“Mrs.” General William Sherman’s War

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Aug 6, 2016

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“General William T. Sherman Insane”

So declared the edition of the December 11th, 1861 newspaper the “Cincinnati Commercial”. On that day, Eleanor “Ellen Ewing Sherman writes in her diary:

“At Mrs. Daughtery’s to tea. The slanderous article in the Commercial appeared this day.” {1}

Ellen’s crusade began during the fall of 1861. General Sherman was rapidly falling into a state of deep depression since the fighting began in the Civil War. (There are many threads on CWT regarding General Sherman as he struggled with claims of insanity; this thread is focused on Mrs. Sherman’s actions during those months). On November 1st, 1861, Ellen received the following letter from her husband “Cump” Sherman:

“I find myself riding a whirlwind unable to guide the Storm. The idea of going down to History with a fame such as threatens me, nearly makes me crazy, indeed I may be so now. “ {1}

The murmurs of “crazy” is not unfamiliar to Ellen. She is aware of the gossip regarding Sherman’s uncle and grandmother having suffered under the cloud of “insanity”. On Friday, the 11th of November in 1861, she begins to hear that Sherman’s superiors are saying he is no longer “fit for duty” and the talk caused her great anxiety. Soon she will be handed a dispatch from General Sherman’s senior aide with a plea to visit her husband to “relieve Gen. Sherman and myself from the pressure of business” she will not be comforted when he adds; “no occasion for alarm”. She heads to Louisville with 7 year old son Willy and his 5 year old brother Tommy. The situation is so alarming that General Sherman’s brother John journeys from Washington to join the family in Kentucky. Ellen returned to Ohio on Friday, November 15th hoping that General Sherman’s request for a leave would quickly materialize. On November 18th she wrote him:

“Now that I know you to be in such low spirits I shall not have a comfortable or happy day away from you.” {1}

General Henry Halleck re-assigned Sherman to Benton Barracks in St. Louis. He had hoped to relieve some pressure by giving him to a less stressful position drilling the troops. This move for Sherman only served to increase his depression and added an element of shame to the obvious demotion. By December 1st, a leave of 21 days was granted and Ellen took Sherman back to Lancaster, Ohio for a period of rest and recuperation, spending days with his children and a life away from the public. At this point Ellen and William assumed the story would fade away and soon he would be able to return to duty. It was not to be.

The Battle Lines Are Formed

“The painful intelligence reaches us, in such form that we are not at liberty to disclose it that General William T. Sherman, late commander of the Department of the Cumberland, is insane. The article goes on, “It appears that he was at the time while he was commanding Kentucky, stark mad.” {1}

The Sherman’s were together as they read the article. Ellen is immediately upset when she sees the depth of pain that it causes her spouse. Things continued to deteriorate when their young son, Tommy, announced that a playmate had told him that his “Papa was crazy.” On December 12th, General Sherman writes to his father-in-law in Washington:

“Among the keenest feelings of my life is that arising from a consciousness that you will be mortified beyond measure at the disgrace which has befallen me by the announcement in the Cincinnati Commercial that I am insane.” {1}

By December 15th the story would run as a lead story in the popular Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Simply stating:

“General Sherman, who lately commanded in Kentucky, is said to be insane. It is charitable to think so.” {3}

Ellen’s “Call To Arms”

The Ewing/Sherman family were full of political connections and influence and they were determined to pull out all the stops to protect the reputation of General William Sherman. Letters and visits to the President were first up on the agenda. John Sherman was the first to visit President Lincoln. He reported back to Ellen that he believes the President still felt “kindly” toward her husband. John also gives Ellen advice to pass along to “Cump” to “quietly perform his duty whatever sent, and justify the President’s remark”.

By the 1st of the year 1862, General Sherman reported back to Benton Barracks. She keeps him informed of presidential visits from both John Sherman and her father, Thomas Ewing. She cautions her husband that “the melancholy and depressions to which your family” has suffered from should never be discussed. They were determined to squelch any talk of insanity.

Ellen’s 1st letter to convince Sherman’s superiors of his competency begins with a letter to General Halleck. She seeks his assurance that the word “insanity” was never in any official reports and Halleck assures her that he believed her husband suffered from “overwork and simply needed a rest”. Despite the promises from Halleck, it is clear that this is the overwhelming issue putting additional stress on the Shermans as evidenced from the early letters the General wrote to Ellen after he returned to duty.

The First Letters from General Sherman

Sherman’s 1st letter to Ellen (dated January 1st, 1862) was not as reassuring to Ellen as she hoped:

“Benton Barracks (near St. Louis, Mo.)
Jan. 1 - 1862

Dearest Ellen

Again have I failed to write to you as I promised. Again have I neglected the almost only remaining chain of love & affection that should bind me to earth. I have attempted to write several times but feared to add to the feelings that already bear on you heavily -- too heavily.

Could I live over the past year I think I would do better - but my former associations with the South have rendered me almost crazy as one by one all links of hope were parted.

We have here a specimen of the same disorder which prevails elsewhere. A mass of men partly organized and badly disciplined with their thousand and one wants. But this is nothing to the fact that I am here in a sub-ordinate place whilst others occupy posts that I ought to. I cannot claim them, for having signally failed in Kentucky and here I could not command a higher place. Buell I see reports his command a mere mob and has now to begin to discipline them, in an enemy country, and when everybody is clamorous for action. If I could see the least ray of hope for this combination I would still struggle.

I am in about the same state of health as when at Lancaster, but the idea of having brought disgrace on all associated with me is so horrible to contemplate that I cannot rally under it.

I will try to be more punctual in future writing you my Dearest wife who has been true & noble and generous and comforting always. That she should thus be repaid is too bad. And our dear children, may God in his mercy keep them in his mind and not let them suffer for my faults, Pierce's Army has again retired South, but I see no evidence of a decline in the Secession feeling here. We had men under arms all last night expecting to be called out, but nothing happened. I have not heard from you for some days. In your last you asked to answer about sending the children to Notre Dame. I think you had better keep them near you always, but you know best. Bless you and keep you as their guide till they can for themselves.

W. T. Sherman”

A Following letter was rather alarming as well:

“January 16 - 1862

I would much prefer you would remain at home as quiet and happy as possible and try and sever your thoughts from me who hardly merit them. I have given you pain when it should have been pride, honor and pleasure, but this unnatural War does weigh heavy on my mind & heart.

W. T. Sherman"

There is no doubt that by this time Ellen will need to use all her skills as the daughter of a Ewing and sister-in-law to politician John Sherman to repair the damage done to her husband. She has a plan and she will implement it, but before she does she writes her husband a letter of assurance:

“It is not in the power of your enemies to lower you in the estimation of those who know you.” {2}

Ellen Steps Into the Trenches

Eleanor Boyle Ewing was the daughter of Thomas Ewing a Whig politician from Ohio. Throughout his life he served as a United States Senator/ the Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Taylor and was the first Secretary of the Interior servicing under President Zachary Taylor. He became a Republican and enjoyed a comfortable relationship with President Lincoln. When Ellen wanted to restore her husband’s reputation, she turned to Mr. Lincoln and on January 9, 1862, she began her campaign to restoring her husband’s career. She wrote President Lincoln:

“Having always entertained a high regard for you and believing you to possess the kindest feelings as well as the truest honor I appeal with confidence to you for some intervention in my husband’s favor & in vindication of his slandered name.” {1}

Mrs. Sherman is honest when she discusses her husband’s problems and what she called his “nervous breakdown” in Kentucky. She acknowledges his “nervous temperament” but also claims to the role of the media in contributing to his depression when she states:

“Newspaper slanders are generally insignificant but this you will perceive is of a peculiar nature, and one which no man can hear with stoicism - particularly one, who is nervous and sensitive.” {1}

She mentions the article that was published in the Cincinnati Commercial describing her husband’s mental state and explains that the family has tried desperately to correct the record but:

“No official act contradiction has yet appears, & a no official act has yet reinstated him. As the minister of God, to dispense justice to us and as one who has the heart to sympathize as well as the power to act, I beseech you, by some mark of confidence, to relieve my husband from the suspicions now resting on him. He is now occupying a subordinate position in Gen. Halleck’s department, which seems an endorsement of the slander.” {1}

President Lincoln never replies to her letters.

Ellen’s Visit the Commander in Chief
January 15 - Letter to the General

“Father heard yesterday that he will be obliged to leave tomorrow for Washington. I will go with him & before I return we hope to have you ordered to a more agreeable post where you will be relieved from the annoyance of feeling that you are out of place. A rumor reached us yesterday that Mr. Cameron had been sent to Russia & Mr. Stanton made Sec. of War. If this be true we will have no difficulty in securing whatever may be desirable for you as Mr. Stanton is an intimate friend of Father’s.” {1}

When the General heard of his wife’s plan he was not pleased. He telegraphed his brother, John who was living in Washington in the hopes that he could convince her of the folly of this plan. A future letter to his wife will reveal that he is filled with “heartfelt” embarrassment that he ever thought Ellen would do anything but help him and would be sensitive in discussing his mental stability.

January 29 - Mr. Ewing and Ellen travel to the White House. The presidential calendar will record they are the only official show visitors that day. The President was cordial however he did express that Sherman’s actions had shaken his faith in his general:

“He said he felt sorry to lose you when you went to Kentucky but he felt that the department was safer after you took command than before. The President intimated that after that, dispatches had come from you had the effect of making him feel less comfortable. He seemed anxious for us to know, and said that he wanted you to know that he had entertained the highest & most generous feelings toward you, and that he still entertained them; and he intimated that by testing, in your present position, that recent reports were unfounded your abilities would soon secure promotion.” {1}

A “Wait-And-See” Order Issued

It may not have been exactly what Ellen wanted to hear from the president, but a door wasn’t closed on General Sherman’s career. A week before Sherman met with Secretary of War Cameron in Louisville with a desire to increase the troops in Kentucky, President Lincoln had already heard from his friend Joshua Speed, for he had written with urgency that if Kentucky was to stay with the Union, more forces would be needed. In three months Lincoln is meeting with Thomas Ewing and Ellen Sherman could he be remembering his friend’s request and warning?

Mr. Lincoln had been the target of many newspapers, cartoons and editorials. He had enemies everywhere and perhaps sympathized with Mrs. Sherman as she raised concerns for newspapers that were quick to report and slow to retract as well as jealousy among Union officers.

There are numerous reports that Lincoln had suffered from bouts of depression and melancholy throughout his life and realized how important friends are during those times and how time itself is a great healer. Perhaps this gave him caution in condemning Sherman and ending his military career.

Although Ellen did not get exactly what she wanted she wrote to her husband:

“If you will only keep a brave heart and not be desponding & not care how you may be judged your abilities will bring you out as one of the first in the land.” {1}

One factor that played a major part in General Sherman’s return to command was the war itself. It was General Henry Halleck that declared “Sherman’s rehabilitation” was at an end. On February 13, 1862 Sherman was ordered to Paducah where he would command the District of Cairo and more importantly would assist another General - Ulysses S Grant. The rest is history.

Ellen’s After Action Report

Mrs. General Sherman proved to be as fierce of a fighter as her husband when it came to protecting his reputation and advocating for his restoration to full duty. This was a man she had known for most of her life. William Sherman came to live with her family when he was 9 - she almost 5. As of this time they were the parents of 6 children within 12 years of marriage. Six months after her visit to the White House in June of 1822, Ellen writes to the General from Lancaster as she watches her children play.

“Willy is on the top of the trees after cherries already. How well I remember seeing you climb the cherry trees when not much later than he. Little did I think when I looked at you then - timid shrinking & wondering at your boldness that in later years my courage would be called up to enable you to bear the bitter trials of life. I thank God that in our day of trouble my heard did homage to your peerless virtues & more than ever before held you as the first best dearest one on earth to me.” {1}

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1. Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives, by Candice Shy Hooper
2. http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/index/fulltext/cshr9_25.htm
3. https://www.shermanhouse.org/pdf/Evans_speech.pdf
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