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
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 for 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 Chickasau Bayou. On
December 29, the assault occurred. The 14,000 defenders repulsed
Sherman’s men with ease. He suffered 1,800 casualties to the
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
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 Johnston in Georgia. Unable to do so, Sherman settled for
the capture of Atlanta. His primary goal, the Army of the 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!
1865, Sherman meets with Grant, Lincoln and Porter aboard the
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
the 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.
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.