By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Yes, I’m from Ohio. And yes, I love to point out the great accomplishments of fellow Buckeyes. And there is no doubt that he was a key player in the Civil War – one that we Buckeyes love to point to as a primary reason the North won the war. (Heck, I’ve even been to his childhood home in Lancaster. It is well worth the visit.) But William Tecumseh Sherman may just be the most overrated general who fought in the war.
For the first three years of the war, Sherman’s contribution to the Northern war effort was minimal at best, negative at worst. He accomplished little and almost ruined his career. Commander of Union forces in Kentucky in 1861, Sherman was to coordinate an invasion of east Tennessee with efforts by local Unionists.
In November of 1861, word of a Federal invasion reached Union partisans in east Tennessee. They went into action, burning railroad bridges and ambushing Confederates outposts while waiting for the Yankees to come. But they did not – solely because of Sherman. Concerned about a buildup of Southern forces in central Kentucky, he called off the invasion. Sherman’s inflated estimates of Confederate strength and comments he made to reporters caused newspapers to call him insane. The administration relieved him of command and transferred him to an obscure post in Missouri. He grew despondent and suffered from depression. His career was saved by his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant.
At Shiloh in April of 1862, Grant restored Sherman to command of a division. Here he again failed. When Albert Sidney Johnston attacked Grant’s army on April 6, Sherman was completely unprepared. Overconfident, he had dismissed reports from some of his front-line colonels concerning increased noise and activity to the south. To one colonel who talked nervously about thousands of rebels nearby, Sherman reportedly said: “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.” Hours later, he would be proved wrong. Because Sherman commanded one of the two divisions that would receive the first blows from the Confederates, his unpreparedness almost led to a Union defeat.
Later that year, in December, Sherman had what might be considered his first independent combat command. As part of one of Grant’s failed Vicksburg campaigns, Sherman led over 30,000 troops up the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg to assault the Confederate defenses overlooking Chickasaw Bayou. On December 29, the assault occurred. The 14,000 defenders repulsed Sherman’s men with ease. He suffered 1,800 casualties to the Confederates’ 200.
Following the capture of Vicksburg, Sherman took part in the Union effort to raise the siege of Chattanooga. Grant was in overall charge of the campaign and placed Sherman in command of his left wing. While the remainder of Grant’s army was to hold Bragg’s Southerners in place, Sherman was to sweep down Missionary Ridge, securing victory for Grant. In other words, Grant was giving his friend the chance to be the hero. The results were far from ideal. Sherman took longer than planned to get into place to attack. When he finally did, his corps was held in check by Cleburne’s division. This necessitated a frontal assault on the ridge by George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. The Cumberlanders charged the ridge and took it, securing the victory.
Of course, Sherman is best known for his capture of Atlanta and his march to the sea. Neither of these, while of political worth, held great military value. As Lincoln argued for years, the primary goal of a general should be to destroy the enemy. The capture of territory is meaningless so long as enemy forces are available to fight. On the other hand, destroy the enemy and you cannot be impeded from capturing its territory at your leisure.
At the beginning of 1864, Sherman once again was placed in command because of his friendship with Grant. He had done little militarily to earn it. Grant’s plan was for him to attack and destroy Lee in Virginia, while Sherman did the same with Joseph Johnston in Georgia. Unable to do so, Sherman settled for the capture of Atlanta. His primary goal, the Army of Tennessee, still remained a formidable fighting force until destroyed by Thomas at Nashville. To top it all off, Sherman afterward convinced Grant to allow him to turn his back on the Confederates, now commanded by Hood, and march in the opposite direction!
Sherman’s march to the sea and through the Carolinas was spectacular, but did nothing to change the outcome of the war. By the time he reached Savannah, Hood’s Army of Tennessee was destroyed, leaving Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as the only remaining effective fighting force for the Confederacy. It was already defeated, wasting away in the trenches of Petersburg. The South’s defeat was only a matter of time.
There is no question Sherman was an interesting man, perhaps the most interesting general of the war. He is also the most overrated general of the war. He never won an offensive battle during his career, preferring instead to conduct raids directed against the enemy’s communications and civilian population. His most noted achievements, the capture of Atlanta and the march to the sea, had no military value. Unquestionably, there was great political value to the former. With Lincoln’s political fortunes waning because of the lack of military success, capturing Atlanta helped win reelection for Lincoln.
However, Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah Valley and Farragut’s capture of Mobile may have been enough to do the job. It will forever be subject to debate that Lincoln would have been returned without Sherman’s contribution. Analyzing his contribution from a strictly military point of view, Sherman contributed little, if anything, to the North’s war effort. He was, without a doubt, the most overrated general of the Civil War.