William T. Sherman: Hero or Villain?

The upcoming miniseries “To Appomattox” features a character from history that has generated much controversy since the American Civil War. To this day, there are many in the South that view this man as the greatest villain in American history. Here, we shall look at the life of William Tecumseh Sherman, and whether or not he was truly a hero or a villain.

William T. Sherman, one of America's most controversial figures.

William Tecumseh Sherman. To many, this man is one of the greatest heroes of the Union army during the American Civil War. Although a relatively obscure officer when the war started, by the end of 1864, everybody knew who Sherman was. From the Campaign and Siege of Atlanta, to the infamous “March to the Sea,” to his conquest of the Carolinas, Sherman made a name for himself as a man who helped bring a swift sword into the Deep South, dismantling the infrastructure of the Confederacy, and leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His actions made him famous in the North. Down in the South, he became the Devil incarnate, a villain who brought harsh war not only on Confederate armies, but on the civilian population as well.

To this day, Sherman remains a very controversial figure in American Military History. There are many who view him as one of the greatest generals of the war. However, there are others, mostly but not all from the South, who view him as nothing more than a villain who let his men do about anything during the final campaigns. Indeed, there is no denying that Sherman was a very colorful figure. While he cannot be regarded fully as a hero, can he really be considered a villain as well?

Now, the manner of war that Sherman brought upon the South proved to do its job, whether or not a person may agree with how it was carried out. He basically broke the back of the Confederacy, taking out a major rail hub and manufacturing center for the South. And with the conquest of Savannah, he divided the South in three. In his march through South Carolina in early 1865, he and his army left the state, where the seeds of secession were born, a wasteland, torching everything they came across, stealing whatever they could, and making sure the civilians felt the complete scourge of war before entering North Carolina in March. Throughout the campaigns, he allowed his men to behave somewhat frivolously.

While there is some debate as to how much “conduct unbecoming” an officer or soldier took place, there are some signs that his men may have gone too far. One issue that seems to be contentious amongst historians are the stories that many women were raped by soldiers during the campaigns. Many state that there are only two reports of confirmed incidences of rape during the March to the Sea. Now, that is true. However, it is somewhat impossible confirm that those two cases were the only cases that took place, since a lot of women would not have reported it happening, especially when it occurred to them. In cases of these and other criminal activities, Sherman, wanting to bring harsh war on the South, did seem to turn a blind eye to such incidents.

Another issue with Sherman is that he was a racist. He had no problems with slavery, and loved the South and its people. What he did have a problem with was secession, and the breaking up of the Union. But he did not have much fondness for men and women of color. One instance in March of 1865 made his views very plain. After taking Fayetteville, North Carolina, he planned to destroy the textile mills, a source of work for many there. When one of the millworkers pleaded with him not to do so, he responded by saying: “Gentlemen, ni—ers and cotton caused this war, and I wish them both in Hell.” He then ordered the mills destroyed the coming Wednesday.

Another instance took place during the March to the Sea in 1864. As his armies marched through the Georgia countryside, many slaves now freed fell in behind the armies, and marched with them. But when they got to one of the rivers they had to cross, Confederate cavalry came bearing down on them. After the army was safely across the river, the bridges were cut, and the freed blacks were left to the mercy of the Confederates. Now, there are a number of historians that felt Sherman did the right thing in leaving them behind. However, others insist that this showed that he had no love for the black race. However, both sets agree that Sherman would not have shed a tear because he was racist.

Now, regardless of some of the questionable behavior by his men, and his racist views toward African Americans, there is no denying that Sherman achieved what he set out to do, and helped bring the war to its conclusion. So, as to the question of whether he was a hero or a villain, I would subscribe that he was a bit of both at the same time. He let his men go wild during the campaigns of 1864-65, but did caution them to behave themselves when entering North Carolina. He was a racist, but race was not the reason he fought the war. And when the war was coming to an end, you could see that Sherman was willing to give favorable terms to Joseph E. Johnston and his armies. In reality, Sherman was a flawed man who helped to bring total victory to the Union cause.

William Petersen will have the chance to portray a very colorful and flawed human being when To Appomattox airs in 2013. Mr. Petersen is a talented and wonderful actor, and will have to give everything and more to bring this controversial figure to life. The character of Sherman is the kind of character that any actor would relish to play: a hero and a villain wrapped into one human being. I am certain that Mr. Petersen will give nothing but a brilliant performance as William T. Sherman.

Works Consulted:

Trotter, William R. Silk Flags and Cold Steel (The Civil War in North Carolina: The Piedmont), NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1988.

About Steven Hancock

I am an avid student of American and World History, with a particular interest in the American Civil War. I am currently a student at American Public University, working toward a Master's Degree in United States History. I am also a Civil War Reenactor, donning the uniform of the common Union and Confederate soldier at reenactments throughout the year.
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7 Responses to William T. Sherman: Hero or Villain?

  1. Fred London says:

    Men have been known to change over time, and that includes attitudes about race. There are countless examples of this during the course of the War. Union officers and politicians changed their attitudes about blacks joining the ranks of the Union during the course of the War. The racial comment attributed to Sherman in March of 1865, amy or may not, have occurred. However, the alleged quote is not referenced. However, this account flies in the face of a well-documented account of Sherman’s meeting with a group of black clergyman in Savannah in January 1865. I have read the account of that meeting by multiple sources corraborating the story. It was from this meeting that Sherman’s proposal of “40 acres and a mule” came about. It is highly unlikely that the same man who offered such a proposal on behalf of blacks would have made such a derrogatory remark 2 months later. It is also recorded that Sherman treated the black clergyman with much dignity and respect. These accounts seem to contradict the single, unreferenced statement allegedly made by Sherman in March of 1865.

    • The quote from Sherman is documented as well, and mentioned in Trotter’s book “Silk Flags and Cold Steel,” which I consulted for the writing of the article. That is a really good book about the Civil War in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Sherman, from my understanding of the man, was a walking contradiction.

  2. I think Sherman’s quote that (paraphrasing here) “sandbags stop bullets better than black soldiers” perfectly sums up his opinion. He did not see the need/usefulness for black soldiers in his army. Yet, his sarcasm points out his opinion of what he believed the Federal government was using them for.

    Also, you should note that Billy P’s passion for Sherman is so strong that in 2012 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater he will be portraying the general in the stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s THE MARCH.

  3. Fred London says:

    Well, maybe Sherman being “a walking contradiction” is just another way of saying that he really was “crazy” after all?………….Crazy like a fox.

    • It does sound like that Sherman might have been bipolar. Of course, I’m no expert on psychological profiles of historical figures. Might be an interesting study for someone to do one day.

  4. Kevin Ginger says:

    Thank you for writing that interesting article!
    I am very interested in Sherman and he is my favorite general of the Civil War.
    I am interested in hearing more about the movie and I’m looking forward to seeing it!

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