Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, Commander of Term Paper

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Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the western armies that took Atlanta in 1864. Specifically, it will look at how his capture of Atlanta and eventual March to the Sea eventually ended the Civil War.


You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it...War is hell" (William T. Sherman).

William Tecumseh Sherman is one of the most well-known and notorious generals of the Union Army in the Civil War. The people of Georgia still speak his name with contempt if they speak it at all, due to his infamous burning of Atlanta and his March to the Sea, which eventually helped bring the South to their knees, winning the war for the North. During his military career, he was hailed as a savior, called "crazy," and demoted; yet, he became one of the best-known and successful generals in the Civil War.

Sherman was born in Lancaster, Ohio on February 8, 1820. His father died when Sherman was nine, and he went to live with a family friend, Senator Thomas Ewing. Later on, he married one of the Senator's daughters. Sherman attended the United States Army military academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1840. His career at West Point was less than stellar. He was often shoddily dressed, and did not like to keep his room too orderly. He managed to graduate sixth in his class, and seemed destined for a brilliant military career (Wood 211). Sherman remained in the army until 1853, and then began working as a banker in San Francisco. The business failed, and he took the position of Superintendent of a military academy in Louisiana. (The academy is now Louisiana State University.)

When the Civil War broke out, and Louisiana seceded from the Union, he decided he wanted to leave the South and fight for the Union. He resigned his position at the military academy, traveled to Missouri, and joined the army in 1861. He started out as a Colonel, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, but was relieved of his command after he demanded 200,000 troops to subdue the South. Newspapers of the time said he was "crazy" for needing so many men, and the army and civilians believed them. Sherman was removed to Missouri, and became severely depressed over the repeated attacks calling him crazy. "A letter to Sherman's foster father stated, "I have seen newspaper squibs charging him with being 'crazy,' etc. This is the grossest injustice. I do not however, consider such attacks worthy of notice" (Bengston). He finally returned to Union fighting, and eventually became the commander of the armies fighting in the west, where he commanded the many troops that took Atlanta.

On September 1, 1864, Sherman captured Atlanta, but not without a fight. He and his army were camped only nine miles from Atlanta in early July, after battling with Southern General Joe Johnson. Johnson's troops beat Sherman in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864, but Sherman had access to more and better supplies than Johnson, and Johnson had to withdraw his troops back toward Atlanta. Interestingly enough, Johnson and Sherman held a mutual respect for each other that continued after the war. In fact, Johnson served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral. In July, General John B. Hood took over the troops, and it was Hood Sherman had to battle for Atlanta.

Sherman always knew he needed to capture Atlanta to win the war. "Yet Atlanta was known as the 'Gate-City of the South,' was full of foundries, arsenals, and machine-shops, and I knew that its capture would be the death-knell of the Southern Confederacy" (Memoirs 99). By the end of August, Sherman's troops were shelling Atlanta, and they could see the fires from their encampment. By the evening of September 1, Hood's troops had been pushed back, and the Confederate Army abandoned the city. As Hood and his men left, he ordered his troops to burn the railroad yards, hoping to keep Sherman from shipping in supplies, and shipping out men. They also ripped up about 40 miles of rails into the town.

Atlanta was such an important victory that Sherman received a commendation of "national thanks" from President Lincoln himself. Politically, coming just before the November elections, it helped strengthen Lincoln's position at the polls, and helped ensure he was reelected to office (Memoirs 109 to 110).

After his troops captured the city, Sherman declared it a military encampment. On September 8, he told all the civilians they had to leave the city. He met with the South's General Hood to arrange "safe passage of these civilians, that because of where they lived, no matter if they had Confederate or Union sympathies, they could not remain in their homes if they were within the city of Atlanta" (Bengston). Sherman had taken over other cities in the South, and found that often his garrisons were too busy dealing with the town's hostile residents to take care of other duties, so he decided all the residents of Atlanta needed to leave. He knew the decision would be unpopular and criticized, but he was determined to have the city to himself and his men while they rested and regrouped (Memoirs 111-112).

The two generals arranged a 10-day truce so the people of Atlanta could pack their belongings and leave. During this time, Sherman's army guarded the city, and Sherman made the final plans for his March to the Sea. He wanted to split the Confederacy in two, and hoped his 60,000 handpicked troops could accomplish this by leaving Atlanta and cutting a wide swath through Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean. This would split the Confederacy in two, and destroy so much of their factories and supplies that they would have to end the war.

In the beginning of November, the troops abandoned Atlanta to begin their march. As they left, they began burning anything that might be useful to the Southern Army, such as munitions and clothing factories, and the railroad yards, which his men had rebuilt. Historians say Sherman never meant to burn the entire city, but the fire spread, and could not be contained.

In a December letter to the Governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown, W.P. Howard described the destruction and desolation of the once vibrant town.

In the angle between hunter Street, commencing at the City hall, running east, and McDonough Street, running southern, all houses were destroyed...All business houses, except those on Alabama Street, commencing with the Gate City Hotel, running east to Loyd Street, were burned. All the hotels, except the Gate City were burned (Howard).

Howard also describes what machinery and buildings were not burned or destroyed, hoping the Southern Army can find something they can still use. He mentions plenty of good brick remaining, along with many churches, houses, and businesses (Howard).

Throughout the fighting, Sherman abhorred war and its effect on the innocent civilians. In a letter to the officials of Atlanta he said, "To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey" (Letter). He firmly believed his March to the Sea could end the war, and finally got General Grant to agree to the March only a few days before he mustered his troops and began the 300-mile march to Savannah. There was a new supply base located there, and it was crucial to supplying the Confederate Army. Sherman knew commanding the South's supplies could eventually create havoc in the Confederate ranks, so he wanted to spilt the state while destroying as many supplies as he could. Along the way to the sea, his troops commandeered and destroyed precious supplies. They…

Sources Used in Document:


Bengston, Wayne C. "William Tecumseh Sherman." About North Georgia. 2002. 20 Oct. 2002. http://ngeorgia.com/people/shermanwt.html

Howard, W.P. "Dec. 1864 Account of Destruction of Atlanta." Carl Vinson Institute of Government. 15 Oct. 1999. 20 Oct. 2002. http://www.cviog.uga.edu/Projects/gainfo/atldestr.htm

Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1876.

To the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta." Nebulae.net. 2002. 20 Oct. 2002. http://www.nebulae.net/calypso/letter-to-atlanta.htm

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