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WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN,
GENERAL U. S. A.
DIED feb. 14, 1891. Such is the simple and modest inscription upon the casket containing the mortal remains of one of the most illustrious soldiers of the age, your old commander, and President of this Society, for a continous period of twenty-two years.
The last letter he ever wrote-upon the first day of his fatal illness—the last thoughts he ever penned, expressed an enthusiastic interest in your Society's proceedings, and a determination to be present upon this occasion. But now his vacant chair, draped in the habiliments of woe, bring vividly to mind all the varied recollections of the past, thoughts of the future, and an impressive realization of the truthfulness of Notker's memorable words, “ In the midst of life we are in death.”
No longer the hoof-beat of rushing squadrons break in upon the stillness of Southern plains, nor Georgia's mountain crags give back an answering echo to the cheers of charging men; silent the drums, stacked the arms, and housed the banners of that mighty Army of the Tennessee, whose historic story, even now, seems like a swiftly vanishing dream. The sword unsheathed at Shiloh and flashed in the sunlight which fell upon the capitol domes of every Confederate state but three, is rusting in its scabbard; while the chieftain who with it pierced the heart of treason lies peacefully sleeping beneath one of the sod thatched roofs of Calvary's silent homes.
“ When a soldier dieth,
His comrades in the war,
Follow the funeral-car.
They tell of victories won,
While peals the minute gun." But when a soldier dies who has occupied so conspicuous a place in his country's history, and especially one of whom so much has already been said and written, little remains to be voiced that will either add to a knowledge of his character or the public appreciation of his many manly virtues and soldierly achievements. Therefore upon such an occasion as this we can little more than
touch upon the salient points of a career that will ever lend luster to the great achievements of loyal arms.
“ Paint me as I am,” said one of England's most distinguished soldiers; “Put in every scar and wrinkle, that both friends and foes may recognize the likeness."
So should it be with Sherman; his greatness was of too pronounced a type to be impaired by showing the few scars and wrinkles that only serve to make more distinctive the wonderful career of a man whose contradictory nature must have impressed all alike by its hesitating indifference and its unselfish loyalty; its chilling austerity and its childlike simplicity; its uncompromising implacability and its manly generosity: peculiarities so happily blended, by rapidly succeeding events and time's disclosures, that we can now, more clearly than ever before, realize that each was an essential element in the formation of a character developed to meet peculiar and exceptional conditions. I
William Tecumseh Sherman, the sixth son of a family of eleven children, was born at Lancaster, O., on the 8th day of February, 1820, and when but nine years of age was, by the sudden death of his father and the financially embarrassed condition of the family, forced to become a dependent upon the generously bestowed bounty of comparative strangers Fortunately for his future welfare he became an inmate of the family—and practically the adopted sonof the Hon. Thomas Ewing, then one of the most distinguished men of Ohio. Mr. Ewing soon thereafter became United States Senator, and “Cump” Sherman, in the spring of 1836, entered West Point military academy, from which institution he graduated four years later, sixth in a class of forty-three. After thirteen years of uneventful military service, and seven years of varied and profitless civil employment, we find General Sherman early in 1860 occupying the position of superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy.
Another year and the dark shadows of the impending conflict were swiftly spreading. South Carolina had, the 20th of December, passed its order of secession; arms and munitions of war were, by traitorous officials, being rapidly transferred from northern to southern arsenals; United States officers of southern birth were resigning to accept service with their respective states; Fort Moultrie had been abandoned; the Star of the West had been fired upon; Federal forts had been seized and loyal troops cap
tured and paroled; open and armed rebellion was being preached by the heads of at least three of the executive departments at Washington; and the whole South was being rapidly transformed into an immense military camp of instruction; and yet Sherman quietly continued in the discharge of his assigned duties. What doubts, hopes, and fears were coursing through his brain during this critical period none can tell; but when the crucial test of his loyalty to their cause was applied, through an order from General Bragg, to receipt for, and take charge of, the arms and munitions of war, captured with the United States arsenal at Baton Rouge, all doubts of his position were dispelled by the prompt transmittal of a letter, under date of January 18th, 1861, to the Governor of Louisiana, in which he said: “As I occupy a quasi-military position under this state, I think it proper to acquaint you that I accepted such a position when Louisiana was a state in the Union. Recent events foreshadow a great change, and it becomes all men to choose one way or the other. I beg you to take immediate steps to relieve me the moment the state determines to secede, for on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile to, or in defiance of, the old government of the United States."
Six weeks later, leaving the service of Louisiana, with its congenial and remunerative employment, he embarked for his old home and an unknown future.
Now forty-one years of age, with a dependent family to support, naturally his mind turned to professional employment in the military service of his country, and with this object in view he visited Washington city. But doubting, as he did, his own ability to acceptably fill other than a subordinate position, he made no claim to special preferment, or even to the command of troops, but expressed a perfect willingness to accept any position for which he might be found qualified by education or experience.
Though backed by the strong political influence of his brother, then, as now, United States Senator, and commanding all the social influence due to his marriage with the daughter of so distinguished a man as the Hon. Thomas Ewing, he was unable to obtain more than a respectful consideration of his application, ending only in its rejection, President Lincoln himself saying: “We shall not need many men like you. This affair will soon blow over.”
Asserting that he would take no further part in the controversy he returned to St. Louis, and through the influence of some old army friends secured the presidency of a street-railroad company in that city.
That he was, at this time, perfectly sincere in his expressed determination to have nothing more to do with the difficulties and dangers which imperiled the very life of the republic, there can be no question. For, in addition to such positive declarations, he stood unmoved by that perfect tempest of popular loyalty which swept aside all the social and political barriers throughout the north. Even as late as April 8th, 1861, he replied with an air of indifference to the offer of a responsible military position; and to General Blair's tender of an important command, he simply replied that he had long deliberated upon his course of action, and having once tendered his services, and met with refusal, he had made other arrangements which would preclude the acceptance of his offer, however tempting and complimentary.
But finding, as he himself says, that his best friends were beginning to doubt his loyalty, he renewed his application to the Secretary of War, saying:
“I hold myself now, as always, prepared to serve my country in the capacity for which I was trained. I will not volunteer as a soldier, because rightfully or wrongfully I feel unwilling to take a mere private's place, and having for many years lived in California and Louisiana, the men are not well enough acquainted with me to elect me to my appropriate place.
“Should my services be needed, the records of the War Department will enable you to designate the station in which I can render most service.”
While this very modest and courteous application elicited no immediate response, on the 14th of May he had the satisfaction of being notified that he had been commissioned Colonel of the 13th United States Infantry, one of the new regiments authorized by Congress, but not yet enlisted.
This was the second important turning point in the career of a comparatively unknown man, destined within the brief period of three years to become one of the most distinguished soldiers of the age.
Biographers of historical character, forgetting that three-fourths of greatness is the greatness of opportunity, seek for and generally manage to find, or assume to find, in the lives of eminent men, some distinguishing feature that indicates a germ of greatness, which, under the influence of favorable conditions, develops and expands until the world bows in humble acknowledgement of inherited genius.
But for such evidence in the early lives of the most distinguished characters of our civil war, the historian will look in vain.
Of the three great central figures, one - the immortal Lincoln-neither in youth or early manhood, gave promise of his future.
He totally failed when placed in command of a single company of Illinois volunteers, and gave up the attempt in disgust. He was unsuccessful as a miller; proved himself incompetent to manage a country store; and within one year after entering upon the simple duty of county surveyor had his instruments, horse, and saddle attached for debt.
But when the hour of trial came that was to test his mighty genius under other and different conditions, the chief command of a million men under arms, and the civil government of the greatest republic on earth-he gavę so enduring an example of true greatness, not to this nation alone, but to the world, that I may well say of him, as Lord Brougham said of Washington: “The test of the progress of mankind will be their appreciation of his character.”
The second-General Grant-was not in boyhood possessed of the will power that afterward proved to be the dominating feature of his character. At West Point he displayed no wonderful adaptability for the profession of arms, and at the first favorable opportunity he retired from the military service, for which he had never evinced any natural or inherited taste during the dull and piping times of peace, The war came, and fame crowned the hero that fortune found to match the opportunity.
The third-General Sherman—the last survivor of that wonderful triumvirate that closed in victory the most stupendous struggle for civil rights and human liberty the world has ever known, proved no exception. He was a bright active boy, full of animal spirits, enjoying the freedom of a surveyor's rodman much more than the life of a student; but at no time giving, by word or deed, the slightest indication of possessing that talent for command which afterward placed him in the front rank of the most distinguished military chieftains of the world. At West Point there appears to have been no special development that would indicate peculiar fitness for the military profession, or unerringly point to a brilliant