Lincoln and Sherman: Plugging the Hole

When Abraham Lincoln became President, he knew very little about the military. He learned quickly.

The Bull Run Debacle

The first Battle of Bull Run was a disaster for the Union Army.

The Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, was an eye-opener on many levels. The Union forces, mostly short term volunteers, had little training or experience, perhaps too much hoo-rahing, and a belief that one big brouhaha would be fought, the Rebs whipped, and the so-called “war” would be over, to be resolved peacefully.

It was a bigger brouhaha than any believed possible, with casualties numbering in the thousands. It was a total humiliation for the Union, as the “green” soldiers were routed in disarray – while the cream of Washington society, with binoculars and picnic baskets, were there to witness what they thought would be an easy victory. Now it was scorned as “the great skedaddle.”

The Hole in the Dike

Only a few days after the Bull Run fiasco, Colonel William T. Sherman was greeted by a Captain on his staff, who came to “say goodbye,” adding that he was going to New York. Sherman was puzzled, since he did not recall signing a pass for him.

Taken when Colonel Sherman was a General.

The Captain said he was “going home,” and that he had enlisted for 90-days, which, by the way had expired several days earlier. He was leaving. Permanently.

Colonel Sherman, West Point trained, with experience in running a military academy, immediately recognized the tip of an iceberg: There were perhaps 75,000 volunteers who had signed on for 90-days. If one up and left, a dangerous precedent would be set, and the entire Army could collapse.

Without batting an eye, he told the wayward Captain that if he left, Sherman would send soldiers to bring him back – and would have him shot for desertion the next day. End of subject.

The Colonel Meets the President – Again

Ohio Senator John Sherman. The resemblance is strong.

William T. Sherman had met Abraham Lincoln shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, courtesy of his brother, Ohio Republican Senator John Sherman. The meeting was brief. At Sherman’s request, he was reinstated into the Union Army, and also by his specific request, as second-in-command.

A few hours after his skirmish with the New York Captain, Colonel Sherman was riding far out around his lines and noticed an approaching carriage. He rode closer, and saw that its passengers were none other than President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward. Sherman rode up and asked if he could be of service. Lincoln recognized him and asked for directions, remarking that he thought “the boys” could use a few words from their Commander-in-Chief to boost their morale.

The Colonel offered to guide them into camp, adding that the soldiers would indeed like hearing a few words from the President. But, he added, they’ve already had enough of the huzzahs, and it got them nowhere. What the soldiers needed to hear, was some firm encouragement toward hard training and obedience to military order.

Lincoln’s Remarks to the Soldiers

President Lincoln visited soldiers in the field many times during the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln was a well-practiced speaker, but seldom liked to speak off-the-cuff. But a few words to the soldiers was a different matter. They did not expect a long-winded oration, or deep philosophical thought.

In the memoirs he wrote several years later, Sherman said that Lincoln’s “speech” was exactly right. He began by commiserating with their disappointment at Bull Run. Then he exhorted them to be mindful of their purpose: to preserve the Union and to renew their efforts and commitment.

Then he continued, perhaps remembering Sherman’s wise counsel, stressing the need for the volunteer soldiers to devote themselves to their new trade: soldiering – and how it involved discipline, training and obedience to military order.

Then he ended with encouragement, believing that “better days” were sure to come. All in all, according to Sherman, it was a dandy of a morale booster. The men were happy.

Lincoln Plugs the Hole in the Dike

After he finished his brief remarks, Lincoln went on to say, that as President he was also responsible for the soldiers’ welfare and to see that they were treated fairly. In that regard, he continued, if any soldier had a grievance, he would be glad to hear him out.

Seeing a perfect opportunity, the Captain from New York came forward with his grievance. He told Lincoln that just that morning, Colonel Sherman threatened to shoot him. The President looked at Sherman, who nodded in acknowledgement.

The next – and last time Sherman saw President Lincoln. It occurred only a few weeks before the assassination.

Military discipline is essential if order and respect is to be maintained. Sometimes harsh examples must be enforced. Even a non-soldier and kind-hearted man like Lincoln knew that. And he likely knew that if Sherman threatened to have the Captain shot, there was a good reason.

In his inimitable way of seeing both sides of a thorny situation and finding that ray of light that diffuses it, Lincoln took a breath, and in a confidential-sounding stage whisper – loud enough to be heard several feet away, he said to the Captain, “Well, if Colonel Sherman threatened to shoot you, I would not trust him.” Then he paused, adding, “for I do believe he will do it.”

The soldiers roared with laughter. The President had grasped the crux of the matter, and the warmth of his humor turned a nasty precedent into a light but effective warning.

Four years later, General Sherman – would meet Lincoln once more, only a few weeks before his assassination, just when the Civil War was coming to its end. He would later write of the sixteenth President, that Lincoln was “a great and a good man,” and perhaps the best he ever met.


Botkin, B.A. (editor) – A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends & Folklore – Promontory Press, 2006

Davis, William, Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation, (Free Press, 1999).

Sherman, General William Tecumseh – Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman – Penguin Classics (reprint), 2000


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.
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