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Citizen Sherman
By Michael Fellman

Chapter One: Rosebud: A Truncated Patrimony

Normally the most garrulous and self-revelatory of men, William Tecumseh Sherman had curiously little to say about his boyhood. Indeed, in his Memoirs, published in 1875, the fifty-five-year-old autobiographer opens his story in 1846, when he was already well launched in his career as a first lieutenant of Company G, Third Artillery, United States Army, stationed at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, from where he soon was to be reassigned to California.

Looking back at his younger self from the perspective of 1875, when he was still commanding general of the army and a man of immense military fame, it was as if it had been the ambitious young officer who had given birth to the triumphant general. In his private correspondence too, Sherman, who reviewed the smallest as well as the largest events of his life over and over, almost never alluded to his boyhood, and when he did so, his habit was simply to insist that he had been a normal, fun-loving, mildly roughhousing sort of boy living comfortably among his mates. Evidence from others suggests that this affirmative boy had existed, but that this was a far-from- complete picture.

In 1887, by then retired from the army, Sherman entered a more reflective and reconciliatory phase of his life. It was at this point that he first commented in print on his childhood, in a chapter added to the second edition of his Memoirs. The two interconnected stories he finally told about his past in Lancaster, Ohio, were ail intensely condensed public testimony to the severe pain he had experienced as a child. Both stories recalled his early feelings for his father, Charles, who had been a circuit-riding Ohio State Supreme Court justice.

"My memory extends back to about 1827," the aging Sherman told his readers, "and I recall him, returning home on horseback, when [my brothers and I] used to run and contend for the privilege of riding his horse from the front door back to the stable. On one occasion, I was the first, and being mounted rode to the stable." To this point, this is the story of the seven-year-old Tecumseh triumphantly wresting his father's horse, perhaps for the first time, from the grasp of his two big brothers, twelve and sixteen years old, and then riding high and proud on his father's mount. However, Sherman continued, " `Old Dick' was impatient because the stable-door was not opened promptly, so he started for the barn of our neighbor Mr. King; there, also, no one was waiting to open the gate, and, after a reasonable time, `Dick' started back for home somewhat in a hurry, and threw me among a pile of stones ... where I was picked up apparently a dead boy; but my time was not yet, and I recovered, though the scars remain to this day."

"The year 1829 was a sad one to our family," Sherman went on, skipping silently over the two intervening years of his life and launching immediately into his second childhood story. By then, Sherman's two older brothers had left home, Charles for university in Athens, Ohio, and James for a clerking job in a store in Cincinnati. Little Tecumseh, at nine years old the eldest of eight children remaining at home, was therefore the "man of the house" when his father was off riding the judicial circuit, as he was frequently. In these circumstances, the sad news came. Jane Sturgeon, a neighbor girl, came to school one day, "called us [Sherman children] out, and when we reached home all was lamentation," for father was "ill unto death" at Lebanon, a town one hundred miles distant from Lancaster. Sherman's mother raced off by carriage, but soon turned back, after she learned en route of her husband's death, on the sixth day of his illness. Later. in life Sherman had established, he wrote in a detached and scientific manner, that in 1829, as there had been no Asiatic cholera epidemic, typhoid had been the probable cause of his father's death.

The death of Charles Sherman left the widow and her eleven children "very poor," Sherman wrote in his second Memoirs, and "with the exception of the three youngest children, the rest of us were scattered. I fell to the charge of the Hon. Thomas Ewing, who took me to his family, and ever after treated me as his own son."

Sherman condensed his life from age nine to sixteen even more briefly, and presented it in a flat narrative. He had had excellent teachers at school, and "we made good progress.... Time passed with us as with boys generally." In 1834, young Sherman got his first job, as a part-time surveyor for the Ohio Canal. In 1836, at sixteen, he went off to West Point. End of childhood and of youthful recollections.

Losing the continuity of parents and home, the traumatized boy had in no way chosen his subsequent fate. As he recounted to his readers in passive voice, he "fell to the charge" of Thomas Ewing; he was called out of school, told of his father's death, and thrust from home and mother into a neighboring family. His statement that Thomas Ewing took him in and treated him as his own son was, as we shall see, a formulaic insistence of Sherman the adult who thus covered over disturbing memories.

Fear of betrayal and abandonment, bouts of depression, and diffuse and frequently explosive rage characterized the adult Sherman. But when one searches for direct evidence of the wounding caused by his early childhood losses, these two brief, grief-laden stories are all Sherman would ever admit in print. One should not draw automatic conclusions about the effects of even the most frightening of childhood experiences. In this case, given many of the same childhood events, Sherman's younger brother, John, the future senator, turned out to be a deeply reserved, carefully controlled, cold, and conventional adult. But Tecumseh would act with fury, fear, hurt, and longing, which must have been connected to his experience of truncated patrimony.

THOMAS EWING, a huge, somber, and imposing man, was a wealthy and influential lawyer who, in 1831, went to the United States Senate as a conservative Whig. His family lived two houses up Main Street in Lancaster from their close friends, the Shermans. When Charles Sherman died in 1829, leaving his family impoverished, Ewing selected Tecumseh (nicknamed "Cump") to take into his home as his ward, while others of the Sherman children went to various other friends and relatives. Ewing never legally adopted Tecumseh, evidently out of consideration for Sherman's mother, Elizabeth.

In 1865, when General Sherman had attained his enormous fame, Ewing recounted in a letter to his daughter, Ellen, the story, by now a kind of family legend, of the manner in which he had selected little Tecumseh from the Sherman litter. "I want one of them," he wrote Ellen that he had said to Elizabeth in 1829. "You must give me the brightest of the lot, and I will make a man of him." "Take Cump, the red-haired one," Elizabeth supposedly replied, bypassing Charles and James, her older boys, "he's the smartest."

Soon after the Ewings took in Tecumseh, they baptized him in the Roman Catholic Church, adding what they considered to be a proper Christian first name. (Charles Sherman had named his third son in honor of Tecumseh, a powerful Indian chieftain who had been killed in the war of 1812, and who was remembered with admiration as well as with fear by the white settlers of the Great Lakes region.) In the Ewing family legend, one day in 1827 or 1828, Maria Ewing, Thomas's wife, had had Tecumseh baptized as William Tecumseh, at the insistence of the itinerant priest doing the baptism, who thought it unacceptable for a white boy to be named after a pagan Indian savage. As it was St. William's day, June 25, the priest picked that name. Nevertheless, the boyhood nickname of "Cump" stuck to the lad, who had never chosen William. Nor, despite the baptism, had he ever chosen to be a Roman Catholic; indeed he resisted such a conversion to the religion of his quasi-adoptive home in a most strenuous manner, one that would have lifelong consequences.

Although Thomas Ewing and William Tecumseh Sherman both insisted, after Sherman had become famous in the Civil War, that the little boy had instantly become integrated into the Ewing household as a son among sons and daughters, letters written by both of them when Cump had been growing up indicate that this had not been the case. In 1831, shortly after he went off to Washington to enter the Senate, Thomas Ewing wrote a paternalistic letter of instruction on child rearing to his wife. Following some general advice concerning development of the reading skills of all the children, Ewing added, "And there is Cumpy too - he is disposed to be bashful, not quite at home. Endeavor to inspire him with confidence and make him feel one of the family." Two and a half years after the lad had entered the Ewing household, his stepfather sensed he was still not quite at home with the Ewings. In his bashfulness and lack of self-confidence, the little boy appeared to remain at the edge of the family, somewhat silent, lonely, and withdrawn.

In the first letter he ever wrote to his stepfather, whom he addressed as "Dear Sir," nine-year-old Cump confessed he "did not know any news from town [as] I do not go into town very often." He also told Ewing, concerning two of his stepbrothers, "tell Tommy and Boyd that they must not forget me and I will not forget them." This fear of renewed loss should not come as a surprise from a boy who had so recently "lost" his natural brothers and sisters to the four winds, lost his father literally and his mother functionally. In what family could he place basic trust? Was he a swing or was he not?

In letters written to Ewing during his adolescence, Sherman expressed considerable ambivalence toward his stepfather and his partially adoptive family. In 1836, Ewing obtained an appointment to West Point for his stepson without consulting him beforehand. In a letter of May 5, 1836, formally signed "your most obedient servant," Sherman responded to Ewing's letter of May 1 in which Ewing had scolded the boy for not reporting on his travel preparations to West Point. "Had I delayed [action] till now," Sherman wrote, "justly would I have deserved your reprobation, but to show that I attended to it faithfully I will state now what I did from the time of the appointment until now." Sherman then narrated all the appropriate and dutiful steps he had taken. But it was clear he did not like being forced to account for himself to his stepfather, who had imposed a career choice on him, about which he remained uncertain.

After he arrived at West Point, Sherman continued to express both esteem and an only partly concealed anger to his stepparents. As the first West Point winter closed in, the sixteen-year-old plebe wrote to his stepmother, whom he addressed as "Mrs. Ewing," "It has been a long while since I wrote to you, but it is still longer since you have written to me. Therefore I expect an immediate answer to this." He went on to ask for money for gloves and earmuffs. "You may think it strange that I should ask for money, but in reality I would be the last person that would ask for it unless it were absolutely necessary, but you yourself know that it would by no means be comfortable to walk post in the open air with a cold gun and thin gloves." Sherman was lonely and cold and broke. He did not know how he stood on money matters with his stepmother, who he feared would find his request inappropriate, but he also had nowhere else to turn. He was also typically adolescent in his assertion of independence even while demonstrating continued dependency. He addressed his tentativeness by appealing to his stepmother not in her maternal role but on grounds of fellow feeling - one sufferer from the cold to another.

Sherman would always find it difficult to cope with these sorts of confused feelings for his stepparents. Writing to his stepsister, Ellen, from West Point in 1839, he paired gratitude with remoteness, warmth with estrangement, in a manner demonstrating the unnaturalness he felt toward his second family. Referring to his stepsister's strictures about what she perceived as his filial ingratitude, Sherman replied, "You certainly misunderstand me with regard to your mother. Although I should feel highly honored did she condescend to notice me, still, I am fully aware how slight are my claims to her regard and how many troubles and cares she must experience since you ... have left home.... Very often I feel my insignificance and inability to repay the many kindnesses and favors received at her hands and those of her family." Sherman continued to his stepsister, "Time and absence serve to strengthen the claims and to increase my affection and love and gratitude to those who took me early under their care and conferred the same advantages as they did upon their own children." This genuine, if stiff, gratitude, this expression of a love he ought to feel was intended for his stepmother and stepsister's family, not for a family he could simply claim as his own.

Although this distance was natural enough, it did make Sherman feel marginalized and hurt, as well as eager to please. He told his stepsister he was aware that he rarely articulated his loving feelings; he did not admit to her, nor to himself, that he was unsure, if not incapable of those feelings. "Although I have rarely spoken of it still I assure you that I have always felt sincerely and deeply grateful, and hope that some event may occur to test it." Duty and sacrifice would demonstrate his actual loving feelings, Sherman hoped. An outward manifestation would be the best means to demonstrate his feelings to her family and to himself. "Indeed I often feel that your father and mother have usurped the place which nature has allotted to parents alone and that their children those of brothers and sisters." Sherman could not let himself become fully a Ewing son (an unlikely possibility in any event, given what he felt to be the remoteness of the Ewings), at least in part because he feared that to become so would be to betray his natal Sherman family. The dilemma presented by his double childhood would prove unresolvable. He would always have one foot in and one foot out of the Ewing family, be poised for both flight and return.

In 1844, five years after writing this contradictory letter to his stepsister, the twenty-four-year-old Sherman, now an artillery lieutenant stationed near Charleston, South Carolina, wrote to his stepfather, beginning as he would to a military superior, "Sir," and closing, "I am yr ob sevt, W. T. Sherman." "It has been a very long while since I have addressed you by letter, for the simple reason that I believed I had nothing of interest to send or business to submit." (It had been four years in fact.) After this perfunctory opening, Sherman continued, "now however after reflection I have concluded to trouble you with a little of my experience, and to do so the more readily as it does not concern me personally but one for whom you must feel the greatest interest, your own son H[ugh] B. Ewing." Hugh had confided his desire to enter the military to Sherman, who in this letter was passing along the information, telling Thomas Ewing that he would be pleased to smooth Hugh's path at West Point were he to enter, though he thought the army would be a mistake for Hugh. How conscious Sherman was of his hostility in this letter is impossible to determine.

Not that we should blame Thomas Ewing, a formal and cold man, for not accepting Sherman as a son among sons. In fact, he may have been just as aloof to his natural sons, and he did spend rather a lot of effort over the years to support this oddly needy and ever dissatisfied young man with funds and offers of work. What is significant here is that Sherman felt personally shunted aside, personally excluded from what he imagined to be Ewing's stance to his own sons. The subjective hurt in this letter is central, whatever a more evenhanded assessment of Sherman's standing among the Ewings might suggest.

Three months later, in a much friendlier letter addressed to "My dear Friend" Hugh, Sherman expressed his relief that Hugh seemed unlikely to obtain an appointment to West Point after all. As for himself, Sherman wrote, although there were few junior officers. who had received "more rapid advancement or higher marks of favor" than had he during his first three years of service, "yet believe me, I have often regretted that your father did not actually instead of sending me to West Point, set me at some useful trade or business." Sherman was expressing a feeling he often had, one widely shared in the nineteenth-century American middle class, that the peacetime army was an almost shameful backwater, and that commercial life was the seat of action for real men. Sherman went on to admonish Ewing's "real" son: "Make up your mind to study whatever profession your father may desire you and follow his wishes as near as you can till you are called upon to act for yourself." Not just for, Hugh did Sherman express confused understandings of personal autonomy and familial attachment.

Compared to his other personal correspondence, most of Sherman's letters to Thomas Ewing during his young manhood were written from a chilly distance. The nearest approach to warmth with Ewing came in their exchanges about Sherman's debt-ridden mother, Elizabeth. While making their careers, Sherman and his brothers undertook to pay off Elizabeth's debts in Lancaster, and to move her to Mansfield, a task that took fifteen years. Sherman's share of the load was $200 per year, about 15 percent of his salary. To this effort Thomas Ewing contributed his considerable legal talents, his moral support, and perhaps some financial assistance. For this Lieutenant Sherman was grateful. At one point in 1845, he wrote to Ewing, signing the letter, "your sincere and obliged friend." "Again I thank you for your valuable interest in her welfare, and will be a thousand times obliged if you will complete what we have begun-rescue Mother's property from impending danger." In their joint undertaking of rescuing his mother, Sherman felt more on a plane of equality with Ewing than he did in his role as subordinate stepson. To redeem the Sherman name, he was, in concert with his brothers and aided by Thomas Ewing, acting as a rescuer of a weak and dependent woman, a role that gave him a sense of long-term purpose, solidity, and strength.

For the remainder of Ewing's life, Sherman would continue to admire his distant stepfather and to resent him, while he often served him by attending to some of Ewing's far-flung real estate interests, on which he would report to Ewing in great and careful detail, pridefully showing fealty through duty rather than through affection. For many years the only major form of correspondence initiated by Sherman was when he would detail his business and career losses to Ewing, often accompanied by requests for money and expressions of fear that he could not maintain his independence, his distance from Ohio and from the Ewing sphere. Ewing would always send the money, but he would never be able to reassure his stepson, whose emotional needs remained utterly bewildering to him.

Sherman would also continue to express his resentment, at least obliquely, when he repeatedly refused to return to Lancaster or to work directly for Ewing. In Lancaster he was nothing, he would insist repeatedly to his stepsister, Ellen, while in the army, abroad in the world, he was making his own way. However, his army career presented problems of its own, and more generally he frequently failed in his efforts to become his own man, which frustrated him and filled him with self-loathing. And as if his often broken career would not present enough problems for him, on May Day 1850, after a prolonged engagement, he would marry his stepsister, Ellen Ewing, and thus Thomas Ewing, the distant stepfather, whom Ellen adored, would become his father-in-law as well. Coming from a tragically torn family, entering incompletely a second one, Sherman's confusions about marriage and parenthood would be lifelong.

© 1995 By Michael Fellman

Random House

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