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William T. Sherman (1869) - Secretary of War

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William Tecumseh Sherman was born in 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio. He graduated from West Point in 1840 and saw action in the Mexican War. After leaving the military in 1853, Sherman pursued failed ventures in banking and law before resuming his military career.

When the Civil War broke out, Sherman was serving as superintendent of the state military academy in Alexandria, Louisiana. He subsequently resigned his post and returned to the Union Army as a colonel; by 1861, he had become brigadier general of volunteers but was subsequently relieved of his position as head of the Department of the Cumberland. By 1862, however, he had been promoted to major general following his efforts at the Battle of Shiloh and was in charge of the Union occupying forces in Memphis, Tennessee, throughout 1862.

In 1863, because of his role in forcing the surrender of Vicksburg, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general. His success on the battlefield continued, routing the enemy at Chattanooga and taking over Union command in the West when General Ulysses S. Grant became commander in chief of the Union army. Sherman’s military efforts in 1864 would become legendary as he executed his “march to the sea.” The first to implement the tactics of “total war,” Sherman understood that civilian morale and economic resources were instrumental to the military effort and were suitable targets for attack. When Sherman concluded his 1864 march in Savannah, Georgia, he had left a swath of destruction miles long and wide.

Following Ulysses S. Grant’s election as President in 1868, Sherman became commander of the U.S. Army. Before retiring in 1883, he applied his ideas about “total war” to his military campaigns against the Plains Indians. Though Republicans considered Sherman a possible candidate for the presidential election in 1884, Sherman refused all thought of a political career. The only exception to his pledge involved a brief stint as President Grant’s secretary of war ad interim in 1869. William Tecumseh Sherman died in 1891.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joan Waugh

Professor Waugh is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her writings include:

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War (editor with Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (editor with Alice Fahs, University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Harvard University Press, 1998)