When Civil War broke out in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 90-day troops, to put down the rebellion. Kentucky refused. Governor Beriah Magoffin responded that Kentucky would send no soldiers “for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.” In a letter written that September, President Lincoln described the importance of his home state to the war effort. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game…Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us…..” The place was equally important on the Confederate side. Had Kentucky seceded, rebel troops would be positioned to strike at will toward Ohio, Indiana or Illinois.
That October, commander of Union forces in Kentucky William Tecumseh Sherman told Secretary of War Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Outraged, Cameron called Sherman’s request “insane” and removed the general, from command. One Ohio newspaper opined that Sherman had lost his mind.
Humiliated, Sherman wrote to his brother, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children...”
General Ulysses Grant saw not insanity in general Sherman, but cold competence. In 1862, Grant reassigned Sherman to Paducah, Kentucky.
Later in the war, Sherman defended Grant about a (possibly unfair) accusation of being drunk on duty. “General Grant is a great general”. Sherman began. “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”
The story may be found in any number of books. Books about war, about soldiers, but what of the man, inside the uniform. The man called to leave his family, to do a job. And what of the family left behind and the bonds of affection forced to stretch across a nation, or an ocean. That book with so much to say about combat, has less to say about the man behind the soldier, that man’s place in the family unit and even less about the loved ones, left behind.
I’ve seen the story played out by my mother, two sisters-in-law and a daughter. The soldier, usually a “he”, leaves home in service to his country. Those left behind do their best to carry on without the help of a partner, all the while keeping their worst fears locked away in a dark closet of imagination. Those left behind perform a quiet kind of service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.
The long siege of Vicksburg was over in 1863 following the Union victory of July 4. The city of Vicksburg wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.
Making camp on the Big Black River near Bovina Mississippi, Sherman made headquarters in the home of Reverend James Fox. Thinking it would be a good time to reunite with his family, Sherman sent for his wife, Ellen and the couple’s four children: Minnie , Lizzie , Willy  and Tom .
Sherman himself had become fatherless at 9 and adopted by one Thomas Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio.
“I have a healthy camp,” Sherman wrote to Ewing, father of Sherman’s former step-sister and now-wife Eleanor “Ellen” Ewing Sherman. “I have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”
What an adventure it was for the children, especially Willy. Living in tents and hanging around with Union soldiers.
The 13th Infantry made him an honorary sergeant, teaching the boy the manual of arms and including him in guard details, drills and parades. The boy would accompany his father on inspection tours of the Army. What a lark. The experience of a lifetime.
Sherman’s confidence about yellow fever was based on that which was known, in 1863. Thirty years later, science would understand the illness to be mosquito-borne and not spread by human contact.
The family boarded the steamboat Atlantic that September, to begin the trek back home to Ohio. Willy didn’t look well. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet, his cheeks flushed. Surgeon E. O. F. Roler was summoned to examine him and came back with a dreadful diagnosis. Yellow fever.
The prognosis was grim. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers died in battle during the 8-month war Spanish American war in Cuba, in 1898. More than 5,000 died of disease, most of those from yellow fever.
Willy’s condition worsened. Arriving in Memphis, the boy was taken to the Hotel Gayoso, that October. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was given last rites on October 3. Willy told the priest he was willing to die if it was God’s will, but he didn’t want to leave his parents. With tears streaming down the cheeks of his mother and father, Willy reached and out, and touched their faces. And then he was gone.
Shattered, Ellen and her remaining children boarded a steamer to Ohio, three days later. The General went back to Mississippi. He had a war to fight.
On October 6, Sherman wrote to Ellen, from Gayoso: “I have got up early this morning to steal a short period in which to write you, but I can hardly trust myself. Sleeping, waking, every-where I see poor little Willy. … I will always deplore my want of judgement in taking my family to so fatal a climate at so critical a period of the year….To it must be traced the loss of that child on whose future I had based all the ambition I ever had.“
This from a man who had written only two year earlier, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children”.
Ellen, a devout and practicing Catholic, fell back on her faith. General Sherman fell into depression, despair, and self-reproach.
So great was the General’s grief that he never forgave himself, for bringing his family to that place.
A year before his death in 1891, Sherman left detailed instructions about his last rest in that St. Louis cemetery, “alongside my faithful wife and idolized soldier boy.”
The grief, the self-reproach, it all but crushed him. Sherman wrote to Admiral David Porter: “I lost recently my little boy by sickness incurred during his visit to my camp on Big Black. He was my pride and hope of life, and his loss has taken from me the great incentive to excel, and now I must work on purely and exclusively for love of country and professional pride.”
Some historians blame the savagery of Sherman’s attack on Meridian Mississippi, the cruelty of his assault on Atlanta and the “March to the Sea” on a form of madness, brought on by the loss of his precious boy.
In the Summer of 1864, three Union armies of the newly appointed division of the Mississippi under William Tecumseh Sherman were advancing, on Atlanta. Meanwhile back home in Lancaster, Ellen was about to give birth to another child. A baby boy, named Charley.
Let the couple’s letters tell the story and imagine if you will your own troubles, set against the backdrop of civil war.
Big Shanty, GA June 12, 1864: Dearest Ellen, I have received Phil’s dispatch announcing the birth to us, of another son. I’m glad you’re over the terrible labor, and hope it’s the last you will have to endure. Of course, I’m pleased to know the sex of the child, as he must succeed to the place left vacant, by Willy. Though I fear we will never be able to lavish on anyone, the love we bore for him. I am ever yours, W.T. Sherman
Lancaster Ohio, July 7, 1864: Dearest Cump, For the first time since I went to bed the night of the 10th of June I am able to sit up, and hold my pen. I’d been sick all that day. About 1 o’clock I sent for the doctor. At 20 minutes past two the baby was born with a cry, loud enough to disturb the neighborhood. Like Tommy he was born with a caul over his face which the doctor had to remove, before his cry came forth. I must thank God I am spared to my children, and not murmur at the trials he sends me. As ever, Ellen
Headquarters, Military division of Mississippi, In the field near Chattahoochee, July 9, 1864: Dearest Ellen, it is now two months since I left Chattanooga, and I think during all this time I have but one letter from you. I fear you have been more ill than I supposed. The enemy and the Chattahoochee lie between us, and intense heat prevails, but I think I shall succeed. At all events you know, I never turn back. Give my love to your father and all the young folks. Yours ever, WT Sherman
Lancaster Ohio July 16, 1864: Dearest Cump, I have been ill indeed, in great danger of death, and left weak. Charley thrives, grows and fattens, and is very strong and healthy. The children dote on him, particularly Tommy and Lizzie. Tommy asked me how long babies wore long dresses and when I told him six or eight months he begged me to put pantaloons on Charlie then. He walks with him in his arms and watches him and plays with him and sings 20 times a day. He is so glad the baby is not a girl. I have not told you how very strongly he resembles you in form, face and shape of head. The likeness is striking and I am delighted to see it. All are well, and send love to dear Papa. Ever your affectionate, Ellen
Lancaster Ohio September 17, 1864: Saturday morning: Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cold, settled on his lungs. May Willy’s pure spirit be your guide to his happy home in heaven is the hourly prayer of your truly affectionate, Ellen
Cincinnati Ohio September 22, 1864: it seems as if I were never to have another letter from you, dearest Cump
Cincinnati Ohio September 25, 1864: Sunday evening: Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cough and I feel so uneasy.
Lancaster Ohio, November 8, 1864: Dearest Cump, Dear Willy’s picture has just been brought, and now stands framed in my room. We need this to keep him fresh in the minds and the hearts of all the children for all must love and know and talk of their holy brother, until by God‘s grace we join him in his heavenly home. The baby has such a severe cold, which has taken such a firm hold on his lungs that I greatly fear, he will never get over it, and that it will end in consumption. Ever your truly affectionate, Ellen.
Obituary, Charles Celestine Sherman, New York Times, December 25, Christmas Day, 1864: Died at South Bend Indiana on Sunday, December 4, 1864, of pneumonia. Charles Celestine, infant son of Major General WT and Ellen E. Sherman, aged 5 months and 23 days
South Bend Indiana, December 29, 1864: Dearest Cump, long before this, you have seen in the papers the notice, of the dear baby’s death. God grant that his prayers and Willy’s may ensure my perseverance and obtain for you the gift of faith. Ellen E. Sherman
Military Division Mississippi in the field, January 5, 1865: Dearest Ellen I have written several times to you and the children. yesterday I got your letter of December 23 and realized the deep pain and anguish through which you have passed, and the pain and sickness of the little baby I never saw. All spoke of him as so bright and fair that I had hoped he would be spared to us, to fill the great void in our hearts left by Willy. But it is otherwise decreed, and we must submit. I have seen death in such quantity and in such forms that it no longer startles me. But with you, it is different. Yours, WT Sherman
Two weeks after that last letter from Ellen, General Sherman was in Savannah, preparing to march north into South Carolina. It began to rain on January 17, the heaviest rainfall in 20 years. January 21 came and went with no respite. Not until the end of the month did the rain cease to fall. The misery of that camp in Savannah and of General Sherman’s mental state, can only be guessed at.
The coming assault on the seat of secession would be worse than Sherman’s march to the sea.
Margie Bearss, wife of Vicksburg Military Park historian Edwin Bearss is herself an accomplished historian, a fellow of the National Military Collectors and Historians association, author of Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign in Meridien Mississippi and known for her work in support of the Grand Gulf Military Park in Mississippi, and the USS Cairo, now in the Vicksburg military Park. Bearss once mused, “Did perhaps the death of Willy start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden? Did Sherman hold Mississippi ‘that sickly region’ responsible for his death? Who knows. Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Expedition, only a few months’ time, his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the ‘total war’ for which he became well-known.“