Our panel of Civil War experts returns to A House Divided to mull more questions during the war’s 150th anniversary. Our latest question: What is the most important but overlooked story of the Civil War?
When the war began in April 1861, two men who would play major roles in the eventual victory were hardly known outside the circle of the prewar army.
Both had resigned their West Point-earned commissions to try to make it as civilians and had found little success. Instead, Ulysses S. Grant failed as a farmer, gained the untrue reputation of being a drunkard and was stuck behind the counter of his demanding father’s tannery business. William T. Sherman was the manager of two banks when they collapsed and then had to fight his father-in-law’s insistence that he supervise the family salt works.
When the war began, Grant spent the early months shuffling paper in Illinois and then getting command of a regiment of unruly volunteer civilians. At that time, Sherman was president of a St. Louis street railway company. He thought the Union cause was very shaky but, at the insistence of his wife and relatives, rejoined the military.
Grant quickly took hold, but Sherman did not. Sent to Kentucky, he underwent a period of anxiety and depression so severe that he contemplated suicide. The result was that he gained the false reputation of being insane.
There it was: By 1862 two men destined to become heroes of the federal effort were both labeled with major negative characterizations. Grant was called a drunk, and Sherman was called crazy.
Fortunately for both of them and for the Union effort, they were thrown together. As Grant pressed forward to take forts Henry and Donelson and then defeated the Confederates at Shiloh, the two men came to know, help and depend on each other. Sherman gave Grant men, supplies and encouragement when Grant was undergoing intense criticism from Henry W. Halleck, his superior officer. Grant, in turn, had unwavering confidence in Sherman when Sherman had little himself. Both came to see each other as individuals they could trust implicitly, no matter the crisis. A strong bond was formed.
All this happened quietly, behind the scenes, yet it was as important as almost anything else going on at that time. The press did not talk about it, the public hardly knew who Grant and Sherman were, and the common soldier only came to understand it later. In fact, though, the bond between Grant and Sherman formed in early 1862 was crucial to the ultimate Union success in the Civil War.
John Marszalek is Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University.
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