Say What Saturday: A Mother’s Grief over the Death of “Her Little Soldier”


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

In the summer of 1863, Ellen Sherman arrived in Vicksburg for a long-awaited visit with her husband General William Sherman. Accompanying their mother were daughters Minnie and Lizzie and sons Willie and Tommy, while their youngest Ellie and Rachel stayed in Lancaster with their grandparents. The family lived in a cluster of large tents and as they had been apart as a family unit this visit has been described as a time of “most enjoyable family interludes” at camp on the Big Black River. For their sons, Willie (9) and Tommy (7) it was fun for them to spend most of their time with the soldiers.

However, the war would not stop for happy family times and all too soon General Sherman would be back fighting. At the end of September he folded up his camp and embarked on a riverboat for the trip up the Mississippi for an arrival in Memphis. From there Sherman would march his men east and Ellen and the children would head back to Lancaster.

As they traveled it was apparent that young Willie was not feeling well. What began as a mild case of diarrhea soon became a “life or death” illness. By the time the boat docked a doctor was waiting to attend the lad. The doctor diagnosed either typhoid or cholera while he was in camp and sadly had no cure to offer. On October 3, 1863 the general, Ellen, Minnie, Lizzie and Tom were with Willie as he passed away. General Sherman shortly moved to lead his troops to Chattanooga while Ellen returned to her family home.

Ellen was heavy with her grief and shared her burden with General Sherman in the only form allowed through letters. With five children to raise and as she would shortly discover a seventh child soon to join the family she wrote her husband: “I am lonely at heart but my time is fully occupied.” {1}

Ellen’s letter to “Cump” were filled with grief as well as recriminations, guilt and regret all aimed at herself.​

“I would give every thing I have on earth if I had only paid more attention to him that Monday he was taken. Do write me Cump if you can remember doing anything for him. There were so many persons on the boat & c. I was so engrossed with Minnie [who was sick at the time] & in so much pain myself that I did not give him the attention he ought to have had.” {1}

The little honorary soldier received a military funeral with the battalion of the 13th U.S. Regulars acting as escorts to the steamboat “Grey Eagle” as his body was transported to Cairo and was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis. His mother although filled with deep sorrow over the loss of her beloved Willie would hold on to her Catholic faith to guide her through her sorrow. She held on to her belief with this statement she penned to her husband:

”What a joyful meeting it will be in heaven should we be blest in getting there to find our darling waiting to receive us.” {1}

She waited twenty-five until she joined Willie and the son she carried while Willie was dying Charles Celestine (June 11, 1864 - December 4, 1864); the child General Sherman never saw.

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1. “Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War—for Better and for Worse”, by Candice Shy Hooper

Ole Miss

Forum Host
Silver Patron
Regtl. Staff Shiloh 2020
Dec 9, 2017
North Mississippi
@DBF What a sad and oh so familiar story about the loss of children to to diseases and causes so easily treated today. In all my wanderings through National and civilian cemteries seeking veteran's brigades and encontering all the small and animal marked graves reminds me of the large loss of infants and children far before their times. Reminds me of how blessed I was to be born after penicillian and other anti-biotics were discovered.


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
Perhaps a footnote on this story is the fact that General Sherman always blamed himself for the death of Willie.

“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.” (*)

Coupled with no time for grief for war awaited and then a son born only to die before he could ever hold him must have been an unimaginable burden for this father. No wonder a year before he died he requested to be buried:

"alongside my faithful wife and idolized soldier boy.” (*)


Mrs. V

2nd Lieutenant
May 5, 2017
I do believe it is true, that no parent should have to bury a child. And yet, this happened all to regularily for our ancestors. And in some fashion, for parents even today. Such simple things as the flu, or undiagnosed diabetes, or cancer, accidents. Parents still deal with the loss, and still blame themselves. Because we love our brood, no matter how obnoxious they can be!
Aug 29, 2020
I visited Laurel Hill Cemetery today in Philadelphia to say “hi” to George Gordon Meade. I wandered around a bit and having all of the Civil War Veterans marked with a flag and a special emblem for serving under Meade, I got to pay tribute to more of “our boys” than I expected to.

We chat and analyze and debate about a lot of prominent ACW figures, and we spit out numbers of casualties for each battle, but I know I often forget that every soldier killed, wounded or missing was somebody’s kid. Maybe their only surviving child, or maybe their 8th child. It’s just easy to forget these were humans just like us, who went to the bathroom and had seasonal allergies and had fears and hopes and dreams!