In December of 1860, five months before the Civil War began, two men who had resigned from the United States Army earlier in their lives reviewed their respective situations.
From Galena, Illinois, a small city of fourteen thousand, four miles east of the Mississippi River and just south of the Wisconsin border, the first of these men, former captain Ulysses S. Grant, wrote a friend, “In my new employment I have become pretty conversant … I hope to be made a partner soon, and am sanguine that a competency at least can be made out of the business.”
A man who had graduated seventeen years before from the United States Military Academy at West Point, something that in itself conferred a certain prestige and social status, Grant was now a clerk in his stern father’s small company, which operated a tannery as well as leather goods stores in several towns. Just six years previous, after four years as a cadet and eleven as an officer, including brave and efficient service during the Mexican War, his military career had come to a bad end. Stationed at remote posts in California without his wife and two children, Grant became bored and lonely. During the long separation from his wife, Julia, a highly intelligent, lively, affectionate woman who adored him as he adored her, he began to drink. In 1854, when Grant was thirty-two, his regimental commander forced him to resign from the army for being drunk while handing out money to troops on a payday.
Returning to Missouri, Grant struggled for four years to support his little family by farming land near St. Louis that belonged to his wife and father-in-law. Despite working hard, avoiding alcohol, and remaining optimistic—at one point he wrote to his father, who then lived in Kentucky, “Every day I like farming better and I do not doubt money is to be made at it”—events worked against him. A combination of weather-ruined crops and falling commodity prices left him with with one slim chance to get by. Hiring two slaves from their owners, and borrowing from his father-in-law a slave whom he later bought and set free, Grant and his new field hands began cutting down trees on the farm, sawing them into logs, and taking them to St. Louis to sell as firewood. Sometimes Grant brought his logs to houses whose owners arranged for deliveries, and on other days he peddled them on the street.
Wearing his faded old blue army overcoat, from which he had removed the insignia, he sometimes encountered officers who knew him from the past. Brigadier General William S. Harney, “resplendent in a new uniform” as he passed through St. Louis to campaign against the Sioux, saw Grant handling the reins of a team of horses pulling a wagon stacked with logs. Harney exclaimed, “Why, Grant, what in blazes are you doing here?” Grant answered, “Well, General, I’m hauling firewood.” On another day, an old comrade looking for Grant’s farm asked directions of a nondescript man driving a load into the city, only to realize that he was speaking to Grant. In response to his startled, “Great God, Grant, what are you doing?” he received the laconic reply, “I’m solving the problem of poverty.”
On December 23, 1857, Ulysses S. Grant pawned his gold watch for twenty-two dollars to buy Christmas presents for Julia, who was seven months pregnant, and their three children. Nothing improved: bad weather destroyed most of the crops Grant planted in the spring of 1858, and a freak freeze on June 5 finished off the rest. During the summer, the Grants’ ten-year-old son Fred nearly died of typhoid. In early September Grant wrote to his sister Mary that “Julia and I are both sick with chills and fever.”
The end had come for Grant as a farmer. In the autumn of 1858, an auctioneer sold off his remaining animals, crops, and equipment. He, Julia, and their four children moved into St. Louis, where a cousin of Julia’s had been persuaded to make him a partner in his real estate firm. Grant’s job was to collect rents and sell houses, but even in a sharply rising real estate market, he could not make money. After nine months he was told that the partnership had been dissolved: he was unemployed. Next, after being turned down for the position of county engineer for lack of the right political connections, he found a job in the federal customshouse but was replaced after a month, again a victim of political patronage. Heavily in debt and behind in his rent, Grant could not support his family. A friend who saw him walking the streets looking for work described a man “shabbily dressed … his face anxious,” sunk in “profound discouragement.” Finally Grant turned in desperation to his austere father, who had earlier rejected his appeal for a substantial loan, and the elder Grant created a job for him as a clerk at the leather goods store in Galena. A man who ran a jewelry store across the street recalled this, from the time when Grant was describing himself as “pretty conversant” with his new job. “Grant was a very poor businessman, and never liked to wait on customers … [He] would go behind the counter, very reluctantly, and drag down whatever was wanted; but hardly ever knew the price of it, and, in nine cases out of ten, he charged either too much or too little.”
That was Grant as he lived in Galena on the eve of the Civil War—an ordinary-looking man of thirty-eight, five feet eight inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, somewhat stooped and with a short brown beard, a quiet man who smoked a pipe and by then had some false teeth. He had never wanted a military career: he went to West Point only because his autocratic father, who had gotten him a congressional appointment to the academy without consulting him, insisted that he go. While he was there, Congress debated whether to close the nation’s military school, and Grant kept hoping that would happen. In studies, he said, “I rarely read over a lesson a second time,” but he devoured the library’s stock of novels, including the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, and Washington Irving, and demonstrated skill and sensitivity in the paintings and pen-and-ink sketches he executed in a drawing course.
When Grant arrived as a plebe, seventeen years old, another cadet, a big, swaggering youth named Jack Lindsay who was the son of a colonel looked at this quiet and unassuming boy who then stood only five foot one and weighed 117 pounds, and mistook Grant’s politeness for weakness. Lindsay disdainfully shoved Grant out of line during a squad drill. Grant asked him to stop. Lindsay did it again—and learned a lot about Ulysses S. Grant when this little plebe knocked him to the ground with one punch.
The incident may not of itself have ensured his acceptance and popularity, but Grant became a member of a secretive group known as the T.I.O., standing for Twelve in One, a dozen classmates who pledged eternal friendship and wore rings bearing a symbol whose significance only they knew. In the evenings, he and his friends sometimes played a card game called Brag. His classmate Daniel Frost, who was destined to become a Confederate general, described him:
His hair was reddish brown and his eyes grey-blue, We all liked him, and he took rank soon as a good mathematician and engineer … He had no bad habits whatever, and was a great favorite, though not a brilliant fellow.
He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, dance. He had no facility in conversation with the ladies, a total absence of elegance, and naturally showed off badly in contrast with the young Southern men, who prided themselves on being finished in the ways of the world.
In one area only, Grant stood first, in the entire corps of cadets: horsemanship. From childhood on, he always had this intuitive relationship with horses. At home, he broke them for their owners, trained them, and rode them masterfully. The villain of the West Point stables was a big, strong sorrel named York, who terrorized any cadet assigned to ride him by rearing in the air and then tumbling backward onto the rider. Grant asked the dismayed riding master for permission to work with York; when that was granted, Grant hit the horse on the top of the head twice with the butt of a pistol and began patiently showing the animal what he expected of him. A candidate for admission to West Point who was walking around the academy described the eventual results of Grant’s long work with York, which he saw when he happened upon the part of the graduating class’s final exercises that took place in the riding hall. After various mounted drills performed for the audience of parents and dignitaries and other guests,
the class, still mounted, was formed in line through the center of the hall. The riding master placed the leaping bar higher than a man’s head and called out “Cadet Grant!” A clean-faced, slender, blue-eyed young fellow, weighing about one hundred and twenty pounds, dashed from the ranks on a powerfully-built chestnut sorrel horse, and galloped down the opposite side of the hall. As he turned at the farther end and came into the stretch at which the bar was placed, the horse increased his pace and measuring his stride for the great leap before him, bounded into the air and cleared the bar, carrying his rider as if man and beast had been welded together. The spectators were breathless.
During Grant’s four years at West Point, some cadets, when they had a free hour, would go to the riding hall just to watch Grant school York and the other horses. In one event, Grant and York cleared a bar placed so high that their performance set an academy record that stood for twenty-five years.
Grant’s roommate in his last year at West Point was Frederick Dent, a cadet from St. Louis. When newly commissioned Lieutenant Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry Regiment stationed at Jefferson Barracks, a few miles south of St. Louis, his friend Dent urged him to call on his family at White Haven, the large nearby farm to which the prosperous Dents annually moved from their winter house in St. Louis to spend much of the rest of the year. White Haven was not one of the great Southern plantations, but it had twelve hundred fertile acres situated on the broad Gravois Creek. In addition to the white-painted main house with its traditional big porches running along both the ground floor and the bedroom floor above it, all covered with honeysuckle and other vines, there were eighteen cabins in which the Dent family’s slaves lived. The Dents’ daughter Emma later described the place:
The farm of White Haven was even prettier than its name, for the pebbly shining Gravois ran through it, and there were beautiful groves growing all over it, and acres upon acres of grassy meadows where the cows used to stand knee-deep in blue grass and clover … The house we lived in stood in the centre of a long sweep of wooded valley and the creek ran through the trees not far below it … Through the grove of locust trees a walk led from a low porch to an old-fashioned stile gate, about fifty yards from the house.
Emma was six years old when Lieutenant Grant came to call at this rural scene on a day when her eighteen-year-old sister Julia was away on a long visit to St. Louis. She described their first meeting: “I was nearing my seventh birthday, that bright spring afternoon in 1843 when, with my four little darky playmates, Henrietta, Sue, Ann, and Jeff, I went out hunting for birds’ nests. They were my slaves as well as my chums, for father had given them to me at birth, and as we were all of about an age, we used to have some good times together. This day, I remember, we were out in front of the turnstile and I had my arms full of birds’ nests and was clutching a tiny unfledged birdling in one hand when a young stranger rode blithely up to the stile.”
In answer to this man on horseback’s “How do you do? Does Mister Dent live here?” Emma was speechless. “I thought him the handsomest person I had ever seen in my life, this strange young man. He was riding a splendid horse, and, oh, he sat it so gracefully! The whole picture of him and his sleek, prancing steed was so good to look upon that I could do nothing but stare at it—so forgetting the poor little thing crying in my hand that I nearly crushed it to death. Of course, I knew he was a soldier from the barracks, because he had on a beautiful blue suit with gold buttons down the front, but he looked too young to be an officer.”
When Emma recovered herself enough to answer “Yes, sir,” after the lieutenant asked for the second time if this was the Dents’ house, this scene ensued:
We children followed him up to the porch, trailing in his wake and close to his feet like a troop of little black-and-tan puppies … At the porch we heard him introduce himself to my father as Lieutenant Grant. Then my mother and sister Nellie came out to meet him … My own contribution to the entertainment of the stranger was one continuous stare up at his face … His cheeks were round and plump and rosy; his hair was fine and brown, very thick and wavy. His eyes were a clear blue, and always full of light. His features were regular, pleasingly molded and attractive, and his figure so slender, well formed, and graceful that it was like that of a young prince to my eye … When he rode up to White Haven that bright day in the spring of 1843 he was pretty as a doll.
Grant came to call several times, always urged to stay for supper by Mrs. Dent, who liked him immediately. Of the slender lieutenant’s quiet political discussions with her husband, she commented, “That young man explains politics so clearly that I can understand the situation perfectly.” Emma and her fifteen-year-old sister Nellie began to regard him as a gift that had somehow been bestowed upon them. Then their vivacious older sister Julia, who had recently turned nineteen, came back from St. Louis. “She was not exactly a beauty,” Emma said, mentioning that one of Julia’s eyes would go out of focus in a condition known as strabismus, “but she was possessed of a lively and pleasing countenance.” Grant suddenly began to ride over from the barracks every other day. “It did not take Nell and myself long to see that we were no longer the attractions at White Haven,” Emma noted. Having grown up on a big farm with three older brothers as well as her three younger sisters, Julia loved the outdoors. “He and she frequently went fishing along the banks of the creek, and many a fine mess of perch I’ve seen them catch together.” Julia’s impression of her new friend Lieutenant Grant was that he was “a darling little lieutenant.”
An excellent rider, Julia had a spirited Kentucky mare. According to Emma, “Lieutenant Grant was one of the best horsemen I ever saw, and he rode a fine blooded animal … Many a sharp race they used to have in the fine mornings before breakfast or through the sunset and twilight after supper.”
White-haired Colonel Dent—a courtesy title by which many men of his station in life were then known in the South, regardless of military experience—could be a peevish man, given to sitting by himself on the porch reading a newspaper and puffing on a long reed-stemmed pipe, but he, like his wife, believed in having many young guests. Grant was encouraged to bring his brother officers with him. There were picnics and dances around the countryside; one of the young officers always included was a handsome giant named James Longstreet, a cousin of Colonel Dent’s who had been known at West Point as Pete.
When Julia’s pet canary died, Grant organized a funeral for the bird. Julia remembered that “he was kind enough to make a little coffin for my canary bird and he painted it yellow. About eight officers attended the funeral of my little pet.”
It seemed not to occur to this young couple that they were falling in love. At a time when Grant was home on leave visiting his family in Ohio, his regiment was ordered to Louisiana to become part of the Army of Observation during the annexation of Texas, in the confrontation that would lead to the Mexican War. An officer friend told Julia that if Grant did not appear at White Haven by the following Saturday, it would mean that he had gone straight on down the Mississippi from Ohio to catch up to his regiment and “would not be at the Barracks again.” Julia later wrote: “Saturday came and no Lieutenant. I felt very restless and, ordering my horse, rode alone towards the Barracks … I halted my horse and waited and listened, but he did not come. The beating of my own heart was the only sound I heard. So I rode slowly and sadly home.”
Grant was in fact hastening toward St. Louis from Ohio, where, on learning that he was about to be sent far from Julia for a long time, he discovered that there was something “serious the matter with me.” When he arrived at Jefferson Barracks, the post was virtually deserted, with his friend Lieutenant Richard Ewell finishing the last of the departed regiment’s paperwork before following the unit down the Mississippi. Ewell readily wrote out a few days’ extension of Grant’s leave, and Grant found a horse and set out for White Haven that evening. Normally the Gravois Creek was shallow, but a placid stream was not what he encountered that night: “On this occasion it had been raining heavily, and when the creek was reached, I found the banks full to overflowing, and the current rapid. I looked at it a moment to consider what to do. One of my superstitions has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished … So I struck into the stream, and in an instant the horse was swimming and I being carried down by the current.” With Grant hanging on to the horse’s mane as the animal swam through the foaming water in the darkness, both horse and man reached the opposite bank. When he arrived at White Haven, drenched and dripping, little sister Emma was right there, and her memory for such matters later enabled her to render this account of that moment:
We all enjoyed heartily the sight of his ridiculous figure with his clothes flopping like wet rags around his limbs, and none laughed more heartily than my sister Julia. Lieutenant Grant took it all good humoredly enough, but there was a sturdy seriousness in his usually twinkling eyes that must have suggested, perhaps, to Julia that he had come on more serious business, for the teasing did not last long. [Older brother] John carried him off to find some dry clothes, and when he returned the usually natty soldier looked scarcely more like himself … John was taller and larger than Grant, and his clothes did not fit the Lieutenant “soonenough.”Of course, this roused more laughter, which the soldier took in the same good part, but those rosy telltale cheeks of his reddened, as usual with him when the inward state of his feelings did not agree with his outward composure.
Grant held his fire until a day soon thereafter when several of the Dents set off to attend a friend’s wedding, with Grant included in the group. He arranged matters so that he and Julia were alone in a buggy, with him at the reins. As they approached a little wooden bridge across the still-turbulent Gravois, which had a torrent of water roaring just beneath the wooden planks, Julia began to worry about the safety of crossing.
I noticed, too, that Lieutenant Grant was very quiet, and that and the high water bothered me … He assured me, in his brief way, that it was perfectly safe, and in my heart I relied upon him. Just as we reached the old bridge I said, “Now, if anything happens, remember I shall cling to you, no matter what you say to the contrary.” He simply said “All right” and we were over the planks in less than a minute. Then his mood changed.
As Julia put it, he used her statement about clinging to him to ask her to cling to him forever. Grant’s only recorded comment on his proposal was, “Before I returned I mustered up the courage to make known, in the most awkward manner imaginable, the discovery I had made on learning that the 4th infantry had been ordered away from Jefferson Barracks … Before separating it was definitely understood that at a convenient time we would join our fortunes, and not let the removal of a regiment trouble us.” Julia told her “Ulys,” as she had taken to calling him, not to ask her father for her hand in marriage just then; she was his, but she did not want an engagement to be announced.
During the next four years, the couple saw each other only once, when he returned from Louisiana on a brief leave before his regiment was sent into the Mexican War. On that visit, he received Colonel Dent’s permission to marry his daughter, despite the colonel’s dislike of what he knew of the conditions that army wives often encountered. From Mexico, Grant sent Julia letters that expressed great longing for her. Telling her of the American victory at Matamoros early in the war, he wrote, “In the thickest of it I thought of Julia. How much I should love to see you.” His short, clear descriptions of the battles in which he fought mentioned little of his own part in them. In fact, young Lieutenant Grant participated in most of the major engagements. At the Battle of Monterrey, as his regiment advanced through city streets in house-to-house fighting, Grant’s commander realized that his men were running out of ammunition. Someone had to ride back through streets swept from one side by enemy fire with the order that more ammunition be brought forward immediately. Believing that whoever tried to carry this message would probably be killed, the colonel asked for a volunteer. Grant swung up on a gray mare named Nellie and put his arm around the horse’s neck and a foot over the hind part of the saddle. Then, hanging down along the side of the horse away from the enemy, he galloped back through the street crossings, which, he said, “I crossed at such a flying rate that generally I was past and under the cover of the next block before the enemy fired.”
Serving at times as regimental quartermaster, a position calling for attention to supplies and transportation at the rear of the fighting, Grant did all that in superior fashion and still repeatedly fought at the front. He was to say, “I never went into a battle willingly or with enthusiasm … was always glad when a battle was over,” but his friend Longstreet saw a different picture: “You could not keep him out of battle … Grant was everywhere on the field. He was always cool, swift, and unhurried … as unconcerned, apparently, as if it were a hail-storm instead of a storm of bullets.” Among the officers in the thick of the fighting was Julia’s brother Fred, Grant’s West Point roommate. At Molino del Rey, Grant came upon Fred, who was in another regiment, minutes after his future brother-in-law was wounded in the thigh by a musket ball. He was soon able to write Julia that Fred would recover quickly.
On the day before General Winfield Scott’s victorious entry into Mexico City, Grant distinguished himself in the attacks made along the aqueduct road leading toward the complex of buildings and defenses on the city’s outskirts known as the Garita [city gate] San Cosme. He repeatedly took different kinds of initiatives. Grant moved forward on his own, actually working his way around an enemy breastworks until he was behind the Mexicans who were firing at the Americans. Returning to the American lines, he asked for volunteers and got twelve men. Grant led them, and an American company he came upon that was just entering the battle, back around to the side of the enemy position, attacked the Mexicans on their unprotected flank, and forced a retreat. When the numerically superior enemy reoccupied the breastworks later in the day, Grant’s Fourth Infantry led the American counterattack that finally won it back: another lieutenant reported that he and Grant were “the first two persons to gain it.”
As if that were not enough for the last afternoon of the war, Grant, scouting on his own again, “found a church off to the south of the road, which looked to me as if the belfry would command the ground back of the Garita San Cosme.” Once again, Grant trusted his instincts: he rounded up an officer in command of a mountain howitzer and its crew, and directed them as they wrestled the small cannon up the steps of the bell tower. When they opened fire on the Mexican soldiers who were behind walls where they thought they could not be seen, “The shots from our little gun dropped in upon the enemy and created great confusion.”
The commander of this wing of the American attack, Brigadier General William Worth, was studying the enemy position through a spyglass. This sudden successful development surprised him as much as it did the Mexicans. He sent his aide Lieutenant John C. Pemberton to bring Grant to him. Telling the gunners to keep up the fire, Grant reluctantly left the bell tower and reported to General Worth, who congratulated him, saying that “every shot was effective.” He ordered Grant to take a captain with another mountain howitzer and its crew back with him, and get it up in the tower to double the fire.
“I could not tell the General,” Grant said of that moment in which he combined military obedience and common sense in the middle of a hard-fought battle, “that there was not room enough in the steeple for another gun, because he probably would have looked upon such a statement as a contradiction from a second lieutenant. I took the captain with me, but did not use his gun.”
By nine the next morning, General Scott entered the center of Mexico City and walked into the National Palace accompanied by a group of his officers. After a last uprising and enemy effort to reenter the city that was quelled within twenty-four hours, the fighting in the Mexican War came to an end. Grant wrote Julia that the highly professional American forces had won “astonishing victories,” but added, “dearly have they paid for it! The loss of officers and men is frightful.” Twenty-one officers of the Fourth Infantry Regiment, many of them guests at the merry picnics and dances held near White Haven, and some who had attended the funeral Grant organized for Julia’s pet canary, had been sent from Jefferson Barracks to Mexico. Seventeen of them died there. In all, 78,718 American soldiers served in the Mexican War; 13,283 died, a higher percentage than in any other conflict in which the United States has been engaged. As for Grant’s view of the war, he later termed it “one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” That was Grant, in essence: he might disagree with his nation’s policy, but he had sworn to carry it out.
So, after varying lengths of time serving in the army of occupation, the men who would have to choose between fighting for the North or South thirteen years later began coming home. There were officers clearly marked for future high command, such as Robert E. Lee, whom Winfield Scott called “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field,” and the two unrelated Johnstons, Joseph E. and Albert Sidney, who would also side with the South. George Gordon Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, and John Sedgwick had gained important experience that they would use in fighting for the Union. Other men received notice: at the climactic moment of the Battle of Chapultepec, Lieutenant George Pickett, the future Confederate general whose division would be slaughtered as part of the doomed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, pulled down the Mexican flag that had been flying over the bravely defended Military College and hoisted an American flag. In the same battle, an artillery lieutenant from Virginia named Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later known as “Stonewall,” managed to advance his cannon so far up Grasshoppers Hill in the face of intense musket fire that his gunners finally left the gun and hid behind some rocks. The tall young warrior with blazing gray eyes strode back and forth as bullets cracked past him, shouting to his crouching men, “There’s no danger! See, I’m not hit!” In the final house-to-house fighting in Mexico City, Lieutenant George B. McClellan, who early in the Civil War would be the Union Army’s general in chief, saw a Mexican kill an American sergeant; grabbing the sergeant’s musket, McClellan killed the Mexican.
The talk in the army right after the Mexican War was that, of the junior officers, the one destined to rise highest was Don Carlos Buell, followed by George H. Thomas and Braxton Bragg. No one mentioned Ulysses S. Grant, although he had not only learned battlefield tactics during the bloody and demanding campaigns, but, fully as important, had mastered his regiment’s complicated problems of supply and transportation.
When at the end of the war Grant returned from Mexico to claim his bride, his face, as Julia’s sister Emma saw it, “was more bronzed from the sun, and he wore his captain’s double-barred shoulder straps with a little more dignity than he had worn the old one[s], perhaps. His shoulders had broadened some, and his body was stouter, and it may be that he had grown a little more reserved in manner.” They were married at the Dents’ house in St. Louis, with Julia’s cousin, Grant’s West Point classmate Lieutenant James Longstreet, acting as best man.
Grant’s parents were not there: simple, spartan folk, they would have felt uncomfortable at this small but elegant wedding; besides that, Grant’s father, Jesse, was opposed to the concept and practice of slavery, and his son was marrying into a family that owned slaves. (Grant seems to have been indifferent to the issue at this stage in his life, and there is no record of letters or discussions on the subject between father and son at just that time.)
Ulysses and Julia spent the beginning of their honeymoon aboard what Julia called “one of those beautiful great steamboats,” going to Ohio so that Julia and his parents could meet. “Our honeymoon was a delight,” Julia recalled. “We had waited four long years for this event and we adjusted to one another like hand to glove.” Julia had never traveled outside the vicinity of St. Louis and had never been on a passenger vessel. “I enjoyed sitting alone with Ulys … He asked me to sing to him, something low and sweet, and I did as he requested. I do not remember any of the passengers on that trip. It was like a dream to me.” Their visit with Grant’s parents was a success: insofar as Jesse and Hannah Grant could be charmed by anyone, Julia succeeded.
After nearly four years of happy married life, during which the young Grants lived at army posts in upstate New York and in Michigan, in the spring of 1852 his Fourth Infantry Regiment was ordered to California. At that time Ulysses and Julia had a two-year-old son, Frederick Dent Grant, and she was due to have another baby in July. The route the Fourth Infantry was to take involved boarding a ship in New York to make the voyage to Panama, and at that time, long before the Panama Canal was built, this had to be followed by an overland trip across the often disease-ridden isthmus to the Pacific, with the final long leg on another ship to San Francisco. Despite their deep desire to stay together, the Grants decided that the risks to Julia and their son and unborn child were too great, and that he must start serving this lengthy tour of duty alone.
On his regiment’s harsh journey to California, Grant’s hard-won knowledge of logistics, developed as a supply officer during the Mexican War, briefly made him an unsung hero. His position as regimental quartermaster gave him the responsibility of drawing up and executing the plans for moving seven hundred soldiers, plus a hundred of their wives and children, across the Isthmus of Panama at a time when there was a cholera epidemic; it killed nearly a third of them. The toll would have been higher had it not been for Grant’s energy and willingness to take the initiative. The army had authorized Grant an allowance of sixteen dollars, per mule, to rent the beasts of burden to carry women, children, equipment, and what had been assumed would be a few sick persons. Finding no mules for rent at that price during a mounting crisis, Grant cast aside the bureaucracy’s rules, hired mules at double the price, and, burying along the way the men, women, and twenty young children who died, got the survivors to Panama City. There the sick were separated and sent to a vessel, anchored well out in the harbor, that Grant leased for a hospital ship. For two weeks, as more died all around him, Grant remained aboard, arranging for food, medicine, and care. A witness to his efforts said that Grant emerged as “a man of iron, so far as endurance went, seldom sleeping … His work was always done, his supplies ample and on hand … He was like a ministering angel to us all.”
During his first few months in California, Grant received none of the letters Julia sent him and felt their separation deeply. When a letter came, in which Julia had traced the outspread hand of their new son, Ulysses, whom he had never seen, Grant proudly showed the drawing to a sergeant at his post and then, as he turned away, began silently shaking, tears in his eyes. The sergeant said of him, “He seemed always to be sad.” After eighteen lonely months, he applied for orders that would take him back east. On February 6, 1854, writing Julia from Fort Humboldt, a remote post 250 miles north of San Francisco, he said, “A mail came in this evening but brought me no news from you nor nothing in reply to my application for orders to go home … The state of suspense I am in is scarcely bearable.” Grant had already begun to drink. One of his fellow officers observed:
He was in the habit of drinking in a peculiar way. He held his little finger just even with the … heavy glass bottom of the tumbler, then lying his three fingers above the little one, filled in whiskey to the top of his first finger and drank it off without mixing water with it. This he would do more or less frequently each day.
Others described him as a man who seldom took alcohol, but went on “sprees” when he did. In any event, his drinking led to the payday when he was drunk while handing out money to the troops. Grant’s colonel offered him the choice of resigning from the army without further explanation, or facing court-martial charges of being drunk while on duty. His West Point classmate Rufus Ingalls described what happened then: “Grant’s friends at the time urged him to stand trial, and were confident of his acquittal; but, actuated by a noble spirit, he said that he would not for the world have his wife know that he had been tried on such a charge. He therefore resigned his commission and returned to civil life.”
As soon as Grant was back with his beloved Julia and their sons, his drinking ceased, despite the struggles to make a living that he experienced in the years before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.
While Ulysses S. Grant sat bored in his father’s harness and leather goods shop in Galena at the age of thirty-eight, as the collision between North and South grew imminent, 750 miles to the south of him another West Pointer who had left the army as a captain, William Tecumseh Sherman, was reaching a dead end in one more of the careers he had tried since resigning from the service a year before Grant did.
The forty-year-old Sherman was failing dramatically, and this brilliant, nervous, ambitious man felt the frustration and insecurity that marked many phases of his life. When he was nine and living in Lancaster, Ohio, his father, a respected judge of the state’s Supreme Court who was honorably paying off a large debt instead of declaring bankruptcy, suddenly died, leaving his wife and eleven children nearly penniless. Relatives and family friends offered to have the older children live with them, and off they went. He was taken into the handsome big house, a hundred yards away, of Thomas and Maria Ewing, a prominent lawyer and his wife who were raising four children and two nieces and a nephew, all of whom had always played with the young Shermans. When Ewing, a self-made man who stood over six feet tall and weighed 260 pounds, walked in with his new foster son, his pretty brown-haired daughter Eleanor, aged five and always called Ellen, somehow understood that she and this red-haired boy from next door were now going to be raised as brother and sister. “I peeped at him with great interest,” she said. Twenty-one years later they would become husband and wife.
Living in his new home, the boy found that Thomas and Maria Ewing treated him as if he were one of their own children, and yet he always had the feeling of being different. His own mother and youngest brothers and sisters remained in his old house just down the hill, and he frequently ate there. Thomas Ewing had no thought of having the youngster change his name from Sherman to Ewing, but his wife, Maria, was a staunch Catholic and insisted that this new member of her family be baptized. Near the beginning of the christening ceremony the priest asked the nervous boy’s first name, and learned that it was Tecumseh, Tecumseh Sherman—a name given him by his late father, who admired the great Indian chief—and nothing else. The priest pointed out the need to add a Christian saint’s name, stated that the day was the Feast of Saint William, and baptized him as William Tecumseh Sherman.
When young Sherman was taken to Mass, the service meant little to him, but he felt other influences strongly. Two years after he entered the family, the Ohio legislature named his foster father to the United States Senate. Thomas and Maria Ewing believed that their children should work hard at school, they expected success in life for themselves and their entire family, and they tried always to be well-informed (when Senator Ewing was in Washington, his letters home, read to all the children, described dinners at the White House with President Andrew Jackson and conversations with Vice President John C. Calhoun).
Besides these influences, life had instilled some fears in young William Tecumseh Sherman. He had a horror of debt—as he saw it, if his father had not died owing so much money, he and his brothers and sisters would all still be living together with their mother. This feeling about debt extended to a dislike of being dependent on others. He also knew that the family from which he sprang had a history of mental disorders: his maternal grandmother and uncle both spent time in what were then called asylums. This produced a conflict: he needed friendship and love but felt that his world might betray him—fathers died, debts were presented, people became sick in all sorts of ways—and that he could rely only on himself. He yearned for the serenity of his early childhood, but those years would not return. Occasionally rebellious, he was untidy, and his mind leapt from one subject to another, but, in a near guarantee of future frustration, he wanted the world to be a predictable, well-behaved place.
As Cump—a nickname derived from Tecumseh—grew into a gangly, beak-nosed, animated youth, a teenager with a high bulging forehead, a pitted complexion, and a shock of coarse red hair, Thomas Ewing began to think about his foster son’s future. A United States senator has the power to make appointments to West Point: at the age of seventeen, Sherman entered the Military Academy, one of 119 plebes. He excelled in his studies, graduating sixth among the forty-two who completed the four years. (He would have been fourth but for a heavy total of demerits for minor offenses that ranged from holding parties in his room after lights-out to chatting in ranks while on parade.)
In Sherman’s last year at the academy, one of the entering plebes was a Cadet Grant, also from Ohio, who was to have his own problems about his name: his real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but the congressman who appointed him mistakenly sent his name in as Ulysses S. Grant, and Grant was told that could not be changed. Whenever anyone thereafter asked what the “S” in his name stood for, Grant answered, “nothing,” but Sherman recalled how Grant came by the nickname Sam.
I remember seeing his name on the bulletin board, where the names of all the newcomers were posted. I ran my eyes down the columns, and saw there “U.S. Grant.” A lot of us began to make up names to fit the initials. One said “United States Grant.” Another “Uncle Sam Grant.” A third said “Sam Grant.” That name stuck to him.
Graduating from West Point in 1840, Sherman was sent to Florida and joined the campaign against the Seminole Indians; despite serving ably and conscientiously, he experienced none of the hit-and-run fighting that defined this guerrilla war. Subsequent postings took him to a fort near Mobile, Alabama, and to Fort Moultrie, at Charleston, South Carolina. His time with the hospitable and charming citizens of Mobile and Charleston, combined with a brief visit to New Orleans, left him with a great affection for the South. Short assignments to places such as Marietta, Georgia, gave his retentive mind the opportunity to study territory that he would one day revisit under circumstances he would then have considered unthinkable.
In 1846, the Mexican War came; 523 graduates of West Point fought in those battles, many distinguishing themselves in ways that influenced future assignments and promotions, but despite his efforts to get into this second war in six years, Sherman was ordered to duty in California. He served there first as a supply officer and later in various assignments as aide to commanding officers, combining this with responsibilities as an adjutant in charge of paperwork. Writing to Ellen Ewing, to whom he was now engaged, he expressed his reaction to the impressive American victories in Mexico: “These brilliant scenes nearly kill us who are far off, and deprived of such precious pieces of military glory.” In a letter he wrote her in 1848 after the war’s end, Sherman added, “I have felt tempted to send my resignation to Washington and I really feel ashamed to wear epaulettes after having passed through a war without smelling gunpowder, but God knows I couldn’t help it so I’ll let things pass.”
In the meantime, a major event occurred in this California that Sherman considered such a backwater, and he was among the first to learn of it. His commanding officer at the army post in Monterey called him into his office, pointed at some glistening stones brought in by two messengers from a Swiss-born California landowner named Sutter, and asked, “What is that?”
Three years after graduating from West Point, Sherman had seen gold in north Georgia; remembering what he could from his mineralogy course at the academy, he tested one stone and found it so malleable that he could hammer it flat. They were looking at large gold nuggets. The California Gold Rush began. Men of every description left their jobs, heading for the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada to hack through rocks and pan streams in hope of making their fortunes: sailors abandoned their ships; farmers threw aside their plows.
Sherman and his commander, accompanied by four soldiers and the commander’s black servant, set off for the American River near Sacramento to find out for the United States government just what was happening. On Weber’s Creek, a branch of the American River, they were shown a small area where two men had mined gold worth seventeen thousand dollars in a week, at a time when even with rising prices a servant could be hired for ten dollars a day. A little nearby ravine had yielded twelve thousand dollars.
When Sherman returned from the freshly discovered goldfields where thousands of men lived in tent cities as they took more gold from the ground every day, he found that soldiers were deserting in the “gold fever” frenzy. (Sherman’s own clerk at headquarters soon vanished.) All this produced yet another of the frustrations that plagued his life: some men were making fortunes in hills just a few days’ ride away, while as an officer he felt duty bound to keep order with a shrinking number of troops, resisting the impulse to ride out and grab his share of the gold being drawn from the earth. As tens of thousands of men poured into California, bringing with them a demand that outstripped the supply of everything from shovels to food, whiskey, and women, prices soared. Sherman, living on an officer’s fixed pay, feared that the inflated prices for everything would make him, ironically, poor amid this explosion of riches.
A few chances to make money did come his way. He and two other officers invested in a store in the gold-mining area of Coloma, and he took a two-month leave during which he was paid as a surveyor in San Francisco and also profitably bought and sold some land in Sacramento. Nonetheless, he always remained aware of the difference between his undistinguished life and that of the Ewings, to whom he felt so indebted. Senator Ewing was now secretary of the interior in the cabinet of President Zachary Taylor, while Sherman was an obscure lieutenant, having had “peculiarly bad luck during the past four years serving in a distant land,” as he put it, missing out on the victorious war that propelled General Zachary Taylor straight from the battlefield to the White House. He was well aware that while he was marking time, his younger brother John Sherman, back in Ohio, had become a successful lawyer and was making significant amounts of money in real estate and the lumber business while planning to enter politics.
Letters from Ellen, often taking six months to reach him, left him worried about her various ailments, which included frequent headaches, boils, and gynecological problems. She made it clear that she looked forward to marrying him but did not look forward to being an army wife. At twenty-six, Ellen knew her mind: she wanted to stay near her parents, with whom she now lived in Washington, and she wanted her husband to become a financially successful civilian. A Catholic as ardent as her mother, she could not understand why her fiance, who had after all been baptized in her faith, virtually never went to Mass. In answer to her troubled inquiries about his religious feelings, he had earlier written her that he believed “firmly in the main doctrines of the Christian Religion, the purity of its morals, the almost absolute necessity for its existence and practice among all well regulated communities to assure peace and good will amongst all.” But, he had added, “I cannot, with due reflection, attribute to minor points of doctrine or form the importance usually attached to them.” It was a cerebral, unsatisfying response to a young woman who believed in the Real Presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist at Mass.
As if confronting these thoughts and problems were not enough for Sherman, who now began to suffer from asthma, his older sister Elizabeth, living in Philadelphia, was married to an alcoholic. When Sherman sent her fifteen hundred dollars of the money he had made in California, her husband promptly lost it in the latest of his schemes for becoming rich, and Sherman had reason to wonder if their children had enough to eat.
In 1850, Sherman’s time in California was up. Happy to be reunited with Ellen in the East, he nonetheless had no illusions as to why certain marks of favor were shown him. Asked to dine with the army’s commander, the legendary General Winfield Scott, Sherman realized that the great leader was less interested in him as a young officer than as the man soon to marry the daughter of Thomas Ewing, whose support Scott needed for the presidential bid he intended to make in two years. (During dinner, Scott, who had been a general since the War of 1812, told Sherman, eleven years before it occurred, that the nation was heading toward “a terrible Civil War.”) Scott was only the first of a galaxy of prominent Americans he soon saw face-to-face. At his wedding to Ellen in Washington on May 1, with Sherman wearing a full dress uniform that included a saber and boots with spurs, the guests at the brilliant social event included President Taylor and his cabinet; Senator Henry Clay, who gave Ellen the silver basket in which she carried her wedding bouquet; Representative Daniel Webster; and the justices of the Supreme Court. (There is no record of Sherman’s mother being at the wedding; he and Ellen did, however, go to Lancaster as part of their long honeymoon and spent a month there. During that period, Sherman signed an agreement with his brother John to support their mother. She also later went to live with a married daughter.)
The first year of his marriage to Ellen set a pattern of almost constant stress for Sherman. Even during their long honeymoon, Ellen’s possessive parents wrote her letters from Washington saying how much they missed her and urged the couple to live near them in Washington when they returned. Even though Ellen referred to him as her “protector,” she and her parents repeatedly asked Sherman to resign from the army, adding what they felt was an inducement: he could manage the saltworks they owned near Lancaster, Ohio, where the Ewings kept the large house they lived in when not in Washington. That proposal would have made him his father-in-law’s employee, and the saltworks became for Sherman a symbol of the Ewings’ desire to keep him in a state of friendly, comfortable captivity.
Sherman resisted. In the autumn, the army ordered him to St. Louis and promoted him to captain with extensive responsibilities as a supply officer, but Ellen, now pregnant with their first child, refused to go. When their baby, a girl, was born in January of 1851, Sherman was on duty in St. Louis while his wife and child were in Washington. Within two months he succeeded in getting them to St. Louis, where Sherman found time apart from his military duties to manage lands near the city that had been acquired by his powerful father-in-law, but the family tensions never ceased. To maintain a household in any style, Sherman had to borrow money from both his father-in-law and his brother John. In September of 1852, the army ordered him to his next post as a supply officer in New Orleans, where he found the city and its people as charming as they had been during his brief visit earlier in his military service, but Ellen, pregnant again, did not accompany him, remaining back in Lancaster for the birth of their second child, another daughter. It was during this pregnancy, with Sherman first in St. Louis and then in New Orleans, and Ellen clearly reluctant to leave her family in Lancaster, that Sherman vented his frustration with his in-laws in a harsh, nearly insulting letter to his brother-in-law Thomas Ewing Jr., who was a lawyer. Referring to the entire situation, he said, “This is too bad and is only due to the immense love you all bear Lancaster. I have good reason to be jealous of a place that virtually robs me of my family and I cannot help feeling sometimes a degree of dislike for the very name of Lancaster … As to her [Ellen] being home next summer when you get there I doubt it exceedingly—I think she has been at Lancaster too much since our marriage, and it is time for her to be weaned.”
Soon after Sherman succeeded in prevailing upon Ellen to bring the two girls and join him in New Orleans, his old friend Henry Turner, a banker in St. Louis who knew of Sherman’s military service in California and his recent commissary experience and management of Thomas Ewing’s lands, offered him the opportunity to manage the branch that his St. Louis bank, Lucas and Turner, would soon open in San Francisco.
Always fretful, Sherman was torn by the possible risks and benefits of this unexpected opportunity. He understood that, initially, Ellen would refuse to come and bring their two daughters to California: sailing around Cape Horn could be hazardous, and, as Ulysses S. Grant’s experience had demonstrated, the other route, which involved crossing the Isthmus of Panama by land, exposed travelers to deadly diseases. Even though Sherman could arrange a six-month leave from the army to try this venture, there was no guarantee of business success in that far-off city that had seen both a gold boom and widespread bankruptcies.
Sherman decided to gamble. As things stood, he and Ellen were constantly at odds about where they should live and whether he should continue his low-paying army career. Her family dominated both their lives. Perhaps he could make a significant success as a banker in California, become his own man, financially independent of the Ewings, and bring Ellen and the children to live there in harmony, far from her parents. If he made a lot of money and Ellen refused to join him, he could at least return east able to support her in style. If he could look ahead, while in California, and see any of that happening, he would willingly resign from the army, but if things did not go well there, he could continue as an officer.
Receiving a six-month leave from the army, Sherman took the job and headed for San Francisco, while Ellen and their two daughters returned to Ohio to live with her parents, who were as thrilled to have them under their roof as she was to be there. The night before Sherman’s ship was to land in San Francisco in April of 1853, the vessel ran aground on a rock. Sherman transferred to a small lumber schooner, which capsized in San Francisco Bay. Coming ashore “covered with sand, and dripping with water,” as he described it, he found a city that had in five years grown from its pre—Gold Rush population of nine hundred to a city of fifty thousand, with some millionaires building mansions while its harbor filled with ships whose sailors drank and whored in the waterfront area known as the Barbary Coast. Within days, Sherman discovered that California had no banking laws: anyone could open an office and start lending money on any terms.
Having sized up the situation in San Francisco as best he could, in July of 1853 Sherman returned east and committed himself to serve as the head of the San Francisco branch of Lucas, Turner & Co. He resigned from the army at the end of his leave in September and, accompanied by Ellen and their year-old younger daughter Lizzie, set out on a five-week trip from New York to California, which involved taking a ship to Nicaragua, crossing to the Pacific by land, and boarding another ship for San Francisco. (Unlike Grant’s regiment, the Sherman party made the land passage without complications.)
For four years, Sherman served as president of Lucas and Turner’s San Francisco branch, battling both the wild swings of California’s economy and the attitudes of Ellen and her possessive parents. Ellen had left their two-year-old daughter Minnie at home with her parents: her diary entries for New Year’s Day 1854 and the following day speak of her having “a cry about Minnie” not being with her. In the spring of 1855, Ellen went home for seven months, leaving with Sherman their daughter Lizzie and an eighteen-month-old son born in San Francisco, Willy, in whom Sherman immediately took a greater interest than he did in his daughters. When Ellen returned from Ohio, she again left their older daughter Minnie with her parents. Despite living in a handsome house and having three and sometimes four servants, Ellen detested the bustling city on the Pacific coast; writing home to her mother, she said of a cabin that belonged to her family in Ohio, “I would rather live [there] than live here in any kind of style.” Sherman stated the other side of the matter. In a letter to his father-in-law, he tried to explain his craving to become a success on his own: “I would rather be at the head of the bank in San Francisco, a position I obtained by my own efforts, than occupy any place open to me in Ohio.”
As for their domestic life, Ellen was constantly unwell, suffering from the headaches and boils that had plagued her for many years, in addition to having colds and some affliction for which she took tincture of opium. Sherman had relentless attacks of asthma, which he at different times thought might be caused by San Francisco’s sea air, or moisture in the walls of their house, or “carbonic acid” being released by nearby trees at night. In the summer of 1854, he wrote his friend and employer Henry Turner, “For the past seven months I have been compelled to sit up, more or less each night, breathing the smoke of nitre paper”—a practice that bothered Ellen—and went on to say that he knew that “the climate will sooner or later kill me dead as a herring.” Through all this, they shared the same bed: a diary entry of Ellen’s in early May of 1854 recorded that “Cump rubbed me with whiskey.” Along with entertaining their friends, mostly old army comrades and their wives now stationed in California, there were quiet evenings at home: “Cump & I sat upstairs in the evening, Cump reading and nodding and I sewing.” At times it may have been livelier than that. Years later, when Sherman wrote Ellen about some good news, he said that on hearing of it, “I have bet you will get tight on the occasion, à la fashion of Green Street California.”
As had been true in Ohio, Washington, and St. Louis, there was always Ellen’s involvement with her Catholic faith. Soon after coming to San Francisco, she began making calls on members of the clergy. Her diary entry for February 11, 1854, said, “sent jellycake to Bishop,” and on March 28, “Archbishop called.” Ellen never gave up on her efforts to bring her husband into the church in which he had been baptized. A diary entry in March says, “Prayed for the conversion,” and leaves it at that. Sherman’s children became used to attending Sunday morning Mass while their father went horseback riding.
Ironically, Sherman was finding that as a businessman in civilian life he was saving no money at all. Keeping up the kind of domestic establishment that was expected of the head of a San Francisco bank, and wanting to provide Ellen with everything that might make her enjoy living in California, he found himself writing his friend and employer Turner that Ellen was extravagant, but she must not learn that he was no more able to save money now than when he had been in the army. Although Ellen never liked San Francisco, she was with her husband the great majority of his time there, gave birth to two sons while there, ran the kind of household expected of a family in their position, and was respected by all who knew her. There were no outward signs of affection between Ellen and her husband, and no lessening of their differences about where to live and how to worship, but whenever he came under any kind of criticism, she was solidly by his side and on his side. Cump and Ellen Sherman might seem an unlikely pair to be married to each other, but it was difficult to imagine either of them being married to anyone else.
Sherman occasionally had reason to wonder about the wisdom of his resignation from the army. One unforeseen event followed another: the failure of the home office of another bank back in St. Louis started a massive run on all the banks in San Francisco. By noon of the day the news swept Montgomery Street, Sherman’s bank had honored withdrawals totaling $337,000, but his adroit management of the crisis enabled him to close his next day’s business with a balance of $117,000, at a moment when seven of the nineteen banks in San Francisco failed. Then a prominent lumberman, financier, and leading citizen known as “Honest Harry” Meiggs suddenly left for Chile, leaving behind debts secured with forged paper totaling close to a million dollars—a huge fraud in an era when Sherman’s bank had been able to open in San Francisco with assets of a quarter of a million. Sherman wrote that he had seen “no symptoms of dishonesty” in Meiggs, but he had kept his relatively modest loans to Meiggs under close review, and his bank was the one least hurt in the scandal.
The problems continued. Now deep in the unpredictable commercial life of the growing city, Sherman maneuvered his bank through situations ranging from a local panic caused by the loss of an inbound ship carrying half a million dollars, to credible reports that California might default on its state bonds. While dealing with these crises, any one of which might ruin all that he tried to accomplish, Sherman was aware of the difference between his tenuous situation and the growing influence of his brother John, who in the fall of 1854 had been elected to Congress as a member of the newly formed Republican Party and was steadily rising in the ranks of the House leadership.
In 1856, at a time of relative calm in the family—Ellen and their three children were with him in San Francisco, and she was pregnant with their fourth child—a situation occurred that tested Sherman’s judgment and character, leaving him feeling defensive and troubled by the result. As an increasingly important citizen and a former army officer, he had reluctantly accepted the nominal role of commander of a division of the state militia, an organization that existed almost entirely on paper. When the editor of one San Francisco newspaper shot and killed another, a Vigilance Committee, sometimes known as the Vigilantes, sprang up and, among other acts, hanged the killer. The committee, soon numbering more than five thousand men, including both riffraff and prominent citizens, became the de facto force of law and order.
Sherman’s duty, as well as his craving for order, required him to restore the authority of the state and city’s elected officials, but Sherman had an equally powerful need to continue the success he was finally having as a banker. He did not want to antagonize the many prominent businessmen who believed that the only way to have a peaceful San Francisco was to enforce the law themselves. Although he worked to enlist militiamen and tried to maneuver behind the scenes for conciliation between the governor and the Vigilance Committee, he avoided an armed confrontation and soon resigned his militia commission. Sherman himself knew all too well that even his limited anti-Vigilance position made him unpopular with many in the business community whose goodwill his bank needed; his resignation stemmed from a combination of expediency and angry frustration that society would not conform to his vision of a wisely self-regulated world.
To this point in his time as a banker, the San Francisco newspapers had favorably mentioned Sherman, and Ellen had started a scrapbook of these clippings. Now the pro-Vigilance press attacked him for not supporting their position, while the governor of California publicly deplored Sherman’s resigning his commission at a time of crisis. If more were needed to upset him, when Sherman was named foreman of a grand jury that indicted San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin for libeling the Sisters of Charity in stories criticizing the way they ran the County Hospital, the Bulletin struck at him by saying that he was motivated by the fact that he was a Catholic. All of this might have rolled off the back of a seasoned politician, but it wounded Sherman, giving him a suspicious dislike of journalists that would work against him at a future day.
Sherman’s San Francisco experiences were taking their toll. His nervous behavior was noted by a man who saw him walking various employees out of the bank on their way to meetings and transactions at other offices.
In giving his instructions, he will take a person by the shoulder and push him off as he talks, following him to the door all the time talking … His quick, restless manner almost invariably results in the confusion of the person whom he is thus instructing, but Sherman himself never gets confused. At the same time he never gets composed.
At times his state of mind was considerably worse than “he never gets composed.” Writing to Turner in St. Louis in early 1856, before the Vigilante crisis and the grand jury matter, Sherman said that he had slept for only three hours during the past twenty-four. In words indicating a fear of unspecified but well-publicized failure, he urged Turner to replace him in San Francisco with someone else. In a subsequent letter he apologized for having been so dramatic about his “depression,” saying that it was due to “the effects of a disease which I cannot control,” presumably asthma, and bad business conditions. Ellen, later writing of some moment during their time together in California, made this reference: “Knowing insanity to be in the family and having seen Cump in [sic] the verge of it once in California …” She never expanded on that, but, whatever Sherman and Ellen were experiencing, they were experiencing it together.
In early 1857, his bank’s home office in St. Louis studied California’s fluctuating economy and recent explosive history, and decided to close its San Francisco branch. It did, however, plan to open a branch in New York City, and offered Sherman the opportunity to be its manager. No sooner did he travel to New York and launch this branch than the Panic of 1857 hit Wall Street in August, immediately staggering the nation’s economy. In October, word came from St. Louis to close the office in New York. Bitter at this end of his ambitions to become a prosperous banker who could be independent of his in-laws, Sherman wrote this to Ellen, who deserved kinder words: “No doubt you are glad to have attained your wish to see me out of the army and out of employment.”
Back in St. Louis in late 1857 for discussions preparatory to making a final trip to San Francisco to untangle and salvage the bank’s assets there, Sherman was walking down the street when he encountered Ulysses S. Grant, who had just moved to the city after his failure as a farmer. The two men had never served together in the army but recognized each other from their days at West Point.
If ever there was a commonplace meeting that nonetheless foreshadowed great events, this was it. Anyone watching the brief conversation between the shorter, brown-haired Grant in his rumpled clothes, who was then thirty-five, and the tall, red-headed, constantly gesturing thirty-seven-year-old Sherman could never have dreamt what lay ahead for them. Within five years the two would be winning immense military victories that preserved the American nation as one country; eleven years after their brief chat, the shabby shorter man would be elected president of the United States. As for what they discussed that day on the street, all Sherman could recall of their talk was that he walked on feeling “that West Point and the regular army were not good schools for farmers [and] bankers.”
On what proved to be Sherman’s final return from San Francisco, Ellen and her parents once again urged him to take on the job of running the family saltworks near Lancaster. He still refused and in effect fled to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Thomas Ewing had set up his sons Thomas Jr. and Hugh Boyle Ewing in a combination of law firm and real estate management business. It was hardly a meaningful act of defiance: Sherman dabbled in a few legal matters, but his primary job there was to manage large tracts of farmland owned by his father-in-law. That entire venture failed; during the winter in Kansas, laboring in the wind and snow as he and some hired hands built storage barns to house corn, he wrote to Ellen, who was pregnant with their fifth child, in despairing terms, using the language of cockfighting, where the birds fought to the death: “I look upon myself as a dead cock in the pit, not worthy of further notice.”
When Sherman came back from his galling struggles in Kansas, through Thomas Ewing’s influence he received an offer to be the manager of an American bank in London. Burnt by his experience with banking, and still wanting to accomplish something on his own in a position that did not come to him because of his father-in-law, Sherman now tried to get back into the United States Army. This proved fruitless: the small peacetime army could not even retain all the junior officers who had stayed in the service since graduating from West Point, and had no way of bringing back in those who had resigned. Out of these efforts to reenter the Regular Army, however, he learned that Louisiana had created a new school to be known as the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, a name that Sherman considered to be awkward and pretentious. Its Board of Supervisors was accepting applications for the job of leading this institution with the title of superintendent.
Sherman applied for the position, was accepted, and on November 12, 1859, two months after the birth of his and Ellen’s fifth child, a daughter, arrived by himself at the school in Alexandria, Louisiana. At that moment the newspapers were filled with stories about the recent seizure of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry led by the fanatical abolitionist John Brown—an abortive raid put down by a company of United States Marines under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army, assisted by an army lieutenant nicknamed “Jeb” Stuart. The bloodshed at Harpers Ferry was small—ten of John Brown’s nineteen followers were killed, including two of his sons, along with five townspeople shot by his men—but its portents were immense. Brown’s purpose had been to seize the weapons at the federal arsenal and distribute them to slaves to use against their owners in an uprising. This threat of a slave revolt was an old nightmare in the South, and Southerners were shocked not only by the raid itself but also by the way many Northern abolitionists hailed Brown, who was tried and hanged for his act, as a martyr in the cause of freedom. Increasing numbers of white Southerners began to feel that the only way to preserve slavery would be to form a separate nation. This would involve seceding from the Union. Millions of Americans outside the South were not particularly incensed about slavery but were prepared to fight, if necessary, to preserve that Union.
Considering that Louisiana’s military academy had hired a Northerner at a time when many in the North and South were taking irreconcilable political positions, things at the school went surprisingly well for nearly a year. As a result of Sherman’s past postings in the South, he liked and admired its people and felt comfortable among them. As for the great issues agitating so many Americans, Sherman regretted that slavery existed but did not want to see war waged to abolish it, and he was content to live among white slaveholders; as for their black slaves, he considered them to be inferior beings and sympathized with Southern fears of a slave uprising. Secession from the Union, on the other hand, offended Sherman’s need for the world to be a logical place. He wrote to Ellen, “I have heard men of good sense say that the union of the states any longer was impossible, and that the South was preparing for a change. If such a change be contemplated and overt acts be attempted of course I will not go with the South.” In a later letter he continued to express his anxiety: “All here talk as if a dissolution of the Union were not only a possibility but a probability of easy execution. If attempted we will have Civil War of the most horrible kind.” As the crisis heightened, with statements of some bellicose Southerners proclaiming that the North had no stomach for a war, and that if it came, one Southern soldier would prove to be equal to two or more Northern men, Sherman argued this to David French Boyd, the seminary’s professor of ancient languages and a Virginian who liked and admired Sherman:
You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people, but an earnest people and will fight too, and they are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. You will fail.
Seven hundred and fifty miles to the north, Ulysses S. Grant had already written a friend, “It is hard to realize that a State or States should commit so suicidal an act as to secede from the Union, though from all the reports, I have no doubt that at least five of them will do it.” What both Sherman and Grant failed to comprehend was the degree of military skill that many of their fellow West Pointers would bring to the Southern cause, as well as the historical heritage that led so many Southerners to see themselves as both right and invincible. By 1860, Southern presidents had led the nation during sixty of its eighty-four years. Of the twenty-nine men who had served on the Supreme Court, eighteen were from the South. More than twice as many presidents pro tem of the Senate, speakers of the House, and attorneys general had been from the South as from the North. In the army and navy, the great majority of the higher ranks had invariably been filled by Southern men and still were. The South believed that its men would prevail, because they always had.
As the national crisis grew, at the seminary in Louisiana, Sherman, the Board of Supervisors, the faculty, and the new cadets all acted as if the only business at hand was that of teaching, studying, and participating in military drills preparing them to engage an unspecified enemy. (At this point, the academy’s muskets were being supplied by the federal government.) Sherman, who was first addressed as Major and later as Colonel, worked hard and effectively. The board and faculty liked him and appreciated his efforts, and the cadets admired and came to be fond of him. His desire to have a success at last kept him from recognizing just how fragile his own position was, no matter how accurately he foresaw the growing crisis and how efficiently he ran the seminary, and reality descended upon him at the end of 1860. Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party had won the presidential election; at just the time Ulysses S. Grant was writing a friend about his job in the family leather goods store in Galena, the nation learned that South Carolina had seceded from the Union. Sherman’s cadets remained quiet, while Sherman, who burst into tears on hearing of South Carolina’s action, wrote a Southern friend, “You are driving me and hundreds of others out of the South, who have cast [our] fortunes here, love your people and want to stay.”
In January of 1861, Louisiana state militia units seized the United States Arsenal at Baton Rouge and sent the captured weapons to be stored at the seminary. Sherman resigned. Even in this hour of hot feeling and impending bloodshed, the board passed two resolutions praising him and thanking him for his services. Men from the governor of Louisiana on down wrote him that they wished he would continue as superintendent. Overtures were made to Sherman, suggesting that high rank awaited him if a separate Southern army came into being, but everyone soon understood and respected his need to go. When Sherman said good-bye to his assembled cadets, all of them clearly sad to see him leave, his emotions overcame him: trying to speak, all he could manage was to point to his heart, say, “You are all in here,” and stride away. (When he later encountered some of these young men as prisoners captured by Union troops he commanded, he did everything in his power to help them, including giving them some of his own clothes; he would write his daughter Minnie that she must remember that he was fighting those “whom I remember as good, kind friends.”) Heading north to Ellen and their four children, even now Sherman hoped for peace.