January 17, 2012, 9:30 PM
By THOM BASSETT
The Baton Rouge dinner party in early 1860 had been enjoyable, but as it went on William Tecumseh Sherman couldn’t help but hear his name mentioned repeatedly down at the table’s far end. He suspected it had something to do with his position as superintendent of the newly formed Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (today’s Louisiana State University). He had held the post for a few months and was well regarded by those who knew him personally, but many who didn’t were concerned that the state’s only college was run by a Northerner whose congressman brother was seen across the South as an abolitionist.
The party’s host, Gov. Thomas O. Moore, finally invited Sherman to join the discussion. “Won’t you speak your mind freely on this question of slavery, that so agitates the land?” Moore asked. “You are under my roof,” he added, “and, whatever you say, you have my protection.” His guest wouldn’t need it. Sherman is remembered today mainly as the Union general who led marches through Georgia and the Carolinas that crippled the Confederacy’s war-making capacity and demoralized its people. But that evening, surrounded by some of Louisiana’s leading citizens, Sherman would prove how Southern his views on slavery were.
“The people of Louisiana were hardly responsible for slavery, as they had inherited it,” Sherman assured his audience. Further, while the well-being of field slaves might depend on “the temper and dispositions of their masters and overseers,” Sherman thought slaves who worked in family homes were “probably better treated than any slaves on earth.” When he explained that he favored keeping slave families intact and allowing slaves to read and write in order to increase their value as property, a fellow guest pounded the table in excited support of Sherman’s remarks. A lively but congenial debate ensued that left Sherman feeling relieved, “because at the time all men in Louisiana were dreadfully excited on questions affecting their slaves.”
Sherman’s comments shouldn’t surprise us, nor the fact that they were so well received. Though born in Ohio, Sherman had spent much of his life among Southerners. In 1836 he entered West Point, where the emphasis on hierarchy and obedience would prepare Sherman well to move later among aristocratic Southerners. Upon graduation in 1840, Sherman spent the next six years at postings across the Deep South, in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. It was especially while in Charleston that Sherman got to know the South’s aristocracy, attending parties and going on deer hunts along the Cooper River.
Sherman resigned from the Army after a posting in California and embarked on what turned out to be a spectacularly unsuccessful business career. With the help of old Army friends, he was hired in the summer of 1859 to head the nascent Louisiana military academy.
At Governor Moore’s dinner party, in fact, Sherman had if anything actually understated his views. For one thing, Sherman was a white supremacist. “All the congresses on earth can’t make the negro anything else than what he is; he must be subject to the white man,” Sherman wrote his wife in 1860. “Two such races cannot live in harmony save as master and slave.” In a letter to his antislavery brother-in-law about plans to bring his family to Louisiana, Sherman crassly joked about becoming a slave master himself. Making light of the problems he anticipated in keeping white servants, he wrote that his wife Ellen “will have to wait on herself or buy a nigger. What will you think of that — our buying niggers?”
Blinded by his implacable racism, Sherman could see no worthwhile moral or legal debate to be had over slavery. History had forced this institution on the South, Sherman thought, and its continued prosperity depended on embracing it. “Theoretical notions of humanity and religion,” he flatly declared, “cannot shake the commercial fact that their labor is of great value and cannot be dispensed with.” Further, Sherman believed that slavery benefited both races. In 1854 he assured his brother that blacks thrived in the Southern heat and later told David F. Boyd, one of his professors at the Louisiana military academy and eventual friend, that he considered slavery in the South “the mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world, now or heretofore.”
Still, slavery did trouble Sherman in one way: He grew increasingly worried that the political fight over it would threaten the stability of the Union. However, while he occasionally singled out Southerners for overreacting to antislavery sentiment — once writing that they “pretend to think that the northern people have nothing to do but steal niggers and preach sedition” — Sherman overall displayed a clear sympathy for their side in the growing schism. He was emphatic in an 1859 letter to his wife that the South should make its own decisions regarding slavery and then “receive its reward or doom.” Sherman thus anticipated Jefferson Davis’ famous plea of two years later that the South simply be left alone.
Despite Sherman’s strong affinities for the white aristocratic South, there were parts of Southern life that he seemed to dislike, and even despise. He enjoyed, for example, socializing in the 1840s with the better people of Charleston, but he at least once called their scions “worthless sons of broken down, proud Carolina families.” After the war, as the South struggled to rise above the devastation and impoverishment it had suffered, Sherman admonished Boyd to leave Louisiana for a teaching position in the North. “The commonest of the common schools of Iowa outrank in public estimation your university,” Sherman unkindly informed his friend, somehow overlooking that he was referring to the same college he himself had helped found and was otherwise often proud of. It’s not clear, though, how seriously to take these attacks: Sherman’s relationship with the South, like so many other areas of his life, was marked by a penchant for overheated rhetoric and a shifting array of firmly held opinions that can be hard to reconcile.
On the other hand, Sherman was always consistent when it came to the most fundamental disagreement between himself and his Southern friends and colleagues. He resigned his superintendency in January 1861 when it was clear Louisiana would follow the cotton states out of the Union. Sherman would help Southern whites “protect themselves against negroes and abolitionists,” but he refused to accept disunion under any circumstances. Sherman’s decision was painful for all concerned. “You cannot regret more than I do the necessity which deprives us of your services,” Governor Moore wrote Sherman. For his own part, Sherman told Moore he left with “the kindest feelings toward all.” At a final ceremony at the academy, Sherman bid farewell to each of his cadets individually; he then turned to the assembled faculty, but at first was unable to speak. After a moment, he placed a hand over his heart and choked out, “You are all here.”
Even so, Sherman would also hold rage in his heart at what he considered Confederate treason, and he came to embrace a war strategy to make the South pay for its disloyalty. “My aim,” according to his memoirs, “was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.” This Sherman, the scourge of the South, is well-established in Civil War history.
Much less well known, but equally essential to a proper understanding of this man, is the Sherman who wrote his oldest daughter of his sadness at fighting “some of the very families in whose houses I used to spend some happy days” and of his relief whenever battle against them could be avoided. The Sherman who received under flag of truce in 1864 a letter of thanks from several captured Louisiana students and professors for whom he’d secured release and protection. The Sherman who, a decade later in his memoirs, still recalled by name a former cadet killed in the terrible carnage at Shiloh.
Sherman’s relationship with the South makes him one of the most paradoxical and polarizing figures of the Civil War. He understood, and to a great extent embraced, the beliefs and values that led the South to secede. Yet of all Union generals he was the most viscerally opposed to the rebellion, causing him, as the war went on, to become the Confederacy’s sympathetic, vengeful enemy.