Sherman's childhood home in Lancaster
Sherman was born in 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio, near the banks of the Hocking River. His father, Charles Robert Sherman, a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, died unexpectedly in 1829. He left his widow, Mary Hoyt Sherman, with eleven children and no inheritance. After his father's death, the nine-year-old Sherman was raised by a Lancaster neighbor and family friend, attorney Thomas Ewing, Sr., a prominent member of the Whig Party who served as senator from Ohio and as the first Secretary of the Interior. Sherman was distantly related to American founding father Roger Sherman and grew to admire him.
Sherman's older brother Charles Taylor Sherman became a federal judge. One of his younger brothers, John Sherman, served as a U.S. senator and Cabinet secretary. Another younger brother, Hoyt Sherman, was a successful banker. Two of his foster brothers served as major generals in the Union Army during the Civil War: Hugh Boyle Ewing, later an ambassador and author, and Thomas Ewing, Jr., who would serve as defense attorney in the military trials of the Lincoln conspirators. Sherman would marry his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, at age 30 and have eight children with her.
Sherman's given names
Sherman's unusual given name has always attracted considerable attention. Sherman reported that his middle name came from his father having "caught a fancy for the great chief of the Shawnees, 'Tecumseh'". Since an account in a 1932 biography about Sherman, it has often been reported that, as an infant, Sherman was named simply Tecumseh. According to these accounts, Sherman only acquired the name "William" at age nine or ten, after being taken into the Ewing household. His foster mother, Maria Willis Boyle (Maria Ewing), was of Irish ancestry and a devout Roman Catholic. Sherman was raised in a Roman Catholic household, although he later left the church, citing the effect of the Civil War on his religious views. According to a story that may be myth, Sherman was baptized in the Ewing home by a Dominican priest, who named him William for the saint's day: possibly June 25, the feast day of Saint William of Montevergine. The story is contested, however. Sherman wrote in his Memoirs that his father named him William Tecumseh; Sherman was baptized by a Presbyterian minister as an infant and given the name William at that time. As an adult, Sherman signed all his correspondence – including to his wife – "W.T. Sherman". His friends and family always called him "Cump".
Military training and service
Young Sherman in military uniform
Senator Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he roomed and became good friends with another important future Civil War General, George H. Thomas. While there Sherman excelled academically, but he treated the demerit system with indifference. Fellow cadet William Rosecrans would later remember Sherman at West Point as "one of the brightest and most popular fellows" and "a bright-eyed, red-headed fellow, who was always prepared for a lark of any kind". About his time at West Point, Sherman says only the following in his Memoirs:
At the Academy I was not considered a good soldier, for at no time was I selected for any office, but remained a private throughout the whole four years. Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications required for office, and I suppose I was found not to excel in any of these. In studies I always held a respectable reputation with the professors, and generally ranked among the best, especially in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy. My average demerits, per annum, were about one hundred and fifty, which reduced my final class standing from number four to six.
Upon graduation in 1840, Sherman entered the army as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery and saw action in Florida in the Second Seminole War against the Seminole tribe. He was later stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. As the foster son of a prominent Whig politician, in Charleston, the popular Lt. Sherman moved within the upper circles of Old South society.
While many of his colleagues saw action in the Mexican–American War, Sherman performed administrative duties in the captured territory of California. Along with fellow Lieutenants Henry Halleck and Edward Ord, Sherman embarked from New York on the 198-day journey around Cape Horn aboard the converted sloop USS Lexington. Due to the confined spaces aboard-ship, Sherman grew close to Halleck and Ord, and in his Memoirs references a hike with Halleck to the summit of Corcovado overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, notable as the future spot of the Cristo Redentor statue. Sherman and Ord reached the town of Yerba Buena, in California, two days before its name was changed to San Francisco. In 1848, Sherman accompanied the military governor of California, Col. Richard Barnes Mason, in the inspection that officially confirmed that gold had been discovered in the region, thus inaugurating the California Gold Rush. Sherman, along with Ord, assisted in surveys for the sub-divisions of the town that would become Sacramento.
Sherman earned a brevet promotion to captain for his "meritorious service", but his lack of a combat assignment discouraged him and may have contributed to his decision to resign his commission. He would eventually become one of the few high-ranking officers during the Civil War who had not fought in Mexico.
Marriage and business career
An 1866 painted portrait of Sherman, by George P.A. Healy
In 1850, Sherman was promoted to the substantive rank of Captain and married his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, four years younger, in a Washington ceremony attended by President Zachary Taylor and other political luminaries. Thomas Ewing was serving as the Secretary of the Interior at the time.
Like her mother, Ellen Ewing Sherman was a devout Roman Catholic, and the Shermans' eight children were reared in that faith. In 1864, Ellen took up temporary residence in South Bend, Indiana, to have her young family educated at the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College. In 1874, with Sherman having become world-famous, their eldest child, Marie Ewing ("Minnie") Sherman, also had a politically prominent wedding, attended by President Ulysses S. Grant and commemorated by a generous gift from the Khedive of Egypt. (Eventually, one of Minnie's daughters married a grandson of Confederate general Lewis Addison Armistead.) Another of the Sherman daughters, Eleanor, was married to Alexander Montgomery Thackara at General Sherman's home in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 1880. To Sherman's great displeasure and sorrow, his oldest surviving son, Thomas Ewing Sherman, joined the religious order of the Jesuits in 1878 and was ordained as a priest in 1889.
The former Lucas, Turner & Co. bank building (1854–57) at Jackson & Montgomery Sts. in San Francisco
In 1853, Sherman resigned his captaincy and became manager of the San Francisco branch of the St. Louis-based bank Lucas, Turner & Co. He returned to San Francisco at a time of great turmoil in the West. He survived two shipwrecks and floated through the Golden Gate on the overturned hull of a foundering lumber schooner. Sherman suffered from stress-related asthma because of the city's aggressive business culture. Late in life, regarding his time in a San Francisco experiencing a frenzy of real estate speculation, Sherman recalled: "I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco." In 1856, during the vigilante period, he served briefly as a major general of the California militia.
Sherman's San Francisco branch closed in May 1857, and he relocated to New York on behalf of the same bank. When the bank failed during the financial Panic of 1857, he closed the New York branch. In early 1858, he returned to California to wrap up the bank's affairs there. Later in 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he tried his hand at law practice and other ventures without much success.
Military college superintendent
In 1859, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana, a position he sought at the suggestion of Major D. C. Buell and secured because of General George Mason Graham. He proved an effective and popular leader of the institution, which later became Louisiana State University (LSU). Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, the brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared that "if you had hunted the whole army, from one end of it to the other, you could not have found a man in it more admirably suited for the position in every respect than Sherman."
Although his brother John was well known as an antislavery congressman, Sherman did not oppose slavery and was sympathetic to Southerners' defense of the institution. He opposed, however, any attempt at dissolving the Union. On hearing of South Carolina's secession from the United States, Sherman observed to a close friend, Professor David F. Boyd of Virginia, an enthusiastic secessionist:
You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it... Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.
He thus very accurately described the four years of war to come.
In January 1861, as more Southern states were seceding from the Union, Sherman was required to accept receipt of arms surrendered to the State Militia by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent and returned to the North, declaring to the governor of Louisiana, "On no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile ... to the ... United States."
St. Louis interlude
Immediately following his departure from Louisiana, Sherman traveled to Washington, D.C., possibly in the hope of securing a position in the army, and met with Abraham Lincoln in the White House during inauguration week. Sherman expressed concern about the North's poor state of preparedness but found Lincoln unresponsive.
Thereafter, Sherman became president of the St. Louis Railroad, a streetcar company, a position he would hold for only a few months. Thus, he was living in border-state Missouri as the secession crisis came to a climax. While trying to hold himself aloof from controversy, he observed firsthand the efforts of Congressman Frank Blair, who later served under Sherman, to hold Missouri in the Union. In early April, he declined an offer from the Lincoln administration to take a position in the War Department as a prelude to his becoming Assistant Secretary of War. After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Sherman hesitated about committing to military service and ridiculed Lincoln's call for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell secession, reportedly saying: "Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun." However, in May, he offered himself for service in the regular army, and his brother (Senator John Sherman) and other connections maneuvered to get him a commission in the regular army. On June 3, he wrote that "I still think it is to be a long war – very long – much longer than any Politician thinks." He received a telegram summoning him to Washington on June 7.