Sherman and the Strains of Leadership

By Eric Michael Burke

In this post, Eric Michael Burke recounts the circumstances that led William Tecumseh Sherman to confess, “I have not the confidence of a Leader in this war,” as he struggled to command and control tens of thousands of volunteer troops with no battleground experience.

A photo of William Tecumseh Sherman in his military uniform.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was indeed a “magnificent sight” to stand on the hurricane deck and gaze back through the soot-filled air at the order, system, and spartan organization arrayed before him that Christmas Eve, 1862. Fifty-nine steamers trailed the Forest Queen, the flagship of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s flotilla bound southward to Vicksburg, each heavily laden with supplies, ammunition, and thirty-two thousand “volunteers called by courtesy soldiers,” as he referred to them. Much of this, his largest-ever independent command, was composed of green volunteers of the kind he had a terrible time learning to trust and an even harder time learning to control. “The new troops come full of the idea of a more vigorous prosecution of the war,” he had warned his superiors, “meaning destruction and plunder.” Of course, he himself had finally concluded that the rebellion would never end until the Union secured the “absolute submission” of the South at whatever price necessary. But this punishment was to come only upon his command, and then only when he had appropriate orders from “the heads” in Washington. Until then, order and restraint had to prevail. This, even in the face of so many who seemed to him bent on transforming what he interpreted as a war exclusively to preserve the “old Constitutional” government into an “unnatural Conflict” that “would not stop till the whole country is convulsed—and slavery abolished everywhere.”

By December of 1862, Sherman was forced to admit that times were changing, and that some of these radicals might very well have been on the right side of history all along. But that certainly did not mean he liked it. For the most part, despite the proclamations and edicts of an apparently radical Republican administration, Sherman remained a stalwart opponent of the immediate emancipation of the enslaved in the South. “We cannot afford to feed such hordes,” he cried as he calculated the tremendous volume of food and other provisions necessary to support millions of freedmen and women. At the outset of the war, Sherman had rejected out of hand the proposition of “abolishing [slavery] in the South or turning loose 4 Millions of Slaves” and declared he would positively “have no hand in it.” Now, after almost two years of brutal internecine war, even he was ready to admit that the rebellion was “a Revolution where the strongest must prevail.” Either the so-called Southern Confederacy “must subdue us, or we them,” he pronounced; “there is no middle Course.” If freeing the enslaved or seizing Southern property “will make the Southern people submit to Law,” then “all should be taken away,” he decided. Order had to prevail.

Sherman made no pretense about having any ability to control or dictate the direction in which the conflict seemed to be heading. In fact, from the very beginning his thoughts were dominated by the sensation of being “but a chip on the whirling tide of time,” “drifting on the high seas, and no one Knows the Port to which we are drifting,” and “riding a whirlwind unable to guide the Storm.” He dulled this sensation to the degree possible through a liberal application of tobacco and liquor, admitting that he smoked “too many cigars” in an effort to blunt “nervous anxiety about maters [sic] which seemed to me beyond my control.” He lost enormous amounts of sleep worrying about his ability to “lead large bodies of men to probably imaginary dangers,” and how the future of the nation he was prepared to die for now depended entirely on the efforts of volunteers who had “as much idea of war as children.” His only attempt at making his mind known to those in high stations in regard to the proper prosecution of the war had left his public reputation all but ruined, his name marred with accusations of insanity, and his future dimmed by memories of perpetual failure and even thoughts of suicide. From that point forward, given a second chance by those who still thought he had something valuable to provide his country, Sherman decided that he would “prefer to follow, not to lead, as I confess I have not the confidence of a Leader in this war.” From then on, he determined that he would not “bother myself about the plans & aims of our Generals.” Instead, he would focus entirely on managing the volunteers assigned to him.

Sherman’s Fifth Division, and later his Fifteenth Corps of Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, became his veritable obsession. Perpetually distraught over the lack of “better disciplined and more reliable men” in his command, he struggled to shape them into the obedient body of “real soldiers” he felt were necessary to achieve success in what was rapidly proving to be a highly dynamic and complicated conflict. He always wished “we had more Regulars to tie to,” convinced as he was that the hardened and disciplined soldiers of the frontier outposts he had known from his Old Army days were the only definite hope for the future of the republic. But such a wish would never be granted. Instead, Sherman would have to adapt and learn how to control an “armed mob” filled, as he confessed, with a large proportion of “stragglers and venturesome pillagers” balanced by a select minority who admittedly were “fast becoming soldiers from experience.” That process of learning, growth, and co-evolution is the topic of my new book, Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863.

Quotations are taken from The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (New York: Viking, 1990), Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–65 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), and John Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (New York: Free Press, 1993).

A photo of Eric Michael Burke.

Eric Michael Burke is a historian at the US Army Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina after serving as an infantry sergeant in the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Winner of the Civil War Books and Authors Book of the Year Award

In Soldiers from Experience, Eric Michael Burke examines the tactical behavior and operational performance of Major General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth US Army Corps during its first year fighting in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Burke analyzes how specific experiences and patterns of meaning-making within the ranks led to the emergence of what he characterizes as a distinctive corps-level tactical culture. The concept—introduced here for the first time—consists of a collection of shared, historically derived ideas, beliefs, norms, and assumptions that play a decisive role in shaping a military command’s particular collective approach on and off the battlefield.

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