Read Along With Me: William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs—Post 1

part two in a series

Welcome back! This is the first post containing my thoughts and questions as I read through Sherman’s Memoirs. I outlined my plan in a post in late March and invited readers to join me on this journey. I look forward to your feedback and insights!

The first assignment was to read the Introduction (if you grabbed an edited version like the Fellman copy that I am using) and Chapters 1-7. I thought I could finish this section (175 pages) quickly, but end-of-semester curve balls pulled me away from the book more often than I would have liked. How long did it take you to get through it? What did you think of Sherman’s writing style?

The Introduction was an engaging and sometimes humorous overview of Sherman’s life. I think it might make more of an impact to read it again at the end of the book when I can compare Fellman’s interpretation to my own. Fellman spent less than three pages touching upon the early part of Sherman’s life that was the focus of our reading for this post, while the rest of the twenty-page introduction centers on Sherman’s war years and postwar life. Fellman described Sherman as weighed down by a “specter of failure” (ix) prior to 1861 but I did not feel that come across in the memoirs, did you?

Chapters 1-7 cover the period 1820, when Sherman was born, to early 1861, when Sherman left his superintendent position at the Louisiana Military Academy to return north on the eve of the Civil War. Along the way, this man was on the move! I remain amazed at the mobility of people in the 19th century; is this amount of travel normal for that time? Or just normal for someone connected with the military? After West Point and a few initial appointments in Florida and elsewhere, Sherman went from his home in Lancaster, Ohio, to New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, and California often and mentions month-long sea voyages and treks across the isthmus of Panama casually. After reading his accounts of what it took to get from New York to San Francisco by boat and mule in the 1850s, I am not at all surprised that the United States pushed for the Panama Canal so aggressively.

Sherman spent the duration of the Mexican War in California. He expressed frustration that he missed out on the actual fighting of the war but seemed to make the most of his time in California. He built a broad network of people, witnessed the gold rush, and thought extensively about future professional prospects. Later, he settled into banking for a few years and narrated several intriguing vignettes from that period of his life. I especially enjoyed the appearance of various people during this time who would play significant roles in the Civil War. It was a good reminder that their lives were intertwined as countrymen up until the outbreak of hostilities. Who expected Henry Wise of Harpers Ferry infamy to make an appearance?!

My favorite sections in these chapters were the details about the gold rush and the story about how Sherman negotiated his way onto the floor of Congress so that he could watch Daniel Webster’s speech regarding the Compromise of 1850 (which Sherman found boring). Sherman’s family plays almost no role in this memoir so far, with his wife making infrequent appearances and children just seeming to appear out of nowhere. He is rarely even with his family and they are more like a piece of luggage he has to remember to move from one place to another on his journeys. I cannot tell if this was really the level of regard he had for his family or if Sherman was reflecting the culture of privacy at the time. Personally, I’d like to hear more about his home life too, but clearly he did not anticipate that his reader at the time cared much for this part of his story.

Sherman wrapped up Chapter 7 by explaining how he disentangled himself from running the Louisiana Military Academy after secession. What was your response to this section? I liked the details but I felt it was overly defensive; he was clearly trying to address criticisms that had been leveled at him over time with regard to his actions there.

Overall, these chapters outlining his experience as a commissary, banker, administrator, etc., helped me realize how Sherman succeeded during the war. So much of what he learned during his early military years focused on supplies – outfitting new units, feeding men, finding resources, dealing with unforeseen events – it all makes sense now how Sherman would have been so comfortable cutting his supply lines and living off the land during his interior marches through the South. He knew how to do this work; he knew how to procure supplies and survive. He also came across as a pretty good judge of character. Now, whether that was mainly hindsight talking is hard to tell, but young Sherman seemed to be confident, ambitious, and professionally agile in his growing network of contacts. I expect all of these characteristics to serve him well in wartime. What is your impression of Sherman thus far?

Our next assignment is to read Chapters 8-12. I’ll be back in May to chat about Sherman’s latest adventures. Right now, I picture Sherman on a train, heading to Cincinnati from New Orleans. Let’s hope he stops by to see his wife and kids before heading in a new direction…

Julie Mujic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC, and can be reached through www.juliemujic.com.