Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, the men with the exotic names who turned the Civil War decisively in the North’s favor, are sometimes credited with putting an end to the romance of war. The once popular Southern novelist John Esten Cooke lamented that in modern warfare as conducted by the Union forces, “where men are organized in masses and converted into insensate machines, there is nothing heroic or romantic or in any way calculated to appeal to the imagination.” One looks in vain among the Northern victors for the flair and dash of the Confederate heroes—the wily guerrilla raider John Mosby, celebrated in a poem of Melville’s, or Jeb Stuart sporting an ostrich plume in his cap.
The North, to be sure, was not without its distinguished martyrs. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led his black troops in the doomed charge on Fort Wagner, giving Boston Brahmins a fit subject for their fantasies of leadership and martial heroism. Another Bostonian, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, led a black regiment to occupy Jacksonville, Florida, ordering that no houses be destroyed or plundered—“Sherman’s ‘bummers’ not having yet arrived,” Higginson noted proudly. When the town went up in flames anyway, Higginson insisted that it was the white reinforcements who had torched the wooden buildings and not his own well-mannered troops. Preparing for departure, he returned through the smoke-filled streets to the house where he had been billeted to pluck a tea rose for his lapel.1
The grim conditions of the final stages of the war put an end to such sentimental gestures, as Lincoln turned to the implacable generals who understood that victory was a matter of superior numbers and superior technology. Sherman knew well that he couldn’t compete with the young hotheads of the South according to their own methods. “War suits them,” he wrote, “and the rascals are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense…. These men must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.”
For Sherman, the romance of war lay neither in the battlefield bravura of the Confederate cavalry nor in the idealized antislavery causes espoused by Boston Brahmins, but rather in what he called “the grand and beautiful game of war.” It was a game for which he was well suited. The son of a lawyer with Connecticut roots who admired Tecumseh, the great chief of the Shawnees, Sherman had grown up in the frontier state of Ohio—“an untamed animal just caught in the far West,” he called himself—and attended West Point, from which he graduated in 1840. Sherman was never an abolitionist; he fervently opposed using black soldiers during the war as well as giving the vote to blacks. He felt at ease in the South, where he had taken part in mop-up operations against the Seminoles in Florida before serving in Mobile and Charleston, where he had friends among the leading families. When he taught at a military academy in Louisiana in 1860,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.