William Tecumseh Sherman: Grant’s Perfect Lieutenant

William Tecumseh Sherman, frequently considered the first “modern” general, was above all, the indispensable lieutenant to Ulysses S. Grant.


Sherman Meets Lincoln

William T. Sherman (1820-1891), Ohio born and bred, was orphaned as a child and foster-raised by the politically powerful Ewing family. A West Point graduate, he fulfilled his obligations, entered the private sector, and by 1861, was content as the head of the Louisiana Military Academy.

When the Civil War began, he returned North. His brother John was now a United States Senator – a Republican Senator, with Lincoln’s ear.  “Cump,” as his intimates called him, was brought to meet the President, and requested reinstatement in the U.S. Army.  It was William T. Sherman himself who requested a “second-in-command” assignment. He did not want full responsibility. Lincoln likely figured that Sherman knew best, and reinstated him as a Colonel, but soon after promoted him to Brigadier General.

It was disastrous. Always considered moody but outspoken, Sherman came to an early conclusion that the War would be long, hard, and cost tens of thousands in casualties. This was diametrically contrary to the conventional wisdom and considered opinions of his military higher-ups. They declared that Sherman was “deranged,” and in dire need of a rest. They packed him off to Ohio to recuperate.  Once determined that “Cump” was sufficiently recovered, (perhaps because the Union Army was in dire need of experienced leadership), he was declared fit for service.

Sherman’s Crucible: Shiloh


William T. Sherman, considered by many to be the first “modern” general.

At a little town in Tennessee called Pittsburg Landing, immortalized by its tiny Shiloh Church, Sherman’s seeds of greatness were sown. It did not begin well. Believing that the rebels were nowhere in sight, he was completely surprised the morning of April 7, 1862, when forest critters came running out of the woods, followed by the Confederate cavalry yipping their distinctive whoops.

Sherman sprang into action, rallying his division, riding between his lines, shoring up the ranks as needed. Ulysses S. Grant, senior commander at Shiloh, was doing the same, on a higher level. He rode all day, back and forth between his divisions, checking on his subordinates and their armies.


Ulysses as a young Lieutenant. He was two years younger than Sherman, but outranked him during the Civil War. Sherman never objected.

Grant and Sherman had been casually acquainted since West Point, where Sherman, an upper-classman had only superficial contact with Cadet Grant. Subsequent meetings during the next fifteen years were similarly casual. This time would be different. When Grant came to assess Sherman’s position and options, he realized quickly that his subordinate was doing precisely what he himself was doing: covering and adjusting his responsibilities as needed – back and forth and continually. Satisfied that Sherman was in control of his situation, he moved on to another part of the bloody field. They thought alike.

Later that night, in a driving rainstorm, Sherman went to find Grant, who had taken shelter under a huge tree. “It’s been a devil of day, Grant,” Sherman is quoted to have said. Grant nodded and replied, “Yup. Whip ‘em tomorrow, though.” Then the two men were silent, puffing on their cigars under a tree in the rain, on the bloodiest battlefield the world had ever known.

They had become friends.

Sherman’s Maturity: Vicksburg

Capturing Vicksburg, an impregnable fortress in an unassailable position on the Mississippi River, was arguably Grant’s most daunting assignment, and would be his finest victory, albeit excruciatingly difficult.


General Grant and General Sherman were said to be “together,” the best general ever!

Ulysses S. Grant was not a general of the war-council. While he was always accessible to his commanders’ suggestions, he preferred to work alone. He designed six or more “feints” or proposed plans of attack – including digging miles of canals – while he waited for the mud soaked terrain to improve. Sherman was involved in these ancillary efforts, performing dutifully and capably. He was beginning to understand his somewhat enigmatic commanding officer.

What he did not understand was Grant’s proposed objective to bring the Army below Vicksburg and attack the fortress from the rear. Like most of Grant’s staff, he thought the strategy was dangerous and doomed to fail. Adding to the insanity was the presumption that Grant was detaching his army from its supply line – a classic verboten in military manuals. No food. Limited medical supplies. No communications.

Sherman, Grant’s ablest and most loyal subordinate general, had grave reservations. He drafted a well-conceived, well-worded memorandum of opposition and sent it for Grant’s review. Grant concurred with all of Sherman’s reservations and comments. It was very risky, Grant agreed, but he believed it was worth the risk, and Vicksburg could be taken.

Sherman, the loyal lieutenant, followed his captain. Grant was right. The risks were worth taking, and the victory at Vicksburg would crown Grant with glory, and plant new strategic concepts in Sherman’s head.

William T. Sherman: Lessons Learned


Sherman was always a soldier – never a politician. He called it “true.”

Sherman, in his “derangement” had been correct all along. Three years after Fort Sumter, the war was still raging, and the casualties were in the hundreds of thousands. By mid-1864, Grant had been sent to command the entire Army with Sherman in full command of the western armies. If Grant became known as the “butcher of the battlefield,” Sherman could be called the “butcher of the battleground.”


Sherman marches to the sea. And makes Georgia howl – just like he declared.

He had learned well from Grant’s examples: trusting his own instincts and taking calculated risks. He also understood, perhaps better than anyone else, (and perhaps better than he himself realized) that war is truly hell. In Sherman’s eyes, war had ceased being armies facing armies on a battlefield, and began to emerge as a total entity of itself: destroying the enemy’s ability and will to fight on.

He said he would make Georgia howl, and he did precisely that. Leading three separate armies in a hundred mile swath, William T. Sherman marched across Georgia, destroying everything in his wake. The property damage would be horrendous, but the casualties, in comparison to Grant’s battles, were minuscule. Nevertheless, the South would never be quite the same again. Nor would waging war.


Catton, Bruce – The Civil War – Fairfax Press – 1980

Flood, Charles B. – Grant and Sherman – Farrar, Straus, 2005

Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Nifty History People, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to William Tecumseh Sherman: Grant’s Perfect Lieutenant

  1. energywriter says:

    Another great story. Thank you. sd

  2. Myndi says:

    Sherman himself would be proud of this. Thank you for giving a genuine glimpse into the lives of these two remarkable men.

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