Over the last few weeks, I became utterly absorbed in another book that has been sitting on my shelf for many years--the memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman. The civil war was my first serious historical interest, going back to when I was 10 years old, and I have intermittently found it a very consuming topic. This time, however, I was reading it through a new lens. First, I was aware that it represented a great national crisis comparable in significance to the one we are passing through now. And secondly, I was alert to generational cues in Sherman's personality and approach to life. I found plenty of both.
In fixing generational boundaries, Strauss and Howe were bound to make some debatable decisions, all the more so since some such boundaries are much clearer than others. Sherman, born in 1820, fell technically into the last two years of the Transcendental generation, which produced the political leadership of the Civil War, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Seward, Thad Stevens, and many more. Such men, like the Missionary generation (born 1863-83 in my opinion) and the Boomers, saw issues in moral terms, and therefore naturally led the nation into a war over slavery. But one does not have to read very far in Sherman's memoirs to realize that he belonged to the Gilded generation, a Nomad generation like Generation X. While he clearly had an intense sense of individual honor and responsibility, he had almost no interest in broad moral questions at all. He was an intensely practical man, making his way through a chaotic age and a chaotic war according to his own lights. His prose can be riveting but it is never inspirational.
Growing up in Ohio, Sherman secured an appointment to West Point and graduated in 1840. He served in Florida, subduing a few remaining Indians, and then was sent to California in the Mexican War. He saw practically no combat there, but became involved in the organization of a new government in the midst of the discovery of the gold fields, with all their huge consequences. He left the Army in 1853, became the manager of a bank, and remained in California until 1857, when he moved to New York. Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850 it had no continuous communication with the East. Sherman describes numerous trips he and his family made from coast to coast, taking steamers to Panama and Nicaragua and traveling across one or the other to reach a boat on the other side. Several times he saw, or experienced, the foundering of ships. Running a San Francisco bank in the 1850s, when fortunes were made and lost overnight and there was of course no regulation of banks at all, was a frightening enterprise, and Sherman describes at length how he and his bank survived a panic because they had carefully maintained adequate reserves. I couldn't help thinking that that experience had been excellent training for battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Atlanta, where Sherman kept his nerve and stayed focused on the critical point just as Clausewitz, whom he never seems to have read, would have wished. Later, he became involved in politics for the only time in his life when a vigilante committee literally took control of San Francisco in defiance of constituted authority. Sherman was willing to lead the state militia in an effort to crush it, but he was betrayed by a cowardly governor, and had to wait until the vigilantes had essentially burned himself out. But he had experienced anarchy.
Yet Sherman showed very little interest in the consuming political question of the 1850s, slavery. He was quite shocked in the early 1850s when he visited Washington and General Winfield Scott, the commander of the army, told him the country was on the verge of Civil War. In 1860, when the secession crisis began, he was living in Louisiana, running a military school. His friends and neighbors supported secession in the wake of Lincoln's election and felt sure that the North would do nothing about it. Here Sherman's own attitude emerged, almost instinctively.
For Sherman the issue could not have been simpler: the South was denying legally constituted authority, and must be put down and restored to lawful obedience. The alternative, he firmly believed, would be to sink into continental anarchy, like Mexico to the South. While he clearly approved of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 as a means of crippling the South, he had certainly not been an abolitionist before the war. He blamed politicians, not slavery itself, for driving the nation into the war. But he never felt the slightest sympathy for the rebel cause, and although he quickly realized that the vast majority of white southerners stood behind the Confederacy, he was determined to do his part to put them down. And so he did.
Although Sherman was at the first battle of Bull Run outside Washington, he spent the rest of the war campaigning in the West and in the Deep South. The bulk his memoir is, of course, an account of his campaigns. He quotes many of the reports and letters he wrote at the time, and one immediately realizes that writing was one of the most important parts of a commander's job in that war. Every commander at least down to the regimental level wrote a continuous stream of reports that had to be consolidated into other reports at the next level of command. Sherman's reports are dry but concise, and they show a remarkable command of the English language, which was undoubtedly improved by his study of various foreign languages at school in Ohio. (Sherman had been one of the best students in his West Point class, although he never was appointed to any position of authority because of his unmilitary bearing and demeanor.)
Having spent 20 years teaching high-level military history, I was fascinated by the military problems Sherman discussed, which were almost unique in history. The campaigns in the West were fought over enormous territories and involved huge logistical problems. Sherman shows at length how he and the other commanders, including Grant (who remained in the West until early 1864) used river steamers and railroads to keep their armies supplied. As they moved deeper and deeper into the South in 1863--to Chattanooga, and thence in 1864 to Atlanta--it became more and more difficult to keep supply lines open with Confederate cavalry and armies maneuvering in their rear. That is why Sherman, in the late summer of 1864, after capturing Atlanta, decided to march to Savannah on the Atlantic coast and live off the land as he did so, severing his supply lines and communications with the outside world. This was an extraordinary logistical feat.
Sherman, of course, is known for his brutality, which he identified bluntly as an inevitable part of war. His most controversial step during the war was not the March to the Sea, but his decision in mid-summer 1864 to order the complete evacuation of the civilian population of Atlanta while he turned it into a military base. He had seen, he writes, how many men and resources were consumed in policing and providing for civilians in other occupied southern cities such as Memphis, and he was determined to be free of that responsibility now. The March to the Sea, however, was not an attempt to terrorize the population. Sherman laid down clear rules, which his troops, for the most part, seem to have obeyed. Every day foraging parties went out of seize food for men and horses (whose requirements were if anything even greater), and other detachments systematically destroyed the Confederate railroads and industrial establishments. But unless the civilian population actively decided to obstruct his troops--especially by burning supplies before the Yankees could get their hands on them--they were left alone. When the soldiers found provisions ablaze, they burned the farmer's house and barn in retaliation. Sherman realized that the South was not going to submit gracefully, and he believed it had to feel the pain of the war to be brought to heel, as indeed it was.
After reaching Savannah at Christmas 1864 Sherman opened new supply lines via the sea and shortly began marching north once again. His troops had to cross numerous rivers, whose bridges were invariably damaged or destroyed by the Confederates, and each division carried pontoons with them, which they used to remarkable effect. Sherman's troops actually fought relatively few battles and they were on a smaller scale than those taking place in northern Virginia. He relied mostly on maneuver, on flanking the enemy to force him out of his position. By the end of the winter of 1864 Sherman planned eventually to march to Petersburg to join Grant's siege of Lee's army, but in the end that was not necessary.
Sherman was one of the most self-reliant individuals I have ever encountered in history and the Union needed men like him to win. The Northern government and armies were shot through with destructive jealousy at the highest level, something which even Lincoln did not do enough to stop. Generals moved freely in and out of politics, and certain subordinate commanders felt they could disobey orders because of their political patronage. Eventually Sherman managed to assemble a fully loyal team. But the "every man for himself" spirit that dominated the Gilded Age was very much apparent during the war.
In 1869, when Grant became President, Sherman became the commander of the Army and so remained for 14 years. He does not give a detailed account of the Indian wars, but summarizes their stakes succinctly. The Indians, he said, went to war against transcontinental railroads because they recognized that the railroad would destroy both the buffalo and the Indian way of life that depended upon it. They were right, says Sherman, but he obviously regarded this simply as the inevitable course of history that it made no sense to try to prevent. Today, of course, political correctness requires us to regret both the end of the plains Indians' way of life and even the conquest of California in the Mexican War, but we ought to recognize that we owe our own enjoyment of the United States as they are to men like Sherman who did not share our reverence for the world they found before them as it was.
The United States, I am convinced, faces another crisis of national unity, one which will play itself out over the next ten months. This will undoubtedly fill up many of my posts here, starting with one next week. We surmounted the last one, I can now see, because of men like Sherman, who fought and often died simply to preserve the Constitution, our great experiment in popular government. That was how Lincoln originally framed the conflict, and that vision--not abolition--was what drew men like Sherman to the colors and kept them there. It was not easy to maintain the Northern armies, and Sherman complained periodically that the draft was not being administered firmly enough. There was a great deal of opposition to the war in the North as well as the South and he surely approved of harsh measures against it there.
Today, many Americans feel just as deeply, in different ways, about issues like global warming and gay rights, taxes and benefits, immigration and terrorism, and the future of health care as many Americans in the 1860s felt about slavery. But I wonder how many share a Sherman-like devotion to the authority of the federal government as such, and would put their lives on the line to maintain it. Sherman's generation was old enough to have known men who fought in the Revolution, and thus to feel a personal stake in preserving their achievement. None of us, however, has any personal connection either to those who won American independence or those who maintained American unity in the Civil War. We are already two nations in many ways and this election is likely to prove us more so than ever. How we shall meet this challenge I do not know.