A reunited nation stands as Grant and Sherman’s enduring monument.
Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman formed the most important and successful military partnership of the Civil War. As general in chief of United States armies and commander of what would now be called an army group, Grant and Sherman worked on a larger canvas than R.E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson—the Confederacy’s preeminent team—and proved indispensable to saving the Union. Both Ohio-born leaders had experienced personal and professional setbacks during the antebellum years but during the Civil War discovered they could rely on each other. Abraham Lincoln and the loyal citizenry of the United States relied on them as well. As the president explained in March 1864, Grant’s elevation to lieutenant general represented the “nation’s appreciation of what you have done and its reliance upon you for what remains to do in the existing great struggle….I scarcely need to add that with what I here speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.” A newspaper account of the Grand Review in Washington at the close of the war captured the pervasive opinion across the North that Grant’s and Sherman’s veterans, more than 150,000 of whom had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, “are the champions of free governments” who “have saved the world as they have saved the Union.”
Success during the war did not come immediately—especially for Sherman. He failed as an independent commander in late 1861, magnifying Rebel threats and suffering a crippling loss of confidence. On January 1, 1862, he confessed to his wife, “The idea of having brought disgrace on all associated with me is so horrible to con template that I really cannot endure it.” Only subsequent service under Grant retrieved his reputation. The mercurial Sherman, who never underestimated his own talents, readily acknowledged Grant’s dominant position. “I’m a damned sight smarter than Grant,” he told Union Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson in 1864. “I know more about organization, supply and administration and about everything else than he does; but I’ll tell you where he beats me and where he beats the world. He don’t care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight but it scares me like hell.”
Sherman’s assessment got to the heart of Grant’s greatness—steady confidence, imperturbable will and tenacity that, together with a willingness to shoulder ultimate responsibility, provided a calming framework within which Sherman thrived. Grant grasped his friend’s strong points from the outset, writing to his wife in January 1865, “I am glad to say that I appreciated Sherman from the first feeling him to be what he has proven to the world he is.” The two men developed unshakable trust in one another. “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me,” Sherman wrote Grant in reference to their campaigns of 1862-63, “and if I got in a tight place you would come—if alive.”
They fought together from the spring of 1862 until the end, directing storied campaigns in the Western and Eastern theaters and presiding over the surrenders of the two principal Rebel armies in April 1865. Grant learned to allow his lieutenant wide latitude and praised him often. When Sherman’s critics suggested the March to the Sea had originated with others, for example, Grant settled the matter in his Personal Memoirs: “The question of who devised the plan of march from Atlanta to Savannah is easily answered: it was clearly Sherman, and to him also belongs the credit for its brilliant execution.” For his part, Sherman recognized in Grant a rare ability to draw the best from lieutenants. “General Grant possesses in an eminent degree that peculiar & high attribute of using various men to produce a Common result,” he observed in the summer of 1863, “and now that his Character is well established we can easily subordinate ourselves to him with the absolute assurance of serving the Common Cause of our Country.”
Both men wrote memorable accounts of the war. The two thick volumes of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant reveal the strategic vision, willingness to experiment and daring that brought success at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and finally against Lee in Virginia. Grant’s tribute to Zachary Taylor helps illuminate his own success: “General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands….No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.” Similarities between Grant and “Old Rough and Ready” also impressed Sherman, who wrote during the Vicksburg Campaign, “Grant is as honest as old Zack Taylor.”
Grant and Sherman agreed that victory required laying a hard hand on Confederate civilians as well as defeating Rebel armies. Grant’s orders to Sherman following the fall of Atlanta allowed Federals to live off the land to a considerable extent. “You will, no doubt, clean the country where you go of railroad tracks and supplies,” instructed Grant as his lieutenant prepared to strike toward Savannah: “I would also move every wagon, horse, mule, and hoof of stock, as well as the negroes.” As often was the case, Sherman deployed more colorful language to make a similar point. He intended to persuade Confederate civilians that their government was helpless to defend them, and possible accusations of brutality would not dissuade him. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” he stated after ordering civilians to evacuate Atlanta, “I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.”
No artist ever produced a painting of Grant and Sherman that achieved the iconic status of E.B.D. Julio’s The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, an engraving of which hung in countless Southern homes following Appomattox and kept alive the pair’s reputation as Confederate paladins. But few who celebrated United States victory in the conflict needed an artistic reminder of the Union’s transcendent military partnership. The nation stood as Grant’s and Sherman’s imperishable monument, a restored republic for which they, more than anyone else but Abraham Lincoln, could claim credit.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.