Before his March to the Sea and other exploits that would gain him fame or infamy, William Tecumseh Sherman superseded Brigadier General Robert Anderson in command of the Department of the Cumberland. This change of command which occurred on Oct. 8, 1861, proved to be a trying time for Sherman who would be relieved of command a month later as those around him feared he might be “insane.”
Sherman had followed Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter, to another potential hot bed in Kentucky. Although the states had declared neutrality for Kentucky, Confederate troops were already in the state. Confederates under the command of Leonidas Polk were at Columbus, Felix Zollicoffer had seized the Cumberland Gap and Simon Bolivar Buckner was at Bowling Green. Keeping Kentucky neutral or, better yet, in the Union was essential to the Lincoln administration.
Anderson headed for Louisville, Ky., with Sherman, George Thomas and Ambrose Burnside serving as his brigadier generals. Sherman, who had been wounded at First Bull Run, stressed to President Abraham Lincoln that he would go to Kentucky but only wanted to be Anderson’s second and would not have to command the department himself. This agreement would only last for a short time.
The situation in the west was terrible at best. Both Anderson’s department, as well as General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate army, were poorly manned and supplied. Both sides feared actions by the other but neither had trained manpower or proper weapons to take action. Kentucky proved stressful for both Union and Confederate armies.
By October 1861, the Kentucky situation had gotten the best of Anderson and Sherman was informed that he would be given command of the Department of the Cumberland. While Sherman accepted his new command, he did so with a sense of foreboding. Unlike many who thought the Civil War would be short, Sherman saw a long drawn-out affair that would cost the country thousands of lives.
In a letter to a friend, Sherman confided, “I am forced into the command of this department, against my will, and it would take 300,000 men to fill half the calls for troops.”
Despite his misgivings, Sherman threw himself into the daunting task in Kentucky. He worked to raise a larger army, drawing volunteers from Indiana and Ohio. These raw recruits had to be trained and properly armed. In the early days of his command, Sherman had to sign a note to cover headquarters expenses and Thomas got a bank loan to supply his men.
While supplying and training what would become the Army of the Cumberland was a daunting task, Sherman also was envisioning worst case scenarios and sending Washington D. C., exaggerated estimates of Confederate strength while asking for more troops and material.
A week into his command, Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited Sherman. During this visit, Sherman presented Cameron with a doomsday scenario for Kentucky, stressing he needed more men and arms which were presently being sent to other departments.
Sherman stated he needed 60,000 men just for defensive purposes. He said 200,000 would be needed to push the Confederates out of Kentucky and into Tennessee. Cameron was astounded by Sherman’s candor exclaiming, “Great God! Where are they to come from?”
Upon his return to Washington D. C., elements of Cameron’s conversation with Sherman were leaked to the press. Cameron was also worried about Sherman’s state of mind. Since assuming command, Sherman had worked constantly, often without meals or sleep. The Washington rumor mill began to spread that Sherman was “touched in the head.”
Newspaper reporters got excerpts of Sherman’s meeting with Cameron, including his assertion that 200,000 troops were needed to keep Kentucky in the Union. Some newspapers wrote stories questioning Sherman’s sanity.
In Kentucky, Sherman’s mental state continued to deteriorate as he though phantom armies were behind each hillside. He countered this by spending more hours at work and asking for more men.
By late October 1861, Sherman wired Major General George B. McClellan asking that Henry Halleck and Don Carlos Buell be sent to Kentucky. By November 1861, McClellan sent Buell to Kentucky to relieve Sherman who was to report to Halleck in St. Louis.
Halleck gave Sherman light duty, hoping his friend would recover from the stress of Kentucky but his condition only got worse. Halleck sent Sherman home to Ohio and his wife for a 20-day leave. Halleck wired McClellan, “Gen. S. physical and mental system is so completely broken by labor and care as to render him for the present completely unfit for duty.”
Sherman later wrote that the concerns of command “broke me down” and that he contemplated suicide. While at home recovering, the Cincinnati Commercial printed an article with the headline “Gen. William T. Sherman Insane.”
By mid December, Sherman returned to Halleck, who gave his friend rear echelon duties to further restore Sherman’s confidence. Although Sherman worried that his career was over, it was not to be.
In the spring of 1862, Sherman teamed with Ulysses S. Grant for a stirring victory at the battle of Shiloh. After that, Grant and Sherman formed an effective pairing which brought victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga.
Depending on what side of the Mason-Dixon line one stands, Sherman gained his portion of fame or infamy by practicing the concept of “hard war.” Such a concept meant the Civil War was a war of southern conquest. To achieve such a conquest, the Confederate army would be defeated when the southern people’s will to conduct war was vanquished.
This meant the destruction of homes, crops and any material that could supply the Confederate army. Sherman first used this during the Meridian campaign after the surrender of Vicksburg. Sherman perfected the concept of total war during his March to the Sea in Georgia and afterwards through the Carolinas. While this made Sherman a hero in the north, he was reviled in the south.