Two failures who saved each other – and then saved a nation (part 1)

July 19, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Civil War, Home, journalism.

Well into his adult life, Cump Sherman considered himself a failure. So did others. He had attended West Point and had accomplished some relative successes in his military career. But when he left the army, he proceeded to fail at everything he tried. His health — he suffered from asthma — and his mental stability were the big question marks in his life.

Much the same could be said for Sam Grant. He, too, went to West Point and excelled there only at horsemanship. His experience in the Mexican War showed that he could lead men into combat effectively. Otherwise, like Sherman, Grant knew only failure as a civilian. Unlike Sherman, Grant’s health, mental and physical, was not in question, but he had demonstrated a weakness for alcohol.

Then in April 1861, the Civil War began, and both men got a second chance.

During that first year of the war, neither man seemed to be able to move much beyond their civilian failures. Sherman — whose family was well placed politically — wound up as the chief military commander for the forces in Kentucky, but his mental instability became public, and the criticism that ensued drove him more deeply into his depression.

Grant rose quickly through the ranks and achieved some notable successes at Forts Henry and Donelson as Union forces began their invasion of Tennessee. But his reputation for drinking dogged him, and although President Abraham Lincoln was impressed with his accomplishments, his military superiors, particularly Henry Halleck, had little use for him. Hallack, however, could not ignore Grant’s accomplishments and the favorable impression he had made on the public, so he promoted Grant to commander of the Union forces in West Tennessee.

At the same time, he put Sherman in charge of a department under Grant.

Sherman had been taken with Grant’s style of military command, decisive and forceful. He saw in Grant someone he could respect and trust, and his confidence in his military abilities was restored. Grant, in turn, showed respect for Sherman’s ability and confidence that he could lead soldiers into battle. That confidence was confirmed as the Union forces moved southward on the Tennessee River and landed near a small Methodist church name Shiloh.

It was there, at Shiloh, that Cump Sherman became the William Tecumseh Sherman that history has given to us. It was also at Shiloh that Sherman’s partnership with Ulysses S. Grant was forged, though in a strange and surprising way.

Part 2: Shiloh, the battle and beyond (next week)


The major sources for the information above are the excellent biography of Sherman (Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order) by John Marszalek and Winston Groom‘s Shiloh, 1862, an outstanding description of the battle that demonstrated to both sides what the next three years of the Civil War would be like.

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