Why the South Loved General Sherman Before the Civil War
During the Civil War Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, a Confederate soldier from Louisiana was captured by Union troops. Normally the young man, whose name was Barrow, would probably have felt very apprehensive about the treatment he might receive as a prisoner of war. But he knew he had a friend among his captors, one who was in a position to help him.
That friend had been the founding superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. Barrow had been a cadet there before volunteering to fight for the Confederacy when the war began. Now his former mentor was the commander of the army that had captured the young rebel. And as ex-Cadet Barrow was sure he would, General William Tecumseh Sherman remembered his one-time student.
A Union General Who Still Cared for His Confederate Former Students
In a letter to his wife a few days after the battle, General Sherman remarked:
After the battle was over I found among the prisoners an old Louisiana Cadet named Barrow who sent for me and told me all about the others, many of whom were here and knew they were fighting me. I gave him a pair of socks, drawers & shirt and treated him very kindly.
In the wake of the terror and devastation his forces inflicted during his 1864 campaign to capture Atlanta and then march his army through the heart of Georgia to the sea, William Tecumseh Sherman would be considered by many Southerners as little short of the devil incarnate. But the cadets and faculty at the Louisiana State Seminary, which after the war would become Louisiana State University, never felt that way about him.
A Northerner Who Was Welcomed in the South
Born in Ohio, Sherman was a decorated former U. S. Army Major who arrived in Louisiana in November of 1859 to become the founding superintendent of the state’s new military academy. His arrival had been greatly anticipated, with the press calling him “highly qualified” and noting that “he is spoken of officially as ‘standing high in the Army as a scholar, soldier and a gentleman.’”
Knowing he would have to build the institution basically from scratch, Sherman got enthusiastically to work, even though his salary wouldn’t begin for another two months. New to the task of leading a military academy, he wrote to his own old superintendent at West Point for advice. He also consulted future Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, and even traveled to Kentucky to visit a similar school in that state. Sherman had every intention of making Louisiana’s state military academy a first-rate institution, and by all accounts, he succeeded brilliantly.
The Disciplinarian Has a Rough Start With Cadets
In the beginning Sherman’s relations with his students were somewhat tumultuous. The incoming cadets were entirely unfamiliar with military discipline, and didn’t particularly want to learn it. As Agostino von Hassell and Ed Breslin put it in Sherman: The Ruthless Victor:
Sherman’s cadets had been drawn almost exclusively from the rich planter class of Louisiana. They were spoiled and head-strong, having grown accustomed to dominating slaves rather than doing arduous work for themselves. They did not take well to rules and discipline imposed on them and Sherman was regarded as far too strict, harsh, arbitrary, and inflexible.
Sherman Gains the Respect and Affection of His Students
Although it seemed that Sherman had made a bad start with his quick tempered students, it didn't take him long to turn their attitudes completely around. He remained a strict disciplinarian, but he also displayed a personal concern for both cadets and faculty members that endeared him to them for life.
David French Boyd was a professor at the school who developed a deep and enduring affection for the superintendent. Although Boyd would become a Confederate officer and fight against his former boss, his respect and admiration for Sherman never wavered, both during the war and after. Here’s how he remembered those days when Superintendent Sherman was winning the love and admiration of both the faculty and the cadets at the school:
One soon saw in him two men—the stern, strict, exacting man of business or duty, and the kind sympathetic friend and adviser. He made every professor and cadet at the Seminary keep his place and do his duty.
At the same time he was the intimate social companion and confidential friend of the professors and a kind loving father to the cadets. All loved him. In the “off hours” from duty or drill he encouraged the cadets to look him up and have a talk. And often have I seen his private rooms nearly full of boys, listening to his stories of army or western life which he loved so well to tell them. Nor could he appear on the grounds in recreation hours without the cadets one by one gathering around him for a talk. Nothing seemed to delight him so much as to mingle with us socially; and the magnetism of the man riveted us all to him very closely, especially the cadets. Scarcely a day passed that he did not see each and every one of them personally, asking about themselves not only, and all that concerned them at the school; but also about their people at home...
To me, who had seen more of him and knew him better than any one else in Louisiana, his leaving was like parting with a father and a dear, loving friend both in one person. I never lost this feeling for him a jot or tittle. And the cadets! How they loved him. Nearly every man and boy of us who remained that morning at the Academy went into the Confederate army, except two who entered the Union army. Some of us were captured, I among them, and whenever Sherman heard of it we soon felt his sympathy and his helping hand. He never forgot us. Of all the men I have ever known intimately and well, he was the greatest and one of the very best. I am proud of my unique experience——a professor under Sherman and a soldier under Stonewall Jackson.
(After the war Boyd would be severely criticized by Confederate veterans for having such kind words to say about a man much of the South considered an inhuman monster).
Who was the real William T. Sherman?
Secession Forces Sherman to Make a Painful Choice
From the moment Sherman arrived in Louisiana, talk of secession and civil war had been in the air. The future Union general always professed great love for the Southern people who had received him so warmly. But Sherman was a confirmed Unionist. From the beginning of his tenure at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, he had made it clear that if Louisiana seceded from the Union, he would have to leave.
Louisiana did secede in January of 1861. Foreseeing the event, Sherman sent the following letter of resignation to the governor:
January 18, 1861, Governor Thomas O. Moore, Baton, Rouge, Louisiana.
Sir: As I occupy a quasi-military position under the laws of the State, I deem it proper to acquaint you that I accepted such position when Louisiana was a State in the Union, and when the motto of this seminary was inserted in marble over the main door: "By the liberality of the General Government of the United States. The Union—esto perpetua."
Recent events foreshadow a great change, and it becomes all men to choose. If Louisiana withdraw from the Federal Union, I prefer to maintain my allegiance to the Constitution as long as a fragment of it survives; and my longer stay here would be wrong in every sense of the word...
And furthermore, as president of the Board of Supervisors, I beg you to take immediate steps to relieve me as superintendent, the moment the State determines to secede, for on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile to or in defiance of the old Government of the United States.
With great respect, your obedient servant,
W. T. SHERMAN, Superintendent.
The Most Influential Men in the State Urge Sherman to Stay
By this time Sherman had become so beloved and respected for his accomplishments at the school, that not only did his colleagues and students beg him to stay, but influential state officials did as well. As Boyd notes, men such as Braxton Bragg, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Richard Taylor, all of whom would become Confederate generals, urged Sherman to stay on as the head of the school, assuring him that he would not be required to fight in any way for the Confederacy.
But Sherman hated secession, believing it to be treason, and decided that he had no choice but to go back to the North as soon as it became clear that war was inevitable.
VIDEO: Brief Sherman bio
A Man Hated and Loved in the South
Despite his undying love for the school he founded, for his students, and for the Southerners who had welcomed him into their hearts and homes, Sherman became an implacable foe of all secessionists.
He would eventually become one of the most effective Union generals of the war, fighting to the death against his former friends in the South. He would later say of his attitude toward those who had attempted to rip apart the nation:
My aim, then, was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.
That’s the Sherman many in the South would remember and hate for decades after the war.
But for his colleagues and students at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, William Tecumseh Sherman would always be the beloved mentor who cared for them and never let them down, even when they fought against him.
© 2014 Ronald E Franklin