Ohio History Journal

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William T. Sherman and the

Conservative Critique

of Radical Reconstruction


Paradoxes abound. The avenging angel of the Union whose army

made not only Georgia but the Carolinas howl became the generous

conciliator after Appomattox. The insecure general who loathed par-

tisan machination was sucked into the maelstrom of Washington poli-

tics. The arch-enemy of the Confederacy turned into the friend of

his fallen foes. A superb subject for psychological analysis, William

Tecumseh Sherman was more than the grizzled, red-haired genius of

modern warfare. Dubbed a "fighting prophet" by his best biogra-

pher,1 this highly complex, lonely and tragic figure became one of

the most acute and prophetic observers of Reconstruction America.

There was nothing clairvoyant or mystical about this very practical

man of affairs, a relentless organizer and constant worrier. Sherman's

prescience about the problems of Reconstruction grew out of his own

experience, and from the prejudices and assumptions he shared with

his contemporaries, especially those young midwesterners who had

filled the ranks of the federal armies. He also embodied the conserv-

atism of the West Point-trained officer. Intimate association with the

powerful Ewing family of Ohio imbued him with a reverence for the

Union and a Whiggish distrust of democracy. Yet Sherman's own

failures in business and his emotional response to the crises of the

1850s exacerbated this natural pessimism.2




George C. Rable is Director of American Studies at Anderson College, Anderson,

Indiana. He presented an earlier version of this essay at the Organization of American

Historians convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 8, 1983.


1. Lloyd Lewis, Sherman: Fighting Prophet (New York, 1932).

2. Like many other West Point graduates of the period, Sherman had found serv-

ice in the peacetime army both dull and frustrating. Despite potent family connections

in Ohio, Sherman never quite discovered his niche in the turbulent society of

antebellum America. A brief and disastrous stint as a San Francisco banker, an unhap-

py law practice in Lawrence, Kansas, and exasperating service as head of a military

academy in Alexandria, Louisiana, did nothing to alleviate Sherman's moodiness and

sense of failure.