And so the living echoes of the friendship between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman came to an end. Both of them failures before the war, the two men, alike in some ways and so different in others, discovered their talents and strengths in the crucible of the great national crisis. They formed a partnership in which, often after significant differences of opinion, each resolutely and successfully supported the decisions and movements of the other. Both were formidable leaders, but it was their combined abilities and coordinated campaigns that proved literally irresistible and played such a major part in winning the Civil War.
Sherman’s role appears at first to be the more dramatic and visionary half of the Grant-and-Sherman story. Coming into his own at Shiloh after earlier failure and headlines saying “General William T. Sherman Insane,” his strategic vision not only led to his epic marches through the South but also ushered in a new era of modern warfare in which the destruction of the enemy population’s will to resist can be as important as the defeat of its armies in the field. What is less obvious but exciting to watch is Grant’s movement up the chain of command, proving himself equal to one extraordinary challenge after another. Grant was intuitively aggressive and instinctively tenacious. At Vicksburg, in saving the situation at Chattanooga, and in his risky clandestine change of front against Lee after Cold Harbor, Grant demonstrated that he too could be imaginative and bold. Beyond this, while Sherman had only his own armies to think of, as commander of the entire Union Army Grant proved to be a superb administrator who saw the overall picture of the war with a vision at least as clear as Sherman’s.
What drew the two men together as friends? Each needed a military colleague whom he could admire and trust, and each wanted the other’s warm approval. Grant had the love of Julia but yearned for affection from a flinty father who tried to turn a financial profit from his son’s military position. Sherman had what a later generation would call a “support system”—his wife, Ellen, his brother Senator John Sherman, his prominent father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, who became increasingly appreciative of his achievements as the war progressed—but underneath there was the once-insecure boy whose father had died when he was nine, at which time he and his ten brothers and sisters had been split up among a number of households.
Sherman was right when he said of himself and Grant, “We were as brothers.” They did the things that devoted brothers do: back each other up, help each other out, sacrifice for the other. It was Sherman, standing to gain if Grant resigned from the army, who talked him out of going home when Halleck sidelined him after Shiloh; it was Sherman who told Grant to go ahead and send him into action at Hayne’s Bluff above Vicksburg, a move likely to hurt Sherman’s reputation but one that might help the Vickbsurg campaign as a whole; it was Grant’s steadfast support that led Sherman to say after Vicksburg, “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and that if I got in a tight place you would come if alive.”
Grant worked to ensure that Sherman received his richly deserved promotions. When Sherman’s brilliant victories in the South caused a bill to be introduced in Congress to give him a promotion making him eligible to rise to the supreme command above the beleaguered Grant, he wrote a letter to his senator brother urging that the effort be stopped. As the war came to a close, after Sherman had concluded the surrender agreement with Joseph E. Johnston that some in Washington found so generous as to be the act of a traitor, Grant arrived in North Carolina and swiftly and tactfully rectified a situation that could have ended Sherman’s career at the height of his fame.
Grant thought that Sherman was entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyed his company; when they were together, Grant, usually reserved in manner, relaxed as he did with no other officer. Sherman was often baffled by the depths from which Grant pulled forth his successful military movements, but he came to see that Grant was a master of what he did. Each saw in the other a friendly, trusted partner who quickly grasped the other’s ideas and made it possible to implement them for their mutual benefit and for the success of the cause to which they were dedicated. Each saw a man who wanted victory far more than he wanted promotion or fame; each saw a soldier’s soldier. Whether they were campaigning together, or communicating by letter and telegraph at times when their headquarters were several hundred miles apart, each knew that the other made him more than what he was before they met.