14 Facts About William Tecumseh Sherman

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William Tecumseh Sherman seems to be a contradiction—a rough and tough orphan who hated military decorum but who went on to become one of the most important Union generals during the Civil War. From high highs leading troops during the Civil War, to low lows in his business failures, he remains a controversial figure to this day. Here are some fascinating facts about William Tecumseh Sherman.

1. William Tecumseh Sherman went by his middle name for the first part of his life.

According to a biography [PDF] by Lloyd Lewis published in 1932, at birth Sherman was given the first name Tecumseh—for the Shawnee chief—and went by that name until he was about 9 or 10. In 1829, his father, Ohio State Supreme Court justice Charles R. Sherman, died, and his mother, Mary Hoyt Sherman, couldn't support the children. Family friends helped, and Sherman went to live with soon-to-be Ohio Senator Thomas Ewing. Lewis says that the Ewings would have a priest visit monthly and teach the children. But one day the priest was told that Sherman “had never really been baptized.” After getting permission from Sherman’s mother, the priest asked for Sherman’s name. Upon hearing "Tecumseh," Lewis says, the priest proclaimed that “He must be named for a saint,” and because it was the feast of St. William, the child would be baptized William.

But Sherman himself wrote in his autobiography that “when I came along, on the 8th of February, 1820 ... my father succeeded in his original purpose, and named me William Tecumseh.” Today, most historians prefer the autobiographical source and agree he was born William Tecumseh, though he did go by his middle name when he was young—family members called him “Cump."

2. William Tecumseh Sherman excelled at West Point.

In 1836, then-Senator Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman to enter West Point as a cadet. He graduated sixth in his class, and according to classmates, he was an exceptional student. Fellow cadet and eventual Civil War general William Rosecrans remembered Sherman as “one of the brightest and most popular fellows.”

Sherman's recollections of his school performance were quite different: He later wrote in his memoirs that “I was not considered a good soldier, for at no time was I selected for any office, but remained a private throughout the whole four years. Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications required for office, and I suppose I was found not to excel in any of these. In studies I always held a respectable reputation with the professors, and generally ranked among the best, especially in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy. My average demerits, per annum, were about one hundred and fifty, which reduced my final class standing from four to six.”

3. William Tecumseh Sherman married his foster sister.

Sherman was fond of the Ewings’ eldest daughter, Ellen, and frequently corresponded with her while at West Point. After a relatively long courtship for the time, the pair eventually got married in 1850 while her father was the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Sherman was 30 and Ellen (whose real name was Eleanor) was 25.

Of the long-time-coming occasion, Sherman, in his typical straightforward manner, simply wrote in his memoirs, “I was married to Miss Ellen Boyle Ewing, daughter of the Hon. Thomas Ewing, Secretary of the Interior. The marriage ceremony was attended by a large and distinguished company, embracing Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, T.H. Benton, President [Zachary] Taylor, and all his cabinet.” The newlyweds soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri.

4. Sherman dropped out of the military to become a banker.

After graduating from West Point, Sherman was assigned to fight in the Second Seminole War, and was primarily stationed in the South. He was eventually moved again, and served in California during the Mexican-American War in a largely administrative role. (He would eventually become one of the few high-ranking officers during the Civil War who didn’t fight in Mexico.)

Citing his lack of experience, he resigned his commission in 1853 and set out to build a career in the private sector. He became manager of Lucas, Turner & Co., the San Francisco branch of a St. Louis-based bank. But by 1857, financial difficulties in California forced the bank to close. He tried picking up again as a manager at a Lucas, Turner & Co. bank in New York, but the Panic of 1857 put an end to that. He then tried becoming a lawyer in Kansas until other job opportunities arose. (A few years later, when he was considering a job in London, he told his wife, “I suppose I was the Jonah that blew up San Francisco, and it only took two months’ residence in Wall Street to bust up New York, and I think my arrival in London will be the signal of the downfall of that mighty empire.”)

5. He helped spark the California gold rush.

prospectors panning for gold in California
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Despite failing in his career as a banker, Sherman was directly involved in the expansion of the California Gold Rush. He helped convince military governor Richard Mason to investigate one of the first reported gold discoveries in California after two miners brought half an ounce of placer gold to his office.

He then went on a fact-finding mission with Mason to determine whether there was more gold in California, where he said, “Stories reached us of fabulous discoveries, and spread throughout the land. Everybody was talking of ‘Gold! gold!!’ until it assumed the character of a fever. Some of our soldiers began to desert; citizens were fitting out trains of wagons and pack-mules to go to the mines. We heard of men earning fifty, five hundred, and thousands of dollars per day.”

Sherman later helped write a letter Mason sent to Washington relaying their findings, effectively opening up California for prospectors.

6. The opening shots of the Civil War inspired William Tecumseh Sherman to sign up again.

Sherman took a job as headmaster of a military academy in Louisiana in January 1860 thanks to referrals from two friends, Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard (who would both eventually serve on the Confederate side, as an officer and a general respectively). He held the job for a year, but he quit and returned to St. Louis after Louisiana seceded from the Union. Sherman was devoted to the Union, but he thought the rising South versus North tensions were unnecessary, and that Lincoln’s attempts to combat the secessionists were insignificantly small.

After the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 effectively started the Civil War, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to enlist for a campaign to end the secession. Sherman was initially unconvinced, saying, "You might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.” But he requested that his brother, Ohio Senator John Sherman, get him a commission as a colonel in the Army.

7. After his defeat at Bull Run, he almost quit again.

In July 1861, Sherman fought in the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run, where the Union troops were badly beaten. The next month, he met with Lincoln, telling the president that he had an “extreme desire to serve in a subordinate capacity, and in no event to be left in a superior command.” Despite his wishes, Sherman was given second command of the Army of the Cumberland in Kentucky, where he fell into increasing levels of depression and nearly quit.

He was concerned that his force wasn’t strong enough to take on the Confederates, and with all the detachments he was sending to protect various areas, his force was weakened even further. “Do not conclude,” he wrote, “that I exaggerate the facts. They are as stated and the future looks as dark as possible. It would be better if some man [of] sanguine mind was here, for I am forced to order according to my convictions.”

Journalists covering his movements described that “it was soon whispered about that he was suffering from mental depression,” and that he was “a bundle of nerves all strung to their highest tension.” A December 11, 1861 headline from the Cincinnati Commercial [PDF] read, “General William T. Sherman Insane,” and another paper proclaimed, “General Sherman, who lately commanded in Kentucky, is said to be insane. It is charitable to think so.”

He was relieved of his command on November 8, and was eventually given three weeks’ leave to go back home to Lancaster, Ohio, where Ellen helped treat "that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject."

8. Sherman was best buds with Ulysses S. Grant.

Once back in good spirits, Sherman was assigned to Cairo, Illinois, where he served as the logistical coordinator for someone who would become his military confidante and good friend: Ulysses S. Grant. Their friendship and military prowess would be tested at the Battle of Shiloh, where Sherman served under Grant and and dealt the Confederate army a decisive counterattack after they surprised the Union forces in the early morning of April 6, 1862.

When the pair met up later that night after fending off Confederate attacks, historian Bruce Catton said, “He came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, ‘moved,’ as he put it later, ‘by some wise and sudden instinct’ not to talk about retreat, he said: ‘Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?’ Grant said ‘Yes,’ and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it, ‘Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though.’"

9. William Tecumseh Sherman changed the rules of war.

Sherman's March To The Sea
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Most of Sherman’s combat reputation comes from his March to the Sea, a month-long campaign, where he was given free rein to use his 60,000 troops to disrupt industry, infrastructure, and civilian property in Georgia deep behind enemy lines as a way to cripple the Confederate economy. “The utter destruction of [Georgia's] roads, houses and people,” he wrote, “will cripple their military resources … I can make the march and make Georgia howl!” It was a technique that became known as “hard war.” (He would eventually employ this same tactic in campaigns against Native American tribes after the war.) Of the dangerous campaign, Sherman wrote to his superiors, saying, “I am going into the very bowels of the Confederacy, and will leave a trail that will be recognized fifty years hence.”

10. William Tecumseh Sherman was not an abolitionist. 

In fact, he was prejudiced: In 1860, he wrote, “All the Congresses on earth can’t make the negro anything else than what he is; he must be subject to the white man, or he must amalgamate or be destroyed. Two such races cannot live in harmony save as master and slave.”

And though he was fighting for the Union, Sherman also declined to employ black troops in his armies. “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war," he said. "With my opinion of negroes and my experience, yea prejudice, I cannot trust them yet ... with arms in positions of danger.”

According to the National Archives, "By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy ... Because of prejudice against them, black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. Nevertheless, the soldiers served with distinction in a number of battles," including those at Milliken's Bend and Port Hudson, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; and Petersburg, Virginia. Sixteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

11. Lenient surrender terms got him in deep trouble.

Days after Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, the general met with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston in Durham, North Carolina to accept the surrender of the Confederate armies that were still fighting in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Sherman, who didn’t receive word of the specifics to any other terms of surrender, wrote his own for Johnston to agree upon, which included providing Confederates citizenship and property rights so long as they laid down their arms and returned home peacefully.

When word of the terms made its way to Washington, an immediate backlash ensued. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said Sherman’s leniency threw away “all the advantages we had gained from the war ... afford[ing] Jeff Davis an opportunity to escape with all his money.” Rhode Island Senator William Sprague IV even called for Sherman’s immediate removal from command.

Johnston eventually agreed to a simple military surrender devoid of any civil guarantees. Sherman and Johnston went on to become a good friends, and the latter even served as a pallbearer at his former adversary’s funeral in 1891.

12. William Tecumseh Sherman coined a sobering wartime phrase.

William Tecumseh Sherman
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Sherman’s blunt assessment of his experiences in the Civil War were summed up in a speech he gave to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy on June 19, 1879. Though published accounts differ, he allegedly told the cadets, “War is Hell!”

Some cite the speech as saying, “You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

Others claim Sherman said, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell,” or “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all Hell!”

13. He was a lifelong fan of the theater.

In a stopover in Nashville, while he was contemplating strategy with Grant, Sherman and a group of generals took in a local performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But they didn’t stay long.

Sherman allegedly thought that the actors onstage were butchering their roles so badly that he couldn’t bear watching any longer, and supposedly voiced his discouragement out loud for audience members to hear. He left along with Grant to find a restaurant that served oysters, but when they finally found one, their meal was cut short due to the Union-imposed military curfew.

14. Being elected president wasn't his thing.

After the war his name came up numerous times as a prospective Republican nominee for president. When the Republican National Convention of 1884 tapped him as a serious potential candidate, he sent them a straightforward rejection: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” He died in 1891 of pneumonia.

25 Things You Might Not Know About Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States, penned one of the greatest documents of the modern world in the Declaration of Independence. While that’s certainly a career highlight, it’s far from the only interesting thing about him. For more on Jefferson’s life, accomplishments, and controversies, take a look at this assembly of 25 facts.

1. He was addicted to learning.

Born April 13 (April 2 on the pre-Gregorian calendar), 1743 at his father’s Shadwell plantation in Virginia, Jefferson was one of 10 children (eight of whom survived to adulthood). While he attended the College of William and Mary (he graduated in 1762), he was said to have studied for 15 hours daily on top of violin practice. The hard work paid off: Jefferson moved into law studies before becoming a lawyer in 1767. Two years later, he became a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature. His autodidact ways continued throughout his life: Jefferson could speak four languages (English, Italian, French, Latin) and read two more (Greek and Spanish).

2. His greatest work was a study in contradiction.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress and the “Committee of Five” (a group consisting of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson brought together for this purpose), Jefferson was tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence, an argument against the 13 colonies being held under British rule. While the Declaration insisted that all men are created equal and that their right to liberty is inherent at birth, Jefferson’s plantation origins meant that he embraced the institution of slavery. In any given year, Jefferson supervised up to 200 slaves, with roughly half under the age of 16. He perpetuated acts of cruelty, sometimes selling slaves and having them relocated away from their families as punishment. Yet in a book titled Notes on the State of Virginia (which he began writing during his stint as governor and published in 1785), Jefferson wrote that he believed the practice was unjust and “tremble[d]” at the idea of God exacting vengeance on those who perpetuated it. Though Jefferson acknowledged slavery as morally repugnant—and also criticized the slave trade in a passage that was cut from the Declaration of Independence "in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia”—he offered no hesitation in benefiting personally from it, a hypocrisy that would haunt his legacy through the present day.

3. He didn't like being rewritten.

After drafting the Declaration, Jefferson waited as Congress poured over his document for two days. When they broke session, Jefferson was annoyed to find that they were calling for extensive changes and revisions. He disliked the fact the passage criticizing the slave trade was to be omitted, along with some of his harsh words against British rule. Benjamin Franklin soothed his irritation, and the finished Declaration was adopted July 4, 1776, spreading via horseback and ship throughout that summer.

4. He recorded everything.

After inheriting his family’s Shadwell estate, Jefferson began constructing a new brick mansion on the property he dubbed Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian. For operations at Monticello and the properties he would acquire later in life, Jefferson was preoccupied with recording the minutiae of his daily routine, jotting down journal entries about the weather, his expansive garden, and the behavior of animals on his property. He kept a running tally of the hogs killed in a given year, mused about crop rotations, and noted the diet of his slaves.

5. He doubled the size of the country.

Jefferson’s greatest feat as president, an office he held from 1801 to 1809, was the Louisiana Purchase, a treaty-slash-transaction with France that effectively doubled the size of the United States. The deal took careful diplomacy, as Jefferson knew that France controlling the Mississippi River would have huge ramifications on trade movements. Fortunately, Napoleon Bonaparte was in the mood to deal, hoping the sale of the 830,000 square miles would help finance his armed advances on Europe. Bonaparte wanted $22 million; he settled for $15 million. Jefferson was elated, though some critics alleged the Constitution didn’t strictly allow for a president to purchase foreign soil.

6. He fought pirates.

Another instance where Jefferson pushed the limits of his Constitutional power was his fierce response to Barbary pirates, a roving band of plunderers from North Africa who frequently targeted supply ships in the Mediterranean and held them for ransom. Under Jefferson’s orders, American warships were dispatched to confront the pirates directly rather than capitulate to their demands. The initial Navy push was successful, but the pirates were able to capture a massive American frigate—which an American raiding party subsequently set fire to so the ship couldn't be used against them. A treaty was declared in 1805, although tensions resumed in what was known as the Second Barbary War in 1815. Again, Naval ships forced Algerian ships to retreat.

7. He helped popularize ice cream in the U.S.

Jefferson spent time in France in the 1700s as a diplomat, and that’s where he was likely introduced to the dessert delicacy known as ice cream. While not the first to port over recipes to the United States, his frequent serving of it during his time as president contributed to increased awareness. Jefferson was so fond of ice cream that he had special molds and tools imported from France to help his staff prepare it; because there was no refrigeration at the time, the confections were typically kept in ice houses and brought out to the amusement of guests, who were surprised by a frozen dish during summer parties. He also left behind what may be the first ice cream recipe in America: six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, two bottles of cream, and one vanilla bean.

8. He bribed a reporter.

Presidential scandals and dogged newspaper reporters are not strictly a 20th or 21st century dynamic. In the 1790s, a reporter named James Callender ran articles condemning several politicians—including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—for various indiscretions. In 1801, he turned his attention to Jefferson, whom he alleged was having an affair with one of his slaves, a woman named Sally Hemings. Callender went to Jefferson and demanded he receive $200 and a job as a postmaster in exchange for his silence. Disgusted, Jefferson gave him $50. Callender eventually broke the news that Hemings and Jefferson had been involved, a relationship that resulted in several children. Jefferson supporters ignored the story—which modern-day DNA testing later corroborated—but Callender was never in a position to gather more evidence: He drowned in the James River in 1803.

9. He had a pet mockingbird.

Even before the Revolution, Jefferson had taken a liking to mockingbirds, and he brought this affection to the White House, which they filled with melodious song. (And, presumably, bird poop.) But he was singularly affectionate toward one mockingbird he named Dick. The bird was allowed to roam Jefferson’s office or perch on the president’s shoulder. When Jefferson played his violin, Dick would accompany with vocals. Dick and his colleagues followed Jefferson back to Monticello when he was finished with his second term in 1809.

10. He invented a few things.

Not one to sit idle, Jefferson used his available free time to consider solutions to some of the problems that followed him at his Monticello farming endeavors. Anxious to till soil more efficiently, he and his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, conceived of a plow that could navigate hills. He also tinkered with a way of improving a dumbwaiter, the elevator typically used to deliver food and other goods from one floor to another.

11. His wife had a curious connection to his mistress.

Jefferson was married for just 10 years before his wife, Martha Wayles, died in 1782 at age 33 of unknown causes. Curiously, Jefferson’s involvement with his slave, Sally Hemings, was part of Martha's convoluted family tree. Martha’s father, John Wayles, had an affair with Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings—meaning most historians think Sally and Martha were half-sisters.

12. He's credited with creating a catchphrase.

During his second term as president, Jefferson was said to have run into a man on horseback near his Monticello estate who proceeded to engage him in a lengthy complaint of everything wrong in Washington. Reportedly, the man had no idea he was speaking to the commander-in-chief until Jefferson introduced himself. The man, deeply embarrassed, quickly spouted “my name is Haines” and then galloped away. True or not, Jefferson is credited with originating the resulting catchphrase that was popular in the 1800s, with people saying “my name is Haines” whenever they wanted to feign embarrassment or were forced to leave abruptly.

13. He was served with a subpoena.

Long before Richard Nixon landed in hot water, Thomas Jefferson resisted attempts to compel him to testify in court. The matter unraveled in 1807, when James Wilkinson insisted he had sent Jefferson a letter informing him of Aaron Burr’s plot to invade Mexico. Government attorneys wanted Jefferson to appear with the letter, but the president—who said that the country would be left without leadership if he traveled to Richmond to answer the subpoena—refused to appear, an act of executive willpower that was never challenged in court.

14. He had a secret retreat.

Though Monticello remained Jefferson’s pride and joy, he had another residence for times when he wanted to be alone. Poplar Forest, located near Lynchburg, Virginia, was an octagonal home that he had built to exacting detail: The windows were measured so they would bring in only Jefferson’s preferred amount of sunlight. The home took years to construct and was nearly ready by the time he left office in 1809. It’s now open to the public.

15. He was a shabby dresser.

After taking office, Jefferson offended some in Washington who believed the president should be an impeccably-dressed and polished social host. While many of his stature would opt for a carriage, Jefferson rode a horse and dressed in plain and comfortable clothing. He acknowledged only two official White House celebrations annually: the 4th of July and New Year’s Day.

16. He was an early wine connoisseur.

Centuries before wine appreciation became a national pastime, Jefferson was busy accumulating an eclectic wine cellar. His love for the drink coincided with his trip to France, where he was introduced to the various tastes and textures. He kept a well-stocked collection at Monticello and also tried growing his own European grapes, but was never successful.

17. He shocked people by eating a tomato.

Jefferson’s multitudes of crops included what were, for their time, unique and sometimes puzzling additions. He grew tomatoes when their consumption in Virginia was uncommon, and, according to one account from 1900, Jefferson reportedly appalled some onlookers when he would consume one in front of witnesses.

18. He probably had a fear of public speaking.

Without today’s methods of addressing the public—radio, television, and Twitter—Jefferson was largely free to succumb to his reported phobia of speaking in public. While working as a lawyer, he found himself unable to deliver orated arguments as eloquently as he could write them. When he did speak, it was apparently with a meek disposition. One listener to his inaugural address in 1801 described Jefferson’s speech as being in “so low a tone that few heard it.”

19. He harvested opium.

At Monticello’s sprawling vegetable and plant gardens, Jefferson grew over 300 different kinds of crops, flowers, and other sprouts. Among them were Papaver somniferum, the poppy seed that can be used to create opioid drugs. Common in Jefferson’s time, the plant is now under much closer scrutiny and the estate was forced to pull up their remaining crop in 1991.

20. Abraham Lincoln was not a fan.

Though they weren’t contemporaries, Abraham Lincoln sometimes seethed with animosity toward Jefferson. William Henry Herndon, Lincoln’s onetime law partner, wrote that Lincoln “hated” Jefferson both for his moral shortcomings and his political views. But Lincoln also recognized the potency of the Declaration, citing its words as proof of equality among the population. “All honor to Jefferson,” he said, for making the document a “stumbling block” for anyone arguing in favor of tyranny. But he still never liked the guy.

21. He sold a lot of books to the Library of Congress.

Jefferson, a voracious reader, was dismayed when the War of 1812 resulted in British forces burning the Capitol in Washington and reducing its 3000-volume library of books to ashes. To repopulate the repository of knowledge, Jefferson sold Congress his entire personal library of 6707 titles for $23,950. The sale was finalized in 1815, and the books were sent via wagon from Virginia to Washington.

22. He helped found the University of Virginia.

A fierce advocate of education, Jefferson used his later years to propagate an institution of higher learning. Jefferson began planning the resources for a Virginia state university during his presidential term, writing to the Virginia House of Delegates that a college should not be solely a house but a “village.” In the proceeding years, Jefferson arranged funding, contributed design ideas, and helped shepherd the University of Virginia toward its formal opening in March 1825. Known as the “founding father” of the school, his influence has not always been welcomed. In April 2018, protesting students spray-painted the words rapist (in reference to his controversial relationship with slave Sally Hemings) and racist on a campus statue.

23. He was always in debt.

Status, salary, and opportunities should collude to make sure presidents are in solid financial shape during and after their tenure in office. Jefferson was an exception. Despite inheriting his father’s estate, he was plagued by debt for most of his life. He often spent beyond his means, expanding his property and making additions and renovations with little regard for the cost involved. His father-in-law, John Wayles, carried debt, which Jefferson became responsible for when Wayles died in 1774. Jefferson himself died owing $107,000, or roughly $2 million today.

24. His onetime nemesis dies on the same day.

Before Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826, he had finally made amends with John Adams, the president who preceded him in office and for whom Jefferson had acted as vice-president. The two men, once on the same side, had grown to resent the other’s approach to diplomacy and politics, with Jefferson lamenting Adams’s preference for centralized and meddlesome government—though according to Jefferson, the major issue was the so-called “Midnight Judges,” appointments that Jefferson felt “were from among [his] most ardent political enemies.”

Strangely, Adams passed away the same day as Jefferson, just five hours later. The date, July 4, was also the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence being adopted.

25. He wrote his own epitaph.

Jefferson wasn’t willing to leave his final resting place in the hands of others. He was exacting in how he wanted his grave marker to look and how his epitaph should read. He also directed the marker be made of inexpensive materials to dissuade vandals from bothering it. Following his death in 1826, several people chipped away at his grave in Monticello as souvenirs. Congress funded a new monument in 1882, which is still toured by visitors to the estate today. The engraving reads:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia

This time, no one had the temerity to rewrite him.

15 Gripping Facts About Galileo

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Albert Einstein once said that the work of Galileo Galilei “marks the real beginning of physics.” And astronomy, too: Galileo was the first to aim a telescope at the night sky, and his discoveries changed our picture of the cosmos. Here are 15 things that you might not know about the father of modern science, who was born February 15, 1564.

1. There's a reason why Galileo Galilei's first name echoes his last name.

You may have noticed that Galileo Galilei’s given name is a virtual carbon-copy of his family name. In her book Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel explains that in Galileo’s native Tuscany, it was customary to give the first-born son a Christian name based on the family name (in this case, Galilei). Over the years, the first name won out, and we’ve come to remember the scientist simply as “Galileo.”

2. Galileo Galilei probably never dropped anything off the leaning tower of Pisa. 

With its convenient “tilt,” the famous tower in Pisa, where Galileo spent the early part of his career, would have been the perfect place to test his theories of motion, and of falling bodies in particular. Did Galileo drop objects of different weights, to see which would strike the ground first? Unfortunately, we have only one written account of Galileo performing such an experiment, written many years later. Historians suspect that if Galileo taken part in such a grand spectacle, there would be more documentation. (However, physicist Steve Shore did perform the experiment at the tower in 2009; I videotaped it and put the results on YouTube.)

3. Galileo taught his students how to cast horoscopes.

It’s awkward to think of the father of modern science mucking about with astrology. But we should keep two things in mind: First, as historians remind us, it’s problematic to judge past events by today’s standards. We know that astrology is bunk, but in Galileo’s time, astrology was only just beginning to disentangle from astronomy. Besides, Galileo wasn’t rich: A professor who could teach astrological methods would be in greater demand than one who couldn’t.

4. Galileo didn't like being told what to do.

Maybe you already knew that, based on his eventual kerfuffle with the Roman Catholic Church. But even as a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo had a reputation for rocking the boat. The university’s rules demanded that he wear his formal robes at all times. He refused—he thought it was pretentious and considered the bulky gown a nuisance. So the university docked his pay.

5. Galileo Galilei didn't invent the telescope.

We’re not sure who did, although a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lipperhey often gets the credit (he applied for a patent in the fall of 1608). Within a year, Galileo Galilei obtained one of these Dutch instruments and quickly improved the design. Soon, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 or even 30 times. As historian of science Owen Gingerich has put it, Galileo had managed “to turn a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”

6. A king leaned on Galileo to name planets after him.

Galileo rose to fame in 1610 after discovering, among other things, that the planet Jupiter is accompanied by four little moons, never previously observed (and invisible without telescopic aid). Galileo dubbed them the “Medicean stars” after his patron, Cosimo II of the Medici family, who ruled over Tuscany. The news spread quickly; soon the king of France was asking Galileo if he might discover some more worlds and name them after him.

7. Galileo didn't have trouble with the church for the first two-thirds of his life.

In fact, the Vatican was keen on acquiring astronomical knowledge, because such data was vital for working out the dates of Easter and other holidays. In 1611, when Galileo visited Rome to show off his telescope to the Jesuit astronomers there, he was welcomed with open arms. The future Pope Urban VIII had one of Galileo’s essays read to him over dinner and even wrote a poem in praise of the scientist. It was only later, when a few disgruntled conservative professors began to speak out against Galileo, that things started to go downhill. It got even worse in 1616, when the Vatican officially denounced the heliocentric (sun-centered) system described by Copernicus, which all of Galileo’s observations seemed to support. And yet, the problem wasn’t Copernicanism. More vexing was the notion of a moving Earth, which seemed to contradict certain verses in the Bible.

8. Galileo probably could have earned a living as an artist.

We think of Galileo as a scientist, but his interests—and talents—straddled several disciplines. Galileo could draw and paint as well as many of his countrymen and was a master of perspective—a skill that no doubt helped him interpret the sights revealed by his telescope. His drawings of the Moon are particularly striking. As the art professor Samuel Edgerton has put it, Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist”; his images have “an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” Edgerton writes of Galileo’s “almost impressionistic technique” more than 250 years before Impressionism developed.

10. Galileo wrote about relativity long before Einstein.

He didn’t write about exactly the same sort of relativity that Einstein did. But Galileo understood very clearly that motion is relative—that is, that your perception of motion has to do with your own movement as well as that of the object you’re looking at. In fact, if you were locked inside a windowless cabin on a ship, you’d have no way of knowing if the ship was motionless, or moving at a steady speed. More than 250 years later, these ideas would be fodder for the mind of the young Einstein.

10. Galileo never married, but that doesn't mean he was alone.

Galileo was very close with a beautiful woman from Venice named Marina Gamba; together, they had two daughters and a son. And yet, they never married, nor even shared a home. Why not? As Dava Sobel notes, it was traditional for scholars in those days to remain single; perceived class difference may also have played a role.

11. You can listen to music composed by Galileo's dad.

Galileo’s father, Vincenzo, was a professional musician and music teacher. Several of his compositions have survived, and you can find modern recordings of them on CD (like this one). The young Galileo learned to play the lute by his father’s side; in time he became an accomplished musician in his own right. His music sense may have aided in his scientific work. With no precision clocks, Galileo was still able to time rolling and falling objects to within mere fractions of a second.

12. His discoveries may have influenced a scene in one of Shakespeare's late plays.

An amusing point of trivia is that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). By the time Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky, however, the English playwright was nearing the end of his career. But he wasn’t quite ready to put down the quill: His late play Cymbeline contains what may be an allusion to one of Galileo’s greatest discoveries—the four moons circling Jupiter. In the play’s final act, the god Jupiter descends from the heavens, and four ghosts dance around him in a circle. It could be a coincidence—or, as I suggest in my book The Science of Shakespeare, it could hint at the Bard's awareness of one of the great scientific discoveries of the time.

13. Galileo had some big-name visitors while under house arrest.

Charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo spent the final eight years of his life under house arrest in his villa outside of Florence. But he was able to keep writing and, apparently, to receive visitors, among them two famous Englishmen: the poet John Milton and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

14. Galileo's bones have not rested in peace.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Vatican refused to allow his remains to be buried alongside family members in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica; instead, his bones were relegated to a side chapel. A century later, however, his reputation had improved, and his remains (minus a few fingers) were transferred to their present location, beneath a grand tomb in the basilica’s main chapel. Michelangelo is nearby.

15. Galileo might not have been thrilled with the Vatican's 1992 "apology."

In 1992, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued an official statement admitting that it was wrong to have persecuted Galileo. But the statement seemed to place most of the blame on the clerks and theological advisers who worked on Galileo’s case—and not on Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial. Nor was the charge of heresy overturned.

Additional sources: The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo; Galileo's Daughter; The Cambridge Companion to Galileo.

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