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
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

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
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

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15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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