which was stationed some distance to the east.

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Sherman's military headquarters

Wreaths and branches of evergreens were then placed upon the grave by loving hands. The funeral parties and the troops returned to the station and the many thousands of citizens who were present dispersed to their homes.

Thus was laid to rest by the side of his wife and his two sons, one of whom was his “soldier boy,” General William Tecumseh Sherman.

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