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
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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

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ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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