Since President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months in the army, many young men fear that if they wait to enlist, they may miss the war entirely, as many postulate that it will all be over in a matter of months. Firebrands south of the Mason-Dixon Line seem to feel the same way: that they’d better get into uniform posthaste. No one wants to miss the fighting.
William Tecumseh Sherman is a notable exception to the general optimism. He has been reported as ridiculing President Lincoln’s call to arms as being pitifully inadequate. He reportedly said, “Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.”
Flags are waving, girls are singing, and towns and villages are thrilling to the sound of marching feet. Who is this dour man who does not share in the general jubilation?
William Tecumseh Sherman was born in 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio and graduated from West Point in 1840. He saw action in the Second Seminole War in Florida as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery. Unlike many of his generation, he did not see action in the Mexican-American War, but he did receive a brevet promotion to captain. He re-entered civilian life in 1853.
We might well dismiss him, but Sherman knows the South. Stationed in Georgia and South Carolina and hobnobbing with the best of Southern society, he is well-acquainted with Southern mores and mentality. He also understands the North. When he heard about South Carolina’s secession, Sherman said, “You people of the South don’t know what you’re doing. This country will be drenched in blood…War is a terrible thing!...You mistake, too, the people of the North…You are rushing into war with the one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth…You are bound to fail.”
Sherman was appointed the superintendent of The Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in 1859, but this past January, when Sherman was required to accept arms surrendered by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge, he resigned out of loyalty to the Union. Upon leaving his Southern post, Sherman went to Washington and tried to convince President Lincoln of the direness of the situation. He was offered a post in the War Department, with the potential of becoming the Assistant Secretary of War, but he refused.
Perhaps Sherman was disillusioned from his Inauguration week visit to Washington in March, wherein he also tried to convince President Lincoln that the nation is pitiably unprepared for war. The North, he says, is “sleeping on a volcano.” He expressed that he was “sadly disappointed” that people are so sanguine about the war’s prospects. Far from being sanguine about it, Sherman sees the coming conflict as being extremely sanguinary! President Lincoln, listening to Mr. Sherman’s impassioned warnings, commented calmly, “We shall not need many men like you. The affair will soon blow over.”
With all due respect, Mr. Lincoln also called secession an “artificial crisis” a few months back. His pacific intentions aside, the crisis has proven itself all too real. Only time will tell whither the war will go. Only time will tell whether the words of William Tecumseh Sherman are pessimism or prophecy.