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How White Supremacist William Tecumseh Sherman Tried to Improve Slavery

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Slave Auction Business in Atlanta, 1864

Slave Auction Business in Atlanta, 1864

During the U.S. Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the major architects of Confederate defeat and the final overthrow of American slavery. Yet in his personal attitudes, he was, by his own account, a racist and white supremacist.

Sherman Thought It an Insult to Whites to Consider Blacks Their Equals

Sherman’s attitude toward black people was basically one of contempt. He was quite comfortable with publicly referring to them by the N-word, even though he was well aware that then, as now, the term was highly offensive.

“But say ‘N-’ in the United States,” he complained, and “the whole country goes crazy.” 1

He was particularly incensed at the idea of considering blacks to be equal to whites. “I like N-s well enough as N-s," he said, "but when fools and idiots try and make N-s better than ourselves, I have an opinion.”

Convinced that blacks were too cowardly and lazy to be effective soldiers, he told his wife in a letter that “It is an insult to our Race to count them” as equivalent to white men in the draft quota. As historian John F. Marszalek puts it, Sherman “maintained the racial views of a Southern slaveholder.” 2

But, to give Sherman his due, he was willing to tell Southern slaveholders to their faces that they needed to lighten up in their treatment of enslaved people.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865

Sherman Tells Slaveholders How to Make Slavery More Humane

In his memoirs Sherman recounts what happened at a dinner party in February of 1860 at the home of Louisiana governor Thomas Overton Moore.4 Sherman, who was from Ohio, had been appointed in 1859 as the founding superintendent of Louisiana’s new military academy. But his brother was John Sherman, then a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The congressman was thought in the South to be a leading abolitionist, which white Southerners considered “the most horrible of all monsters,” as William put it. With the idea of secession steadily gathering momentum, some prominent state officials were concerned about the brother of a high-profile abolitionist being at the head of the state’s military training institution.

After assuring Governor Moore and his guests that his brother was definitely not an abolitionist, Sherman, at the governor’s request, went on to share his personal thoughts about slavery.

Sherman told Southerners they needed to “bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings.”

Although he had no issue with keeping black people enslaved, Sherman thought they should be treated more humanely. He had several ideas about how that could be achieved:

Slaveholders Should Treat Slaves More Like Human Beings

The people of Louisiana should not be held responsible for slavery, Sherman said, because they inherited it. Still, there were things they should do to “bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings under all Christian and civilized governments.”

Slave Families Should Not Be Broken up by Selling Them Away From One Another

First, said Sherman, “I would forbid the separation of families, letting the father, mother, and children, be sold together to one person, instead of each to the highest bidder.”

Whether he realized it or not, in this recommendation Sherman highlighted the greatest fear of most enslaved families — that by a slaveholder’s whim or need for money, husbands could be forever separated from their wives and children from their parents. South Carolina slave Robert Smalls, for example, was so desperate to protect his wife and children from being sold away from him that he, still enslaved himself, actually tried to buy them from their “owner.” When that didn’t work, Smalls organized an escape plan that succeeded in bringing his and several other families to freedom. 3

Slaves Should Be Taught to Read and Write

Next, Sherman said, he would repeal the law that made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. He justified that policy to his slaveholding audience not on the basis that literacy would enhance the lives of the slaves, but that it would increase their value as property. He gave the example of a slave named Henry Sampson, whom Sherman had employed when he was a banker in California:

At first he could not write or read, and I could only afford to pay him one hundred dollars a month; but he was taught to read and write by Reilley, our bank-teller, when his services became worth two hundred and fifty dollars a month, which enabled him to buy his own freedom and that of his brother and his family. 5

Sherman recalled that his views were “listened to by all with the most profound attention,” and kicked off a lively debate, carried out “on both sides with ability and fairness.”

Sherman Belatedly Admitted That the South Had Treated Blacks Unjustly

By the end of the Civil War, Sherman recognized that the South had severely mistreated its black population. Three months before the Confederacy’s final surrender at Appomattox, he declared: 1

The South deserves all she has got for her injustice to the negro.

— General William Tecumseh Sherman as the Civil War was nearing its end

Still, it’s notable that Sherman never expressed any qualms about the institution of slavery itself, or about the morality of forcibly holding human beings in perpetual bondage.

Convinced as he was that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, Sherman probably considered his view that slavery was not in itself evil but should be made more humane, an enlightened one.

[1] John David Smith, Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops, p. 31
[2] John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, p. 271
[3] Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, p. 47
[4] William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, p. 140–141
[5] Ibid

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin