In the weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter, while Grant sat bored in the family leather goods store at Galena, Sherman returned to his family in Ohio after resigning from his leadership of Louisiana’s military academy. He found two letters waiting for him. The first offered him the presidency of the Fifth Street Railroad in St. Louis, a company that ran the city’s horse-drawn trolleys. The second came from his ever-devoted brother, United States Senator John Sherman, urging him to come to Washington as soon as he could. John’s newly elected Republicans had many choice appointive posts to fill, and in Washington Sherman could also investigate the possibility of reentering the army on what might be the eve of war.
Sherman arrived in Washington in a frustrated state. On his recent trip north from Louisiana, passing through Southern areas that were seceding from the Union, he had seen excited preparations for war; in the North, he saw calm street scenes and a population that seemed unaware of the crisis. Sherman did not want war, nor did he wish to rush into a position of military leadership, but he felt that those who believed in the Union should make an accurate assessment of the situation.
On March 8, 1861, two days after Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office and thirty-five days before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Sherman’s brother John steered him into the White House, and he found himself shaking hands with the new president. Introducing him to the lanky, sallow-skinned Lincoln, John Sherman used the rank given him at the southern military school: “Mister President, this is my brother, Colonel Sherman, who is just up from Louisiana. He may give you some information you want.”
To this the affable Lincoln replied, “Ah! How are they getting along down there?”
“They think they are getting along swimmingly,” Sherman answered, eager to convey his sense of urgency to the nation’s new commander in chief. “They are preparing for war.”
“Oh, well!” Lincoln spoke cheerfully. “I guess we’ll manage to keep house.”
A few moments later, possibly in response to some remark that Sherman be considered for reinstatement in the army, Lincoln remarked dismissively that he would not be needing “military men” and indicated that the secession crisis could be solved peacefully.
Emerging from the White House, Sherman turned angrily to his brother. “I was sadly disappointed and I broke out on John damning the politicians generally … adding that the country was sleeping on a volcano that might burst any minute, but that I was going to St. Louis to take care of my family and would have no more of it. John begged me to be patient, but I said I would not, that I had no time to wait; that I was off for St. Louis; and off I went.”
And so it was that, when Fort Sumter was attacked, with Lincoln’s views changing from “I guess we’ll manage to keep house” to what he said the day of Fort Sumter’s surrender—“I shall, to the extent of my ability, repel force by force”—Sherman was in an office in St. Louis running the Fifth Street Railroad’s trolley service, being paid well and swiftly improving its efficiency and profits. While Ulysses S. Grant trained Galena’s company of Jo Daviess Guards, accompanied them to Springfield, Illinois, and began looking for ways of entering military service, Sherman remained in his civilian job, his fourth job in four years. In a letter to his brother John, who with his Ewing in-laws was using every kind of influence on his behalf in Washington, he expressed his desire to make enough money “so as to be independent of any body so I can not be kicked around as heretofore.” He added, with the air of being above the fray, “If the country needs my services, it can ask for them.”
Ellen Sherman, pregnant with their sixth child, began to realize that, no matter what her husband said, he wanted to be back in uniform. Writing to John Sherman, who was becoming impatient with his brother’s sensitivity and entire stance in what was now a time of war, she said, “I am convinced that he will never be satisfied out of the army & I know that you can obtain for him a high position in it.”
As a result of the family’s lobbying on his behalf in Washington, Sherman was offered an important War Department civilian position, which he turned down, but on May 14, 1861, his brother telegraphed him that he had been appointed colonel of one of the newly authorized Regular Army regiments, which was yet to be organized. “Of course I could no longer defer action,” Sherman said of this moment. Arriving in Washington in early June, he was not sent to the still-forming regiment to which he had been assigned but was immediately utilized in the inspection of the capital’s defenses. This task involved reporting daily to the army’s infirm seventy-five-year-old commander, General Winfield Scott, who was well aware of Sherman’s political connections and formed a good opinion of him as one of the badly needed officers who had Regular Army experience.
Sherman was soon given a brigade to command, of units all encamped in the Washington area: the Thirteenth, Sixty-ninth, and Seventy-ninth New York Volunteer Infantry, and the Second Wisconsin, along with a battery of the Regular Army’s Third Artillery. His units totaled thirty-four hundred men, a force roughly four times the size of the Twenty-first Illinois that Grant was leading toward Missouri.
Sherman was later to speak as if these regiments had been good units at the time he took command of them, but when he walked in to take over his brigade on June 30, he encountered the same kind of disdainful reactions that Grant experienced a few weeks earlier when the enlisted men of the Twenty-first Illinois had their first look at him. One soldier remembered a “tall gaunt form in a thread bare blue coat, the sleeves so short as to reveal a bony wrist, the trousers at least four inches shorter than the usual length.” Others recalled that the troubled, prematurely wrinkled face looking out from under a most unmilitary “broad brimmed straw hat”—quite sensible to wear in a Washington summer—had “hollow cheeks,” a bushy untrimmed beard,” and “a pair of piercing eyes.”
The new commander was no more impressed by his men than they were with him, referring to them in his letters as “rabble”; at one point Sherman wrote Ellen that he commanded “volunteers called by courtesy Soldiers, but they are all we have got.” Two weeks after taking command, he received orders from Brigadier General Daniel Tyler to begin moving his green troops from their base on the south bank of the Potomac, marching slowly west into Virginia. The Union Army was about to take the offensive, and Sherman faced the possibility that he might soon be killed. On July 16, about to put his columns in motion, he wrote to Ellen, who had given birth to a baby daughter a few days before, and told her, “Whatever fate befals [sic] me, I know you appreciate what good qualities I possess—and will make charitable allowances for defects, and that under you the children will grow up on the safe side.” Speaking of his two sons, his favorite child Willy, age seven, and four-year-old Tommy, he said, “Tell Willy I have another war sword, which he can add to his present armory … when I come home again … though truly I do not choose for him or Tommy the military profession. It is too full of blind chances to be worthy of a first rank among callings.” Sherman closed this letter to Ellen with, “Goodbye—and believe me always most affectionately yours.” He signed it, as he did all his letters including those to his ten-year-old daughter Minnie, “W. T. Sherman.” Then he led his brigade to a succession of night encampments in the field. “The march,” Sherman recalled, “demonstrated little but the general laxity of discipline.”
The first big movements of the war were now under way. After Fort Sumter fell, the United States Navy had dispatched its ships in an effort to blockade Southern ports, but in the land war, both sides had initially devoted most of their efforts to organizing their armies rather than to attacking each other. (It was during this period that Sherman wrote, “As soon as real war begins, new men, heretofore unheard of, will emerge from obscurity, equal to any occasion.”) Then, after some movements in Missouri that brought most of that state under Union control, McClellan won some minor engagements in western Virginia, feeding the Northern hope for a quick series of bigger victories. The Washington newspapers were clamoring for a large and decisive battle. The slogan “On to Richmond!” expressed a widespread belief that Union forces could thrust aside any opposition and sweep on to capture the Confederate capital, 105 miles to the south. (Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune was both explicit and demanding, with a headline that read “FORWARD TO RICHMOND!” and a subheadline that said of the Confederate Congress scheduled to meet there on July 20, “By That Date the Place Must Be Held by the National Army.”)
At the time Sherman’s brigade, part of a force of thirty-five thousand, made the first of two overnight bivouacs at Centreville, Virginia, seventeen miles west of Washington, they knew that large Confederate units were in that area. But there was something the Union commanders did not know: several days before, a beautiful dark-haired Southern intelligence courier named Bettie Duvall, wearing a smart riding habit and with her long black hair swept up under her hat, had come out of Washington and ridden into Confederate headquarters at Fairfax Court House, a few miles from Centreville. Taking off her hat and loosening her tresses, she pulled out something hidden in her hair: a tiny package wrapped in black silk, containing the Union Army’s plan for its advance into Virginia and the approximate time of the movement. This, and a later more specific message brought by another courier, swiftly reached the headquarters of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard southwest of Centreville at Manassas Junction, an important railroad hub located west of a wide, slow-moving stream called Bull Run. Alerted, Beauregard, who had twenty-two thousand men, telegraphed Jefferson Davis in Richmond, and the Confederate president immediately sent him by railroad a reinforcement of twelve thousand troops led by Joseph E. Johnston, the general whose decision to go with the South so many knowledgeable Union officers regretted. Not only were the Confederates in the area now equal in numbers, but thirteen of the fifteen senior Southern commanders were West Pointers of exceptional ability, including Ulysses S. Grant’s best man and cousin by marriage, James Longstreet, and the gifted cavalry officer Jeb Stuart. Taking the role of principal commander and knowing what to expect, Beauregard deployed his forces on favorable higher ground and awaited the clash.
At dawn on Sunday, July 21, Union forces under General Irvin McDowell, who had no idea the Confederates were there in such strength, began to attack, and the federal troops poured across Bull Run at Sudley Ford. During the morning, both sides committed more regiments to the battle, and by noon the Confederates had set up what proved to be their final line of defense, on a wooded ridge.
It was at this point that Sherman’s brigade crossed Bull Run, some of his men fording the stream while others marched over a stone bridge, and entered the thickly wooded area in which the battle was already raging. At the age of forty-one, twenty-one years after graduating from West Point, Sherman said that “for the first time I saw the Carnage of battle— men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way,” as well as horses “with blood streaming from their nostrils, lying on the ground hitched to [artillery] guns, gnawing their sides in death.” Bullets grazed his shoulder and knee, and his horse was shot through the foreleg, but Sherman kept moving his men forward.
Three hours into his brigade’s part in the battle, with Sherman about to make the mistake of sending his four regiments up Henry Hill one after another, rather than making one massive attack with his entire force, he encountered a Confederate brigade that had come into position opposite them on higher ground and was mowing down his men. Speaking of his troops, Sherman said, “Up to that time all had kept their places, and seemed perfectly cool … but the short exposure to an intense fire of small arms, at close range, had killed many, wounded more, and had produced disorder in all of the battalions that had attempted to encounter it.” His men were now facing the regiments commanded by Thomas Jonathan Jackson, whose performance that day in defense of Henry Hill prompted a general from South Carolina to cry admiringly, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!”—a tribute that gave the commander and his brigade the name by which they were thereafter known.
Sherman described how he became aware of an even bigger problem than the effect being produced by Jackson’s brigade. Referring to the past hours, he said, “After I had put in each of my regiments, and had them driven back … I had no idea that we were beaten, but reformed the regiments in line in their proper order, and only wanted a little rest, when I found that my brigade was almost alone … I then realized that the whole army was ‘in retreat,’ and that my men were individually making back for the stone bridge.”
What Sherman was seeing as a commanding officer was mirrored by the experience of one of his soldiers. Private Alexander Campbell belonged to the Seventy-ninth New York, a regiment known as the Highlanders because its ranks were filled with men born in Scotland, or of Scottish ancestry; this unit had a bagpipe band, and early in the war some of its soldiers wore kilts. Campbell, whose brother James served in the Confederate Army’s First South Carolina Battalion, wrote his wife, Jane, of this same moment of the Union collapse: “We could see our army retreating and the men cutting their horses Loose from the wagons and mo[u]nting there [sic] backs and galloping off as fast as they could … Then we came across a field running across as fast as we could … [Later] we came into centervall [Centreville] and the regiments that was at the fight tried to get themselves together but it was impossable [sic].” After trying vainly to find some of his comrades, “I gave them up for Lost then started with a small party for arlington heights”—all the way back to the Potomac River and Washington.
Sherman’s official report gave more glimpses of what became a chaotic nightlong flight back to Washington, with the carriages of civilian spectators who had come out to see the battle mixed in with horse-drawn ambulances and carts filled with groaning wounded men. The mercurial Sherman, always craving a sense of organization, conveyed his own bewilderment and inability to change the course of events.
There was no positive order to retreat, although for an hour it had been going on by the operation of the men themselves. The ranks were thin and irregular, and we found a stream of people strung … across Bull Run, and far toward Centreville … About nine o’clock that night [at Centreville] I received … the order to continue the retreat to the Potomac. This retreat was by night, and disorderly in the extreme. The men of the different regiments mingled together … reached [the Potomac River, at a point opposite Washington] at noon the next day, and found a miscellaneous crowd crossing over the aqueduct and ferries.
Despite energetic efforts by Sherman and other commanders to keep the men on the battlefield, and then to reorganize them at various places during the nightlong retreat, the first major battle of the Civil War had ended in a rout. At times during the retreat, Sherman himself was separated from his command, and there was a question about his own behavior : the men of the Seventy-ninth later successfully petitioned to be removed from his command because of an alleged incident in which, on the rainy day after the defeat, he had some of the Highlanders ejected from a barn so some horses could be sheltered there. In the wake of this defeat and his own baptism by fire, Sherman, the lover of orderly procedure, poured out his descriptions and feelings in three letters to Ellen, telling her of the “Shameless flight of the armed mob,” and said that he had in the past “seen the confusion of crowds of men at fires and Shipwrecks, but nothing like this. It was as disgraceful as words can portray.”
There was confusion indeed. Leaderless soldiers wandered the streets of Washington, some begging for food, while many saloons were packed with officers getting drunk instead of trying to find and care for their demoralized men. Other soldiers boarded trains north and were never seen again. Sherman later summed up Bull Run in these terms: “Though the North was overwhelmed with mortification and shame, the South had not much really to boast of, for in the three or four hours of fighting their organization was so broken up that they did not and could not follow our army, when it was known to be in a state of disgraceful and causeless flight.”
Back in camp after they finished pouring into the Washington area, some of Sherman’s troops “were so mutinous, at one time, that I had ordered the [Regular Army artillery] battery to unlimber, threatening, if they dared to leave camp without orders, I would fire upon them.” His brigade was soon visited by President Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, whose brother James, the colonel commanding the Seventy-ninth New York, had been killed at Bull Run. During the visit, Lincoln stood in his carriage, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, and spoke to them in a way that Sherman described as “one of the … best, most feeling addresses I ever listened to, referring to our late disaster at Bull Run, the high duties that still devolved on us, and the brighter days yet to come.” The talk steadied and encouraged the shaken young soldiers; as for his own feelings and those of his fellow commanders during these days, Sherman said, “We were all trembling lest we should be held personally accountable for the defeat.”
Still in this troubled mood, Sherman was speaking one evening with several other worried colonels in a large, high-ceilinged room at Arlington House, the Custis family mansion that until a few weeks before had been the home of Robert E. Lee and his family. (Arlington House and its farmland, sitting directly across the Potomac from Washington in Virginia and clearly visible from the Capitol, was one of the first places in Virginia to be occupied by federal troops. Some of the dead from Bull Run were being buried on the extensive Arlington lands, which later became the Arlington National Cemetery.) As the group of colonels talked in this room that was now serving as an adjutant general’s office, important news arrived in a way that Sherman later described.
Some young officer came in with a list of the new brigadiers just announced at the War Department, which embraced the names of Heintzelman, Keyes, Franklin, Andrew Porter, W. T. Sherman, and others, who had been colonels in the battle, and all of whom had shared the common stampede. Of course, we discredited the truth of the list, and Heintzelman broke out with, “By————, it’s all a lie! Every mother’s son of you will be cashiered.” We all felt he was right, but, nevertheless, it was true, and we were all announced in orders as brigadier generals of Volunteers.
Another name on this list was that of an officer serving far to the west who had nothing to do with the Bull Run disaster: Ulysses S. Grant. Ten days after receiving his own promotion, Sherman opened a note from a more senior brigadier general, Robert Anderson, commander of the Union force that had, after surrendering Fort Sumter, been allowed to come north. Early in his army career, Sherman had served under then-Captain Anderson, who found him impressive: when they met now in Washington, Anderson told Sherman that, as Sherman recounted it, he had been “offered the command of the Department of the Cumberland, to embrace Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., and that he wanted … me as his right hand.” This led quickly to a meeting between the two officers and President Lincoln, during which Sherman made a prophetic request. “In this interview with Mr. Lincoln, I explained to him my extreme desire to serve in a subordinate capacity, and in no event to be left in a superior command. He promised this with promptness, making the jocular remark that his chief trouble was to find places for the too many generals who wanted to be at the head of affairs, to command armies, etc.”
Sherman was indeed on his way to Kentucky, but his request to remain as a second in command betrayed a lack of self-confidence. Perhaps under there was still the boy whose father had died when he was nine, the boy sent to a prominent family by whom he had always felt overshadowed, or it could be that the disaster at Bull Run made him wish that there would always be someone higher in command to take the blame if things went wrong.
Arriving in Louisville, Kentucky, Sherman threw himself into the work of assisting Anderson in trying to assemble a new army in a new theater of war. Here he now found more confusion, in a border state of great strategic importance with a population whose loyalties were mixed. There was little fighting, but Sherman struggled with shortages of trained personnel, weapons, and supplies, an ill-organized command structure, no clear picture of when and where additional troops would arrive, and a volatile political situation.
Sherman began to exaggerate things; there were indeed Confederate spies and sympathizers about, but he saw the Kentuckians as “nearly all unfriendly.” Military intelligence was poor on both sides: on the same day that Sherman reported that he had four thousand men to oppose a force led by Simon Bolivar Buckner that he estimated to number fifteen thousand, Buckner was telling his superiors that the six thousand men he actually had could easily be defeated by the thirteen thousand he felt certain were with Sherman. On October 5, Sherman wrote his brother John, “I’m afraid you are too late to save Kentucky. The young active element is all secession, the older stay at homes are for Union & Peace. But they will not take part.” To Ellen he wrote the following day, “I don’t think I ever felt so much desire to hide myself in some obscure place, to pass the time allotted to us on earth, but I know full well that we cannot if we would avoid the storm that threatens us, and perforce must drift on to the end. What that will be God only knows.”
He soon found his deepest fear realized: Anderson, in poor health since his ordeal at Fort Sumter and overwhelmed by the night-and-day task of trying to organize this new Department of the Cumberland, resigned from his command on October 8 and went home. Sherman wrote that Anderson “said he could not stand the mental torture of his command any longer, and that he must go away or it would kill him … I had no alternative but to assume command, though much against the grain, and in direct violation of Mr. Lincoln’s promise to me.”
Already under the strain of constant work, Sherman became increasingly apprehensive about the balance between the unreliable forces at his disposal and the unknown numbers of Confederates opposing him. As he assessed the placement of federal forces along the Union’s east-to-west front from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, a distance of 825 miles, he found that of the 175,000 men defending this line, he had a total of 14,000 to cover approximately a third of that area. He believed himself to be facing 55,000 Confederates.
Going completely out of the chain of command, Sherman, who had earlier written Ellen that he intended “to meddle as little as possible with my superiors, and to give my opinion only when asked for,” sent a telegram to President Lincoln. It said in part, “My own belief is that Confederates will make a more desperate effort [to] join Kentucky [to them] than they have for Missouri. Force now here or expected is entirely inadequate[.] The Kentuckians instead of assisting, call from every quarter for protection against local secessionists.” It closed with the one-word imperative, extraordinary to be coming from a brigadier general to the commander in chief: “Answer.” This produced a response, also out of any normal chain of command, from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, one of Senator John Sherman’s political allies. Chase told him that keeping Kentucky in the Union was indeed crucial, but that Lincoln thought Sherman already had enough troops. Sherman replied, “I am sorry if I offended the President, but it would be better if all saw things as they are, rather than as we would they were.”
As his anxiety mounted, Sherman sent Ellen letters so pessimistic that she wrote back, “Do write me a cheerful letter that I may have it to refer to when the gloomy ones come.” To this, Sherman answered, “How any body can be cheerful now I cant tell … Give my love to all at home and tell Willy that I am very anxious to leave him a name of which he will not be ashamed if the tools are furnished me for the task to which I am assigned.”
On the same October day that Sherman wrote Ellen he feared he might leave his son Willy a shameful legacy, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, now commanding the military district headquartered at Cairo, Illinois, a grimy, bustling port located where the Ohio River entered the Mississippi, issued orders referring to “our Gun Boat Fleet.” These were flat-bottomed paddle-wheeler riverboats, each with two tall side-by-side funnels, that had cannon poking out of their slanted dark armor superstructure; the men called them “mud turtles.” Officers and sailors of the United States Navy manned these ships. The other vessels now at Grant’s disposal, to carry troops and supplies, were the colorful riverboat steamers of the type immortalized by Mark Twain, each also with two funnels, some propelled by one large paddle wheel at the stern, and others with a paddle wheel on each side.
In contrast with Sherman’s recent war experience, which began with the stunning rout at Bull Run and was continuing with what he saw as an impending disaster in Kentucky, Grant was having a varied and productive apprenticeship in command. He had sent his son Fred home to Julia after a week of his comradeship as he led his Twenty-first Illinois west. Rather than being ordered into battle, Grant found himself peacefully encamped with his regiment at different points in northern Missouri, ensuring that the population did not take up arms against the Union. This gave Colonel Grant time to train his regiment. To improve his men’s already good morale, he organized a group of mail wagons to serve his command alone, which increased the speed of communications between his soldiers and their families. At this point, Grant still believed that the war would end within nine months, and that his time as a colonel of Volunteers would be only an episode in his life. In answer to a letter from his father, who asked Grant if he would not be wise to consider staying in the army as a career, he answered, “You ask if I should not like to go into the regular army. I should not.”
During this quiet period, James Crane, chaplain of the Twenty-first, was sitting in a tent reading a newspaper when he came across Grant’s name in a list of newly promoted brigadier generals of Volunteers. Grant said that he had no idea this was coming and commented that it must be “some of Washburne’s work.” So many military matters were intertwined with politics: Lincoln, who never forgot his original power base of Illinois, had granted the Illinois congressional delegation the right to appoint six brigadier generals of Volunteers—two more than he apportioned to any other state. That gave Republican Representative Elihu Washburne, Grant’s congressman, the opportunity to urge his fellow Illinois representatives to include the man he had spotted as an obscure former Regular Army captain. This same list of promotions to brigadier general of Volunteers, all backdated to May 17, contained the name of William T. Sherman, with Sherman being senior to Grant because he graduated from West Point three years before Grant did.
With this promotion, Grant was suddenly given important responsibilities. First he was sent to St. Louis to confer with Major General John Frémont, a most interesting figure who had just been assigned to command the Department of the West—the critical and complicated theater of war that had the Mississippi River at its heart.
Here was yet another case of a politically based military appointment. Frémont (whom Sherman also went to see in his fruitless quest for reinforcements and the formation of a cohesive strategy, concluding that “I could not discover that he was operating on any distinct plan”) was a man of considerable accomplishments and checkered background, but he had no experience commanding large bodies of soldiers. Not a West Pointer, at the age of tweny-five Frémont had been appointed as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Topographical Engineers. In that capacity, sometimes using Kit Carson as a scout, he made the first maps of the Oregon Trail, explored the Sierras, discovered Lake Tahoe, and later gave the name Golden Gate to the entrance to San Francisco’s harbor. His prewar army career had ended in a court-martial for disobedience of orders; the military tribunal handed down a sentence that was remitted by President James K. Polk, but it was an affair that ultimately forced him to resign.
Known to the American public as “the Pathfinder,” in civilian life Frémont had become one of California’s first two senators and was the Republican Party’s first candidate for president, being beaten in 1856 by the Democrats’ Buchanan. Twenty years before the war began, he had married the attractive and ambitious daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri; Frémont’s national reputation, and his alliance with a family of influential Republican politicians, motivated Lincoln to entrust him with the complexities of the Department of the West.
In this first effort that Grant and Sherman made to establish themselves in their new western commands, Grant fared better with Frémont than Sherman did. This was partly because Frémont, who sent his wife to Washington to ask Lincoln for more troops for his own command, was intent on making a name for himself by thrusting down the Mississippi River rather than in diverting much of his strength to help Sherman defend neighboring Kentucky. After an initial Union defeat at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri for which Grant had no responsibility, Frémont ordered Grant to organize an effective defense of Jefferson City.
When Grant did that and no Confederate attack materialized, Frémont then ordered him to go to the Union riverfront headquarters at Cairo, Illinois, and prepare to lead offensive actions from there. In picking Grant over a number of other brigadier generals, Frémont overruled those on his staff who reminded him of Grant’s old reputation for drunkenness, and had only one fault to find: Grant was wearing a civilian suit, possibly the one he had worn most of the past year. Frémont told his chosen general to get into uniform. Chaplain Crane described how Grant obeyed that order: “He usually wore a plain blue [enlisted man’s] blouse coat, and an ordinary black felt hat, and never had about him a single mark to distinguish his rank.” (In fact, Grant sometimes wore pinned-on shoulder straps that had emblems of rank.)
The port where Grant had his headquarters in a hotel that the correspondent of the London Times found “almost untenable by reason of heat and flies” was on a strategically located south-pointing peninsula. To its west, the Mississippi moved downstream from St. Louis. To its east, the Ohio River ran down from Cincinnati, passing Kentucky’s riverfront cities of Louisville and Paducah, and joined the Mississippi at Cairo. Back up the Ohio River near Paducah were the entrances to the Tennessee River and the Cumberland, both of which flowed north from hilly country to empty into the Ohio, resulting in a situation in which an advance into the South along those rivers had to be made by going upstream. (The war had turned Cairo into a rip-roaring Western town: in his General Orders No. 5, issued within a week of taking up his headquarters there, Grant deplored what he found: “It is with regret that the Genl Comdg sees and learns that the closest intimacy exists between many of the officers and soldiers of his command; that they visit together the lowest drinking and dancing saloons; quarrel, curse, drink and carouse generally on the lowest level of equality … Discipline cannot be maintained where the officers do not command respect and such conduct cannot insure it.”)
Taking the military initiative under the authority given him by Frémont, Grant first quickly and bloodlessly seized Paducah, located thirty-two miles to the east of him at the point where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio. Occupying the city on the morning of September 6, he issued a proclamation to its citizens in which he said, “I have nothing to do with opinions. I shall deal only with armed rebellion and its aiders and abbetors [sic] … The strong arm of the Government is here to protect its friends, and to punish only its enemies.” (Grant’s entrance into Kentucky ended the state’s attempt at neutrality and brought war to the commonwealth.) Leaving a subordinate commander and two regiments to occupy Paducah, Grant was back in Cairo by late afternoon, ready to concentrate on the many matters involved in preparing to take the war into Confederate territory down the Mississippi.
This daily work of gathering forces and planning for an offensive brought Grant into several activities new to him. In his headquarters beside the Mississippi, he had daily contact with the officers of the United States Navy who commanded the “mud turtle” gunboats, and he also conferred with the captains of the paddle-wheeler riverboats that would be needed as transports and cargo vessels to support landings, crossings, and other movements along the shores of the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers. Vessels carrying supplies for the Confederacy also plied these rivers, at some distance from Cairo, and on September 9 he reported the capture of three Confederate “Steamers … prizes just brought into this port by Gun Boat … The [civilian] officers and crew will be detained as prisoners until instructions are received from St. Louis what disposition to make of them.”
In another aspect of his varied responsibilities, Grant became involved with intelligence activities: he acted on information received from a former Russian army officer who was a spy in the Confederate stronghold of Memphis, and read telegrams from Frémont that were sent from St. Louis in Hungarian and translated back into English at Grant’s headquarters, on the assumption that even if the messages were intercepted the Confederates had no one who could read them. Twice in one week in September, Grant had to ask Frémont for money “required here to pay for secret services.”
Despite his growing importance and the constant demands on his time, Grant thought frequently of home. The closing passage in one of his letters to Julia echoed Sherman’s concern for what the world might think of his performance in the campaign to come.
Remember me to all in Galena. Kiss the children for me and a hundred for yourself. You should be cheerful and try to encourage me. I have a task before me of no trifling moment and want all the encouragement possible. Remember that my success will depend a greatdeel [sic] upon myself and that the safety of the country, to some extent, and my reputation and that of our children greatly depends upon my acts.
Interestingly enough, the sequence of events that would soon draw Grant and Sherman together was caused in good part by ethical questions concerning General Frémont. When Sherman went to St. Louis in his vain effort to strengthen his shaky new Department of the Cumberland and bring it into concerted action with Frémont’s Department of the West, he found the famous Californian surrounded by several San Francisco businessmen Sherman remembered from his days there as a banker. The man who ushered him in to see Frémont was a recently commissioned major Frémont had brought onto his staff: Isaiah C. Woods, who had been head of the San Francisco branch of the St. Louis bank whose failure had started the run on the other eighteen banks in the city, hurting all of them and causing six to collapse. Of Frémont’s making Woods his commissary of subsistence, Sherman wrote Ellen that “Woods should not be appointed to an office of Trust, when money is to be handled.” The next man he saw was another San Francisco banker, Joseph Palmer, a major contributor to Frémont’s political campaigns whose fraudulent handling of state and federal funds entrusted to him caused his bank to close its doors for good. Another of Frémont’s advisers was Abia A. Selover, an investor in mines and real estate owned by Frémont. At the hotel where Sherman stayed, he saw “old Baron Steinberger, a prince among our early California adventurers … His presence in St. Louis recalled the maxim, ‘Where the vultures are, there is a carcass close by.’” Rounding out the picture was a Mormon from California named Beard, who had been awarded the contract for building a line of fortifications around the city. Sherman did not say that Frémont was involved in conflicts of interest but only that he “had drawn to St. Louis some of the most enterprising men in California.”
News of what Sherman and others had seen and suspected reached Washington. Frémont had failed to achieve the military success Lincoln expected, and he had also issued an unauthorized political proclamation harmful to Lincoln’s efforts to win over the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. In it Frémont announced the confiscation of all “real and personal” property owned by Confederate sympathizers in Missouri, language that included the concept that slaves could be taken from their owners—something Lincoln intended to accomplish in time but not an idea he wished at the moment to force upon slaveholders who might remain neutral. Now came these reports of possible corrupt dealings involving public funds. Secretary of War Simon Cameron set out for St. Louis to investigate, accompanied by Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the army.
On their return east, talking freely of the military disappointments, political ineptitude, and unresolved questions of disbursement that soon caused Frémont to be relieved of command, they met with Sherman in his rooms at the Galt House hotel in Louisville. Had it not been for Frémont’s deficient performance and rumors of a version of the spoils system, the secretary of war would not have been within five hundred miles of Louisville, and Sherman would not have had the opportunity to see him face-to-face. (Cameron had lost his brother James, colonel of the Seventy-ninth New York, the Highlanders, when that officer was killed while under Sherman’s command at Bull Run, and Cameron also had approved the Highlanders’ request to be removed from Sherman’s command after the alleged incident in which Sherman had some men of that regiment ejected from the shelter of a barn during the Bull Run retreat so some horses could be stabled there.)
By the time of this meeting, Sherman, not outnumbered but thinking he was, had become so worried about the situation in his large area of operations that he could be found pacing the corridors of the hotel at all hours, smoking eight to ten cigars a night, and waiting for dispatches at the telegraph office at three a.m. He drank too much; his hands sometimes shook. Sherman’s experiences with the press in San Francisco had given him a permanent hostile mistrust of reporters, and he banned them from his headquarters. When journalists found the opportunity to ask him questions, he replied with a snarl, and on one occasion had a reporter jailed for disobeying his order that the man stay out of military camps. (When Sherman heard that the Confederates had shot two Northern reporters they considered to be spies, he expressed his pleasure, and said, “Now we’ll have news from Hell by noon.”)
As Cameron and General Thomas entered Sherman’s rooms on October 17, they were accompanied by six or seven reporters, some from local papers and some from the East who were traveling with the secretary of war. After the hotel manager sent in what Sherman described “as a good lunch and something to drink,” Cameron, who had arrived feeling sick, lay on Sherman’s bed and said, “Now, General Sherman, tell us of your troubles.” When Sherman remarked that he felt uneasy discussing military matters “with so many strangers present,” Cameron answered expansively, “They are all friends, all members of my family, and you may speak your mind freely and without restraint.”
Sherman stepped to the door, locked it, and started talking. He described the Union defenses in that part of Kentucky as being so weak that if Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston chose to do so, “He could march to Louisville any day.”
As Sherman described that moment, “Cameron exclaimed, ‘You astonish me! Our informants, the Kentucky Senators and members of Congress, claim that they have in Kentucky plenty of men, and all they want are arms and money.’”
Sherman pressed on, describing the situation in the darkest terms. Holding up a large map of the United States,
I argued that, for the purpose of defense, we should have sixty thousand men at once, and for offense, should need two hundred thousand, before we were done. Mr. Cameron, who still lay on the bed, threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Great God! Where are they to come from?” I asserted that there were plenty of men at the North, ready and willing to come, if he would only accept their services … We discussed these matters fully, in the most friendly spirit, and I thought I had aroused Mr. Cameron to a realization of the great war that was before us, and was in fact upon us. I heard him tell General Thomas to make a note of our conversation, that he might attend to my requests on reaching Washington. We all spent the evening together agreeably in conversation.
That is the way it seemed to Sherman. Although Cameron sent telegrams from Louisville ordering that additional forces be sent to reinforce Sherman, on his way back to Washington Cameron told reporters at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that Sherman was “absolutely crazy.” Thomas soon wrote a report of the meeting at the Galt House, something that was supposed to be a confidential War Department memorandum. On October 30, the New York Tribune, one of whose reporters had been at the Galt House meeting and had since been given an unauthorized look at Thomas’s report, published an article that made no distinction between Sherman’s estimate that he needed sixty thousand men for defense but that it would take two hundred thousand to mount and sustain a successful long-range offensive. The piece said only that when Cameron asked him how many men he had to have, Sherman “promptly replied 200,000.”
Sherman saw the handwriting on the wall. Still hoping to salvage his disintegrating reputation, on November 1 he wrote Ellen that he was “riding a whirlwind unable to guide the Storm,” and added, “God knows that I think of you and our dear Children all the time, and that I would that we might hide ourselves in some quiet corner of the world.” He told her that “the idea of going down to History with a fame such as threatens me nearly makes me crazy, indeed I may be so now.” Two days later he received a telegram sent from Washington by General George McClellan, who had just succeeded the aged and retiring Winfield Scott as general in chief of the United States Army, asking him to set forth the exact situation in Kentucky.
Sherman stuck to his assessment but saw the end coming for him as commander of the Department of the Cumberland. In a flurry of communications, he requested that McClellan relieve him of command, but his ordeal was not over. On November 5, McClellan sent him a letter saying that the highly regarded Don Carlos Buell would relieve him, but the letter took time to arrive, as would Buell. The following day, when Ulysses S. Grant was embarking three thousand soldiers aboard ships for his first battle of the war, an attack on the Confederate positions twenty miles south of Cairo at the riverfront town of Belmont, Missouri, McClellan sent Sherman a telegram asking for daily reports on all military affairs in Kentucky. While waiting for Sherman’s replacement to arrive, the Union Army’s commander was placing Sherman under close and mistrustful scrutiny. McClellan even quietly sent to Louisville Colonel Thomas M. Key of his staff, with instructions to observe Sherman’s behavior; after some days, Key reported that Sherman was close to a nervous breakdown. In Washington, rumors about Sherman grew: at one point Assistant Secretary of War Thomas W. Scott was heard to remark, “Sherman’s gone in the head, he’s looney.”
At the same time that Sherman’s position was dramatically deteriorating, there was a shift in army commanders that would affect Sherman and also reflected the political battles Lincoln faced. In St. Louis, Frémont was relieved of command and would be sent to the soon-to-be-created Mountain Department, consisting mostly of what had been the Department of Western Virginia. (During the war, the Union Army frequently reorganized its geographical departments and renamed armies operating in various areas.) Frémont’s transfer, in effect a demotion, was caused in part by his military ineptitude as well as the suspicions of corruption that Secretary of War Cameron had been sent out to investigate, but it was also an early example of the never-resolved tensions between Lincoln and the Radical faction of the Republicans in Congress. Both Lincoln and the Radicals shared the war aim of restoring the Union, but the Radical Republicans wanted the earliest possible end to slavery everywhere, while Lincoln continued to defer the emancipation issue in the interest of trying to keep the slaveholding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri in the Union. When Lincoln had rescinded Frémont’s declaration that the slaves of Missouri were free, the Radicals were enraged, and now Lincoln added to their anger by this downgrading of one of their favorite generals.
The man taking Frémont’s place and now commanding both Sherman and Grant was Henry Wager Halleck, a pop-eyed, gray-haired, portly forty-six-year-old, who before starting West Point earned a Phi Beta Kapa key at Union College. A scholar who continued his reading and writing while in the army, at the age of thirty-one he had published an important military textbook, Elements of Military Art and Science. He resigned from the army with the rank of captain, doing it in the same year that Grant did, and became a lawyer whose books on international law and land-title issues were widely praised. In San Francisco he served as a railway president and director of a quicksilver mine. The recently retired Winfield Scott had brought this capable administrator back into the army at the beginning of the war, giving him a Regular Army commission as a major general. What remained to be seen was how Halleck, a greatly ambitious man who was no stranger to intrigue and whose Regular Army commission made him one of the most senior Union officers, would handle Grant, Sherman, and the other generals in the Mississippi River theater of operations he now commanded.
On November 8, back in Lancaster, Ohio, Ellen Sherman opened a telegram from Louisville for her prominent father, who was in Washington. It was from Sherman’s aide, Captain Frederick Prime, and said: “Send Mrs. Sherman and youngest boy down to relieve General Sherman’s [sic] and myself from the pressure of business—no occasion for alarm.” Ellen, always aware of the history of mental instability in her husband’s family, immediately made the fourteen-hour trip by railroad to Louisville, taking along her older brother Philemon, a lawyer, and both boys, Willy and Tommy. When they arrived at three in the morning, Philemon said, they came upon Sherman “in a great, barnlike room with blazing lights, with a lounge at one end, on which he tried from time to time to catch snatches of sleep, and messengers rushing in at all hours bringing details of disaster or threat.”
The next day Ellen wrote Sherman’s brother John an agonized letter: “Knowing insanity to be in the family and having seen Cump in [sic] the verge of it once in California, I assure you I was tortured by fears, which have been only in part relieved since I got here … I have not been here long enough to judge well his state of mind. He wrote me that he felt almost crazy, and I find that he has had little or no sleep for some time.” She added that he had been eating almost nothing, and that his officers, worried about him, had told her that “he thinks the whole country is gone irrevocably & ruin and desolation are at hand.” The immensely loyal John Sherman immediately rushed to see his brother in Louisville. Within five days, Sherman’s replacement, General Buell, arrived, and John and Ellen felt that they could return to Lancaster, leaving her somewhat calmer husband to continue his military duties.
After a few days spent showing Buell around, days during which Buell telegraphed McClellan that he saw no reason to expect a significant Confederate move on that front, Sherman received orders to report to Halleck in St. Louis. When they had served together in the army in California during the time of the Mexican War, a dispute had arisen between them about the proper placement of some coast artillery positions, and they had deliberately not spoken to each other for years, including the later period when they had both been businessmen in San Francisco. Halleck greeted Sherman in a friendly way, but intended to give him only a perfunctory task that would greatly reduce the pressures he had been feeling. Halleck sent him to inspect regiments placed in quiet areas to the west, but made the mistake of authorizing Sherman to take actual command of those regiments if he felt it necessary.
At Sedalia, Missouri, Sherman decided that General John Pope, the commander of the units he was inspecting, had his forces spread so wide that Confederate General Sterling Price, who was not in fact advancing, could fall upon and destroy them. That was a future possibility, but when Sherman assumed command and started ordering Pope’s regimental commanders to consolidate their positions, Pope fired off a strong protest to Halleck, who sent his department’s medical director out to judge Sherman’s condition. The doctor reported that Sherman was in a state “of such nervousness that he was unfit for command.” Halleck telegraphed Sherman to make no further movements of troops. At the same time, Ellen Sherman arrived in St. Louis, alone and terribly worried. She was now also concerned about the effect on her husband of additional newspaper reports criticizing him. Ellen went to consult Halleck, who had his adjutant send Sherman a message that his wife was at headquarters, and added that “General Halleck is satisfied, from reports of scouts received [in St. Louis] that no attack on Sedalia is intended. You will therefore return to this city, and report your observations on the condition of the troops you have examined.”
When Sherman saw Ellen in St. Louis and learned that she intended to take him home for a rest, he at first resisted the idea, but when Halleck told him to take a twenty-day leave, Sherman recognized that a gently worded order had just been issued. As soon as Halleck saw Sherman off with the comforting observation to Ellen that a good workhorse needed an occasional rest in the barn, he expressed his real views in a message to McClellan in Washington. Halleck told the general in chief that officers in Sedalia had sent him word that Sherman was “completely ‘stampeded,’ and was ‘stampeding’ the entire army … I am satisfied that General S’s physical and mental condition is so completely broken by labor and care as to render him for the present entirely unfit for duty. Perhaps a few weeks’ rest will restore him … in his present condition it would be dangerous to give him a command here.” To his wife, Halleck wrote that Sherman had without doubt “acted insane.”
At the time Sherman returned home with Ellen to Lancaster, in a state of near collapse, the public was still hearing much of Grant’s recent November 7 attack on Belmont, twenty miles down the Mississippi River from the headquarters at Cairo. Hailed in the Northern press as a victory, this attack was actually much less than that. Grant had no authority to bring on this battle, but this was not the Grant who sat indifferently in his family’s leather goods store the year before. Weeks earlier, he had written Julia that “I would like to have the honor of commanding the Army that makes the advance down the river, but unless I am able to do it soon cannot expect it. There are too many Generals who rank me that have commands inferior to mine for me to retain it.” In short, despite Frémont’s confidence in him, some other general senior to Grant might appear, entitled to lead the big offensive. Even the soon-to-be-relieved Frémont, who had suffered the unexpected loss of Lexington, Missouri, 180 miles west of St. Louis on the Missouri River, now wanted Grant to delay any thrust down the Mississippi until he recaptured that strategic mercantile center. The moment Grant heard of Frémont’s being relieved of command, he decided not to wait for any successor to Frémont to appear and, without orders to do so, launched his attack on the Confederate positions at Belmont.
At first things went smoothly. While a Union column made a large demonstration on the eastern side of the river, advancing against the Confederate general Leonidas K. Polk, Grant, after keeping a force of three thousand men hidden aboard ships overnight near Belmont on the western bank, poured his troops ashore and smashed through the Confederate ranks that quickly assembled to oppose him.
Grant, who had a horse shot from under him early in the bloody fighting, described his men’s performance in the initial Union assault, which forced the Confederates to retreat through their camp and hide out of sight along the steep riverbank, demoralized and ready to surrender: “Veterans could not have behaved better than they did up to the moment of reaching the rebel camp … The moment the camp was reached our men laid down their arms and commenced rummaging the tents to pick up trophies. Some of the higher officers were little better than the privates. They galloped about from one cluster of men to another and at every halt delivered a short eulogy upon the Union cause and the achievements of the command.” Even this account did not capture the festival atmosphere. Amid the looting of the enemy camp, the Stars and Stripes was raised on the enemy flagstaff, and at its base Union regimental bands played patriotic airs while soldiers cheered.
The Confederates, still out of sight along the riverbank and ready to surrender a short time before, now counterattacked and surrounded Grant’s men. “The alarm ‘surrounded’ was given. The guns of the enemy and the report of being surrounded, brought the officers and men completely under control. At first some of the officers seemed to think that to be surrounded was to be placed in a helpless position, where there was nothing to do but surrender. But when I announced that we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well, it seemed a new revelation to officers and soldiers. They formed line rapidly and we started back to our boats.”
The next half hour nearly ended Grant’s participation in the war. With most of his men back on their ships after a retreat in which a thousand Union muskets were lost or thrown aside, Grant rode around near the shore to see that no one was left behind. At one point, coming through a cornfield, “I saw a body of troops marching past me not fifty yards away. I looked at them for a moment and then turned my horse toward the river and started back, first in a walk, and when I thought myself concealed from the enemy, as fast as my horse would carry me.” The nearest Confederates had neither seen nor heard Grant, but from a different vantage point the Confederate general Polk, having crossed the river with reinforcements, spotted this lone Union officer. Polk said to his men, “There is a Yankee; you may try your marksmanship on him,” but no one did.
Grant’s problems did not end with that; reaching the steep riverbank, well above the water’s edge, he found that every man of his expedition had hastily embarked, and the vessels had all cast off from the shore. “I was the only man of the National army between the rebels and our transports. The captain of a boat that had just pushed out recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine; he then had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation … [He] put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted aboard the boat twelve or fifteen feet away, over a single gang plank.” Grant dismounted on the boat’s deck and went into a cabin where he found a sofa. Lying down for a minute’s rest, he then rose to go back out on deck. As he stepped away from the sofa, a Confederate musket ball came through the cabin wall and shattered the wooden frame of the sofa at the place where his head had just been.
On the way back up the river to Cairo, Grant sat by himself, clearly wishing to be left alone. He later admitted to his departmental surgeon that at one point in the battle he lost control of his forces, and he already knew he had not won the Union victory so many wanted. If he had, his men would not have been steaming back up the river but would have remained in possession of the positions they attacked. The Union losses proved to be 607 killed, wounded, or captured; the Confederate loss was 642. As soon as Grant reached his headquarters, he began sending off reports that made this large-scale raid sound better than it was and estimated that “the enemies [sic] loss must have been two or three times as great as ours.” Then and later, he tried to clothe his attack as having been part of a larger strategic plan to forestall a Confederate advance; no one reading these first reports could have discerned that Grant acted entirely on his own. The following day, in his General Orders, Grant referred to himself and the battle in these words: “The General Comdg. this Military District, returns his thanks to the troops under his command … It has been his fortune, to have been in all the Battles fought in Mexico, by Genls. Scott and Taylor, save Buena Vista, and never saw one more hotly contested, or where troops behaved with more gallantry.”
Starved for a victory, the Northern press decided that one had occurred. The New York Herald called the action at Belmont a success “as clear as ever warriors gained,” and The New York Times said that “the success of the brilliant movement is due to Gen. Grant.” In fact, the good news for the North was not the mixed results at Belmont. The first part of the good news was that the Union Army had a general who was eager to attack the enemy. The Battle of Belmont was the foundation of Grant’s reputation for taking the war to the enemy, but it also demonstrated something subtler but equally important. Grant never escaped his image as a bluff soldier who smashed ahead when he could, but in him the Union had a man of the West, a man who had spent years near the Mississippi and viscerally understood the strategic importance of that river and its tributaries. In addition to that, while Grant was a general and not an admiral, he saw that he could work with warships and transport vessels to use a mighty river as part of a battlefield.
In Lancaster, Sherman’s health and spirits began to improve during his twenty-day leave, but the press was not yet through with him. On December 9, The New York Times spoke of him as a general “whose disorders have removed him, perhaps permanently, from his command.” The impact of this on Sherman, Ellen said in a letter she quickly wrote to his brother John, was that “it seemed to affect him more than anything that has hitherto appeared.” Once again, Senator John Sherman went to work on behalf of his brother, this time having a long conversation with President Lincoln at the White House. Gently, Lincoln went through a recitation of facts, including, as John told Ellen, Lincoln’s statement that “then came telegraphic dispatches from Cump that were unaccountable.” John wrote that he himself was “well convinced that Cump made serious mistakes in Ky … . It is idle for him—for you or any of his friends to overlook the fact that his own fancies create enemies & difficulties where none exist.” As for Lincoln’s view of Sherman, John said that “the President evinced the kindest feelings for him & suggested that he come here on a visit,” to which John had replied that Sherman was coming to the end of his leave back in Ohio and would be returning to Halleck’s command in St. Louis.
Two days after the piece in The New York Times that so upset Sherman, the Cincinnati Commercial came out with an article on Sherman’s time in Kentucky:
GENERAL WILLIAM T. SHERMAN INSANE
The painful intelligence reaches us, in such form that we are not at liberty to disclose it, that General William T. Sherman, late commander of the Department of the Cumberland, is insane. It appears that he was at the time while he was commanding in Kentucky, stark mad … He has of course been relieved altogether from command. The harsh criticisms that have been lavished on this gentleman, provoked by his strange conduct, will now give way to feelings of deepest sympathy for him in his great calamity. 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 vast responsibility of the command of Kentucky.
This eclipsed all that came before. From Lancaster, Ellen wrote John:
Nature will paint to your mind & heart what I felt when Tommy came in to us just now to say that a boy had told him that it was published in the paper that “Papa was Crazy.”
I cannot persuade Cump to go to Washington. He is feeling terribly about this matter. If there were no kind of hereditary insanity in your family & if his feelings were not already in a marked state I would feel less concern about him but as it is I cannot bear to have him go back to St. Louis haunted by the spectre, dreading the effects of it in any apparent insubordination of officers and men.
The day after the Commercial story appeared, Sherman poured out his heart in a letter to his father-in-law and stepfather Thomas Ewing, who was on one of his frequent trips to Washington as one of the nation’s most prominent lawyers. Sherman always felt both a great sense of obligation to the family who had taken him in when his father had died when he was nine, and a desire to impress Thomas Ewing in particular with whatever he could achieve. “Sir,” he began, “Among the keenest feelings of my life is that arising from a consciousness that you will be mortified beyond measure at the disgrace which has befallen me—by the announcement in the Cincinnati Commercial that I am insane.” Then followed twenty-five hundred words justifying his actions and pessimistic views of the war.
As Sherman headed back to St. Louis by himself to report for duty and face whatever awaited him there, other newspaper reports around the country started to echo the Cincinnati story. Ellen began to defend him like a tigress. She sent her lawyer brother Philemon, who thought that Sherman was “distressed almost to death,” to Cincinnati to demand a retraction, possibly with the threat of a lawsuit. The Commercial published Philemon’s point-by-point denials and corrections of much that its article said, but the Ewing-Sherman counterattack was just getting under way. As Sherman began his new assignment in St. Louis—Halleck assigned him to train the thousands of recruits at nearby Benton Barracks, where he could keep an eye on him while Sherman served in a position in which he was not engaging the enemy—he received a letter from Ellen. It began, “I feel desolate in my room now, without you, dearest Cump,” and was followed by one in which she laid out the reasons for a lawsuit against the Commercial: Ellen felt the family would win; the attendant publicity would frighten off other newspapers from writing similar stories; a successful verdict would clear his name with readers throughout the nation. In a letter she wrote three days later, Ellen emphasized that both her father and Sherman’s senator brother agreed on the course to be taken. “So now my dearest Cump, as Father so strongly recommends a suit & John concurs with him in judgment you will not refuse it when you know it to be my most earnest wish. Not because I feel so vindictive against the miserable Editors but because I believe it will be a complete vindication of you & it will enable us to discover who is in the conspiracy against you. Do not let Halleck or anyone else (who is not affected by it & can thus treat it with great indifference) induce you to overlook the request of one who suffers keenly with you & for you.” As for Halleck, she felt that he had no intention of ever giving her husband a post more significant than the training of recruits. Halleck was now writing people that Sherman had been exhausted, certainly not insane, but Ellen thought that his words displayed “true lawyer-like ambiguity.”
Ellen was by no means done. While Sherman suffered in his humiliation and expressed his disapproval of a lawsuit that would inevitably bring repetitions of the insanity stories, Ellen wrote President Lincoln, beginning with, “Mr. Lincoln, Dear Sir,” and pursued her idea of a conspiracy, asking, “Will you not defend him from the enemies who have combined against him, by removing him to the army of the East?” When she had no answer to this from Lincoln, she went to Washington with her father, who was trying an important case there.
By the time the two of them were ushered in to see Lincoln, things had changed in helpful ways. Secretary of War Cameron was going off in the ambassadorial position of minister to Russia, being replaced by one of Thomas Ewing’s good friends, Edwin M. Stanton. In addition, Ellen’s influential father was in Lincoln’s particularly good graces because of his wise counsel in settling the recent Trent affair, in which the United States Navy had nearly brought England into the war on the Southern side by stopping a British vessel to seize two Confederate emissaries bound for London. The meeting went well: Ellen wrote her husband that Lincoln “seemed very anxious that we believe that he felt kindly towards you. He and Father are great friends just now.” After a most successful tour of Washington society, during which Ellen spread the word that the president had confidence in her husband, she returned to Ohio, ready to acquiesce in Sherman’s desire to drop all lawsuits.
Out in St. Louis, Halleck was balancing his own interests. As commander of the Department of the Missouri, he had mixed feelings about his subordinate Grant; when they had occasion to confer, both of them felt ill at ease. Halleck saw Grant as an able and aggressive general, but he wanted to bring the favorable attention of the nation’s leaders to himself, not Grant, and win the position of top commander in all of the Western theater. With no special friends or influence to help him in Washington, Halleck was mindful of recent letters from Senator John Sherman and former senator and secretary of the interior Thomas Ewing, requesting that the man who was the senator’s brother and Ewing’s son-in-law be given a second chance. He was also aware that Lincoln had asked John Sherman’s ally, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, to keep an eye on the political and military situation in the Western military departments that included Halleck’s command.
While Halleck was considering whether Sherman could again be trusted with important responsibilities, Sherman was still trying to come to terms with his recent crisis. On New Year’s Day of 1862 he wrote to his wife:
Again I have failed to write you as promised. Again have I neglected the almost only remaining chain of love & affection that binds me to earth. I have attempted to write you several times but feared to add to the feelings that already bear on you too heavily. Could I live over the last year I think I would do better, but my former associations with the South have rendered me almost crazy as one by one all links of hope [of averting war] were parted.
He went on to refer to “having so signally failed in Kentucky,” and added, “I am about in the same health as at Lancaster but the idea of having brought disgrace on all associated with me is so horrible to contemplate that I cannot really endure it.”
If he had ever been less than appreciative of Ellen, that was certainly no longer the case. “I will try & be more punctual in writing you my Dearest wife who has been true & noble and generous & comforting always. That She should thus be repaid is too bad—and our Dear Children—may God in his mercy keep them in his mind, and not let them Suffer for my faults … Bless you and keep you as their guide till they care for themselves.”
Three days later, he wrote his brother John, “I am so sensible of my disgrace in having exaggerated the force of our enemy in Kentucky that I do think I Should have committed suicide were it not for my children. I do not think that I can again be entrusted with command.” Sherman went on to say that he felt he could at least be useful as a high-level paymaster and added, “Suppose you see McClellan and ask him if I could not serve the Government better in such a capacity than the one I now hold.”
While he slowly came out of his blackest moods, Sherman was doing an excellent job training twelve thousand soldiers at Benton Barracks. His idea of a uniform was sometimes worse than Grant’s; during one of his frequent inspections of the camp, wearing a completely unmilitary coat and a tall civilian hat, he found a soldier beating a mule. When the man ignored Sherman’s order to stop, Sherman asked, “Do you know who I am? I am General Sherman.” The miscreant answered, “That’s played out! Every man who comes along here with an old brown coat and stove-pipe hat, claims to be General Sherman.”
Halleck slowly began to bring Sherman into a closer relationship, at one point sitting down with him to study a map and discuss the right line of advance for a future offensive, while still resisting Grant’s efforts to resume just such a campaign. During this time, while Grant’s wife and children were visiting him for several weeks at Cairo, with Julia nursing him through a number of migraine headaches, Grant suddenly had the chance to pull off a bold move. As with Belmont, where he attacked at just the moment between Frémont’s departure and the arrival of the new commander Halleck, Grant found his opportunity in the form of Lincoln’s President’s General War Order No. I issued on January 27, 1862. This unprecedented order represented the frustrated Lincoln’s determination to make his commanders take the offensive on every front. Lincoln’s order gave every department a month in which to start advancing on the enemy and made it clear that generals who failed to move might be replaced. Among the forces specifically named as being expected to act were “the Army and Flotilla at Cairo.”
Grant saw the mandate he needed. Halleck had been holding him back since Belmont, and a previous suggestion by Grant in a meeting with Halleck that he try to capture Fort Henry, eighty miles southeast of Cairo up the waterway formed by the Ohio and then the Tennessee River, “was cut short as if my plan was preposterous.” Now he pressed Halleck for specific authorization to make that attack, and three days after Lincoln’s order became public, Halleck telegraphed, “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry.” Within seventy-two hours, Grant organized twenty-three regiments totaling seventeen thousand men and all the supplies to sustain them, assembled a fleet of transports led by seven of the navy’s gunboats, and headed off at six in the morning.
Halleck’s previous reluctance turned to panic, coupled with grim determination to support this effort at all costs. Arranging for reinforcements for Grant if he needed them, and redeploying units to replace those now on vessels steaming with Grant, during forty-eight hours Halleck sent or received twenty-two telegrams involving the general in chief McClellan in Washington and Sherman’s successor Don Carlos Buell at Louisville.
Among the officers Halleck sent to support Grant was James B. McPherson, an exceptionally able lieutenant colonel of engineers who had graduated from West Point nine years before and whose peacetime Regular Army career had included fortifying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Still worried about the old army stories of Grant’s drinking, Halleck gave McPherson added instructions to report unusual behavior.
Halleck did something else: in his flurry of activity, moving officers here and there to cover the quickly developing situation, he ordered Sherman to turn over the training of recruits to someone else and proceed to the riverfront city of Paducah, ready to send men and supplies forward to Grant. It was the most important assignment Halleck would ever make.