The General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument
There is a group of statues spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” One of the largest and most imposing of these monuments is the General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument. The massive monument is located in a prominent spot in President’s Park, southeast of the White House and immediately south of The U.S. Department of the Treasury Building, at the intersection of 15th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Treasury Place (MAP). And it was this statue that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.
Tecumseh Sherman, named for the famous Shawnee Indian chief, was born on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. He was the sixth of eleven children born into the prominent family of Charles Robert Sherman and Mary Hoyt Sherman. His father was a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, but died unexpectedly in 1829 when William was only nine years old, leaving his mother with eleven children and no inheritance or means of support. It was at that point that a neighbor named Thomas Ewing, also a successful lawyer, offered to help by taking in one of Mary’s children. Tecumseh was chosen because Ewing wanted the “smartest boy,” and after some discussion between Mary and her oldest daughter, it was decided that he was the best choice.
After being taken in by Thomas Ewing, Sherman was baptized and given the Christian name “William” by Ewing’s devoutly Catholic wife, Maria. She was shocked that the boy had not been baptized and remedied it immediately after he became a part of their family. She also felt the name “Tecumseh” was not an appropriate name, hence he was given“William” as his new first name. He almost never used the name William though. When he signed his name he used the signature “W.T. Sherman”, and he was most often referred to by the nickname “Cump” throughout most of his life.
Two years later Thomas Ewing was elected to the U.S. Senate, and went on to serve as Secretary of the Treasury before becoming the first Secretary of the Interior. He became a fixture of D.C. society, and William Tecumseh Sherman’s star rose along with that of his foster father. One of the most significant events during this time for young William came when his foster father secured him a coveted appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He entered West Point as a cadet at the age of 16, and would go on to excel academically, graduating near the top of his class.
The other most significant result of being raised in the Ewing family was growing up with his foster sister, named Eleanor Boyle (“Ellen”) Ewing. After obtaining Thomas Ewing’s blessing, Sherman would go on to marry his foster sister. The two were married at a wedding hosted by the Ewings at Blair House, with President Zachary Taylor and his entire cabinet in attendance, as well as Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. William and Ellen would remain married and devoted to each other for the rest of their lives.
After graduating from West Point in 1840, William Tecumseh Sherman would go on to spend 13 years in the military, serving with honor but no real distinction. After resigning from the military, Sherman attempted several different careers, spending time in California as a vice president of that state’s first railroad, and later as a banker. He then moved to Kansas, where he worked as a lawyer like his father and foster father, and later he moved to Louisiana where he was the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy. It was at during his time in Louisiana that it seceded from the Union, and although Sherman was not anti-slavery and sympathized with the South, he was very much against the idea of secession. Stating he could not support an institution that would supply troops against the United States government, Sherman resigned his post as superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy and moved back north, to D.C.
After returning to D.C., and readying himself to join the Union Army, Sherman met with the newly-elected President, Abraham Lincoln. But he came away from the meeting so discouraged about the lack of understanding about what he viewed as an impending war that he moved to St. Louis and took a position as the president of a streetcar company. The very next month, Sherman was offered the chief clerkship of the War Department with a promise to be made Assistant Secretary of War when Congress came back into session, but he declined. Later, however, through the intervention of his prominent now father-in-law, Sherman returned to D.C., and after a one-on-one meeting with President Lincoln he was commissioned a Colonel in the U.S. Army.
After the Battle of Manassas he quickly was promoted to Brigadier General, and then Commanding General of the Department of the Cumberland Territory. Interestingly, Sherman is upset inasmuch as never wanted to be the one in charge, a sentiment that he had previously conveyed to President Lincoln during their meeting. But you have to be careful what you wish for, because he soon enough got his wish. In October of 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron came to the conclusion that Sherman was unfit to command, and he was relieved of his command and transferred. Within two months, Sherman was put on indefinite leave and returned to his boyhood home in Lancaster, Ohio. There he became so despondent that he contemplated suicide.
Had Sherman remained the president of a street car company in Missouri instead of returning to D.C. and being commissioned a Colonel in the Union Army, or had he gone through with committing suicide after he was relieved of his command, the Civil War may have been very different. Instead, Sherman returned to duty with the help of his father-in-law, and went on to be considered by historians as one of the ablest Union generals of the war. He was the originator and the first practitioner of what the twentieth century would come to know as “total war”, and the harshness of the “scorched earth” policies that he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States would enable him to command his troops to decisive military victories across the South from Chattanooga to Atlanta to the famous “march to the sea” across Georgia. In these campaigns and his later push northward from Savannah through the Carolinas, Sherman’s troops carried the war to the Southern home front and blazed a wide path of destruction that delivered a death blow to the Confederacy’s will and ability to fight. For the accompanying destruction, his name is still cursed in many parts of the South.
Sherman’s service during the Civil War would result in him succeeded General Grant as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, a post in which he would go on to serve for almost a decade and a half. However, despite his military victories and successful military career, Sherman would also be remembered for a couple of memorable and oft-quoted remarks.
In describing war, Sherman wrote in a letter to Mayor James Calhoun of Atlanta that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” He would later revise this statement in a commencement address at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879 to the simple phrase “War is hell.”
Years later, after his retirement from the military, Sherman was frequently talked about as a prospective Republican candidate for President. During the 1870s and 80s, Republican Party movers and shakers often tried but failed to convince him to make a run for the White House. Sherman, however, made no secret of his disdain for politics, and repeatedly declined to run. In fact, he once quipped that he would rather spend four years in jail than in the White House. Sherman eventually ended speculation once and for all in 1884, when at the Republican National Convention he turned down the party’s invitation to become their candidate by saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” So I think it seems somewhat ironic that his memorial is located so close to the White House.
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