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The Letters In Perspective

June 2024
3min read

IN LATE APRIL OF 1863, POISED FOR A TWO-corps crossing of the Mississippi forty roundabout miles below Vicksburg, Grant suggested to Sherman, whose corps had remained north of the objective to mislead its defenders as to where the blow would land, that the deception would be far more effective if he would stage a “heavy demonstration” against the Chickasaw Bluffs—a threat that, if successful, would give the attackers a clear shot at the city just beyond. “But I am loth to order it,” Grant added, explaining that the newspapers would be likely to “characterize it as a repulse,” much as they had done when Sherman first tried it, back in December, and was raked over the journalistic coals for the fruitless loss of 1,776 men in the attempt. “I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration,” the message ended.

Sherman was vehement in his rejection of the option. “Does General Grant think I care what the newspapers say?” he fumed, and replied at once that he would “make as strong a demonstration as possible.” As for the reporters, “We must scorn them, else they will ruin us and our country. They are as much enemies to good government as the secesh, and between the two I like the secesh best, because they are a brave, open enemy and not a set of sneaking, croaking scoundrels.”

Accordingly, with instructions for “every man [to] look as numerous as possible,” he staged a two-day panoplied show of force with one of his three divisions in the wooded Yazoo bottoms, in full view of the high-sited Rebel batteries, then withdrew under cover of darkness to join the rest of his corps on its west-bank march, southward for its share in the eastbank fighting that within three weeks would put Vicksburg under siege and bring on its Independence Day surrender. He reached Hard Times, where he would recross the river, to learn that the third, least, and last of the three naval “runs” past the city’s gun-studded, ninety-foot red-clay bluff had been more or less a disaster. Two towboats, each with barges lashed alongside loaded with hardtack, coffee, and ammunition—those three bedrock necessities for an army cut loose on its own—had set out near midnight. One boat made it, severely damaged by plunging fire, but the other was sunk, along with all the barges. The bad news was alleviated, for Sherman at any rate, by word that the lost towboat had had four journalists aboard, who now were listed as missing. “They were so deeply laden with weighty matter that they must have sunk,” he remarked happily, and added, straight-faced: “In our affliction we can console ourselves with the pious reflection that there are plenty more of the same sort.”

The two dozen letters—excerpts from which are published here—that were brought to light after nearly five full generations in the family keeping do little to sharpen the portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman that historians have drawn from previous evidence, but they do broaden it closer to life-size. Written mostly in what he liked to call “high feather,” they not only expand his invective against the wartime journals and the men who wrote them—”false, false as hell,” he says of the former, while the latter are the “direct cause of more bloodshed than fifty times their number of armed Rebels”—they also display a sharp contempt for the readers of such drivel: “the nonthinking herd behind,” he called them, in line with one of his favorite expressions, “Vox populi, vox humbug.”

An altogether different note is struck in one of these family letters in which he tells of the loss of nine-year-old Willy, his first-born son and namesake. The boy—"more a part of myself than any other human being"—had been down to Vicksburg with his two sisters and younger brother, on a celebratory visit after the fall of the city. In late September the children were aboard a steamboat churning back upstream to Memphis, where their father was to leave them on his way to help raise the Rebel siege of Chattanooga, when Willy came down with typhoid fever and died of it shortly afterward in a room at the Gayoso. Sherman’s grief was almost beyond bearing. “Sleeping, waking, everywhere I see poor Willy,” he wrote his wife, who had continued the journey upstream with their three surviving children. A week later, still undone by sorrow, Sherman asked her: “Why was I not killed at Vicksburg and left Willy to grow up and care for you?” A full month after the event, as we learn from one of these newly released letters, his grief still had not lifted, but rather seemed to have deepened and spread. “Since poor Willy’s death,” he writes, “I have felt more than ever my natural desire to stride out into obscurity.”

He did no such thing, of course. Instead, after helping to deliver Chattanooga, he launched his all-out campaign against Atlanta and then set out on his “smoky march” through Georgia and the Carolinas. What he strode into was fame. If his tactics were often faulty, the strategy that brought on the battle sometimes made that almost beside the point; incidental defeat, as at Tunnel Hill and Bentonville, served as well as incidental victory, so long as the end-purpose was achieved, which it always was. And while we need not agree with the assessment of him as “America’s greatest military genius,” or even that he “invent[ed] modern warfare,” no one can deny that he was redoubtable in the extreme to his opponents, while to his soldiers he was something else entirely. “Uncle Billy,” they liked to call him, and some among them loved to boast all the rest of their lives that, on the march, he had leaned down out of the saddle to get a light from them for his cigar. Tall, fidgety, red-haired and stubble-bearded, he wore shoes instead of boots, and a spur on only one of them at that. He was a living presence, ever after, to almost anyone who saw him. Whatever he touched came alive in his hands, including his Memoirs, published ten years after the war, and these letters released here, a century and a quarter after he wrote most of them from his various fields of fight. They too come alive in our hands, after all those years in hiding, and we are fortunate to have them.

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