William Sherman, Speaking to Union Veterans in Columbus OH, says, "War is all hell"

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William Sherman, Speaking to Union Veterans in Columbus OH, says, "War is all hell"

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, 1864 portrait by Mathew Brady
From the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 11, 1880

Today's stroll through history takes us to Columbus, Ohio, 15 years after the end of "The Great Unpleasantness" (also known as "The War of Northern Aggression" or "The War Between the States"). We will focus the harsh light of history on a speech given by the man known to his soldiers by the affectionate term of "Uncle Billy."


W.T. Sherman (this was how he signed all his correspondence, even letters to his wife) was born in 1820 in Lancaster, OH 33 miles southeast of Columbus. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1840 (sixth in a class of 42), and was assigned to the 3rd U.S. Artillery. He saw action in Florida during the Second Seminole War. Unlike many of his fellow Civil War officers, Sherman did not see action during the Mexican-American War. He was in California in an administrative post. In late 1848, he accompanied the military governor of California to Sutter's Fort to confirm the discovery of gold.

During the War of the Rebellion, Sherman saw action at the war's very first major battle at First Bull Run (First Manassas; July, 1861), and later served under U.S. Grant in the Western Theatre of the conflict. He participated in the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson (February, 1862), Shiloh (April, 1862), the siege of Vicksburg (May-July, 1863), and breaking the siege of Chattanooga (September-November, 1863).

In the spring of 1864, President Lincoln appointed Grant to be commander-in-chief of all Union armies. To replace him as commanding general in the Western Theatre, Grant appointed Sherman to the post. Shortly afterward, Sherman wrote to Grant outlining his plan to bring the War of Secession to an end, "…if you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol' Uncle Abe will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks."

Beginning in May of 1864, Sherman commanded nearly 100,000 soldiers, marching from Chattanooga, TN to Atlanta, GA. He captured Atlanta, a major city in the South (one of the Confederacy's few heavy industrial cities and railroad hub) on September 2. Resting his army for two months, Sherman's men then began the "March to the Sea," culminating in the occupation of Savannah, GA on December 21, 1864. [Interested readers may peruse my BurnPit post about the end of the "March to the Sea" at this link: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah;" Sherman's Army Reaches the Sea.]

"March to the Sea;" engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1868); From the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC
"March to the Sea;" engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1868)
From the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC

After reaching the Atlantic, Sherman's army group marched north into South Carolina, and unleashed their fury on the "hotbed of secession." The Union soldiers under Sherman maneuvered into North Carolina, opposed by Confederate troops under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Sherman accepted the surrender of Johnston's men in late May of 1865.

After the War of Secession, Sherman was appointed to the post of commanding general of the Military Department of the Missouri. This area covered the territory west of the Mississippi River up to the Rocky Mountains. In 1868, when Grant was elected President, Sherman was promoted to the rank of General of the Army, and appointed Commanding General of the United States Army. [This office existed until 1903, when the Army Chief of Staff was created.]

The Speech

Fifteen years after the Civil War ended, thousands of Ohio veterans converged on Columbus to celebrate their victories and remember their hardships. Between 1861 and 1865, Ohio had sent 310,000 soldiers to battle. More than 35,000 failed to return, and many who did came home missing an arm or a leg. Or worse, many returned to their homes suffering from a malady known as "soldier's heart." This was an early term for what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Few men knew the costs of war better than Sherman. On that rainy Wednesday in early August of 1880, "Uncle Billy" saluted his former troops at Franklin Park. The Columbus Dispatch reported: "As he rose from his seat, an estimated 10,000 voices shouted, ‘Three cheers for Uncle Billy.' The roar of applause was tremendous and deafening. When it subsided, the General began to talk in a familiar vein, which greatly pleased the boys."

According to the paper, Sherman said:

"It delights my soul to look on you and see so many of the good old boys left yet. They are not afraid of the rain; we have stood it many a time.

"The war now is away back in the past, and you can tell what books cannot. When you talk, you come down to the practical realities just as they happened. You all know this is not soldiering here. There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. [Emphasis added] You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror, but if it has to come, I am there."

Through the years, Sherman's Columbus speech was shortened to a pithy, laconic "War is hell." But that exact phrase apparently never crossed his lips. It does not appear in the surviving texts of any of his speeches.

Footnote #1: Sherman's roommate at West Point was one George Henry Thomas, a cadet from Virginia. He famously chose to remain in the U.S. Army – causing him to be effectively disinherited by his family – acquired the nom de guerre of the "Rock of Chickamauga," and scored one of the greatest victories of the war on December 15-16, 1864 in the battle of Nashville.

Footnote #2: During his tenure as Commanding General, Sherman supervised the U.S. Army's response to the Modoc War, the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Nez Perce War. He stepped down as commanding general on November 1, 1883 and retired from the Army on February 8, 1884.

Footnote #3: One of Sherman's significant contributions as head of the Army was the establishment of the Command School (now the Command and General Staff College) at Fort Leavenworth, KS in 1881.

Footnote #4: Sherman died of pneumonia in New York City at 1:50 PM on February 14, 1891. President Benjamin Harrison sent a telegram to General Sherman's family and ordered all national flags to be flown at half-staff. On 19 February, a funeral service was held at his home, followed by a military procession. General Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate officer who had commanded the resistance to Sherman's troops in Georgia and the Carolinas, served as a pallbearer in New York City. It was a bitterly cold day and a friend of Johnston, fearing that the general might become ill, asked him to put on his hat. Johnston famously replied: "If I were in [Sherman's] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat." In fact, Johnston did catch a serious cold and died one month later of pneumonia.

Footnote #5: In the 1962 film, How the West Was Won, one portion of the movie is set in the War Between the States at the battle of Shiloh, on the evening of the first day. The scene portrays a conversation between U.S. Grant (played by Harry Morgan, who played Col. Potter in the TV series M*A*S*H) and Gen. Sherman (played by John Wayne), as Sherman pleads with Grant not to quit the Army, despite the near-disastrous results of the first day of the battle of Shiloh.

Scene from How the West Was Won (1962) Gen. Sherman (John Wayne, at left) talks with Gen. Grant (Harry Morgan, at right); Image courtesy of http://civilwartalk.com/threads/sherman-in-the-movies.110011/
Scene from How the West Was Won (1962)
Gen. Sherman (John Wayne, at left) talks with Gen. Grant (Harry Morgan, at right)
Image courtesy of http://civilwartalk.com/threads/sherman-in-the-movies.110011/

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