Sherman Explains the New Facts of Life, Part 2

In early September 1862, William Tecumseh Sherman wrote his brother, John, then in his early years as a U.S. Senator from Ohio. It is a useful letter because it reveals clearly the attitude of Sherman to African-American slaves alluded to in the August 26 edition of Civil War Emancipation.

To recap, in late August/early September 1862, Sherman was serving as the federal commander of Union-occupied Memphis. As a Northerner who had spent considerable time in the South before the Civil War, he considered himself more knowledgeable than most people of his section on the slaves, and felt he needed to educate his brother on the subject, especially now that John had become an important policy maker in Washington, D.C.

This letter, in late Summer 1862, between Sherman and his brother reveals unsurprisingly that William Tecumseh Sherman did not hold a high opinion of African Americans, and he was unimpressed by congressional efforts to free them through passing the Second Confiscation Act. He wrote John:

I have your letter and Still think you are wrong in saying that Negros are free & entitled to be treated accordingly by simple declaration of Congress.  It requires a Judicial decree in each instance before the officers of our Treasury will give faith to their receipts or recognise any dealings with them.  Besides, no army could take care of the wants of the host of slaves, women & children that would hang about if freed without the condition attached of earning their food & clothing.  I know instead of helping us it would be an incumbrance.

As he would for most of the rest of the war, Sherman saw slaves as essentially incapable of caring for themselves, and primarily a potential hindrance to the military mission of the Union Army. While he recognized their value as laborers, William Tecumseh Sherman was loath to free the slaves in early September 1862 because he believed it would create tremendous problems for the army and for the nation. He wrote his brother:

Now, I have in my orders appropriated the labor of negroes as far as will benefit the army.  To injure our enemy, universal emancipation with the machinery to carry it into Effect would be of course effectual, but by no means conclusive.  Not one slave in ten wants to run off.  There are 25,000 in 20 miles of Memphis.  All could escape & would receive protection here, but we have only about 2000 of whom full one half are hanging about camps as officers servants.  Some plan, some system of labor must be devised in connection with these slaves else the whole scheme fails.  It is easy to say “thou shalt not steal” but to stop stealing puzzles the brains of hundreds of men and employs thousands of bailiffs, sheriffs, &c. &c.  So you or Congress may command, “Slaves shall be free” but to make them free, and see that they are not converted into thieves, idlers or worse is a difficult problem and will require much machinery to carry out.

Our commissaries must be enduced to feed them, and some provision must be made for the women & children.  My order gives employment to say 2000—all men.  Now that is about 1/8 of the command.  Extend that proportion to the whole army of 800,000, gives 100,000 slaves.  And if we pay $10 a month the estimate can be made.  If the women & children are to be provided for, we must allow for the support of say one million. Where are they to get work?  Who is to feed them? Clothe them? & House them?  We cannot now give tents to our soldiers, our wagon trains are now a horrible impediment, and if we are to take along & feed the negroes who flee to us for refuge, it will be an impossible task.  You cannot solve this negro question in a day.

So while William Tecumseh Sherman recognized the military value of emancipation and how it would harm the Confederacy, he feared that it also would harm the Union cause because the slaves would become a burden the Union Army was not capable of dealing with. Eventually, of course, Sherman would accept emancipation and famously give southern slaves the means to help themselves, with Special Field Orders No. 15 in January 1865 (the historical basis for “40 acres and a mule”), but in September 1862, he still saw them as a potential administrative disaster, and preferred the slaves to stay on their plantations even if it kept them in bondage. But this reasoning was predicated on the belief the slaves were incapable of caring for themselves. Like other white Northerners, it would take time to for Sherman to be set straight on that common misconception.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s