Excerpted from Grant and Sherman by Charles Bracelen Flood. Copyright © 2005 by Charles Bracelen Flood. Published October 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
In the early hours of April 7, 1862, after the terrible first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman came through the darkness to where his superior, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, stood in the rain. Sherman had reached the conclusion that the Union forces under Grant’s command could not endure another day like the one just ended. When the massive Confederate surprise attack on the vast federal encampment beside the Tennessee River began at dawn on April 6, Grant’s command had numbered thirty-seven thousand men. Now seven thousand of those were killed or wounded, another three thousand were captured, and more than five thousand were huddled along the bank of the river, demoralized and useless as soldiers. Sherman, who had been wounded in the hand earlier in the battle, was coming to tell Grant that he thought they should use the transport vessels near them at Pittsburg Landing to evacuate their forces so that they could “put the river between us and the enemy, and recuperate.”
Sherman found Grant alone, under a tree. Hurt in a fall from a horse on a muddy road a few days before, Grant was leaning on a crutch and held a lantern. He had a lit cigar clenched in his teeth, and rain dripped from the brim of his hat. Looking at the determined expression on Grant’s bearded face, Sherman found himself “moved by some wise and sudden instinct” not to mention retreat and used a more tentative approach. “Well, Grant,” he said, “we’ve had the devil’s own day of it, haven’t we?”
“Yes,” Grant said quietly in the rainy darkness, and drew on his cigar. “Lick’em tomorrow though.”
That was the end of any thought of retreat. At first light, Grant threw his entire force at the Confederates under General P.G.T. Beauregard, and after a second bloody day, Grant, with Sherman right beside him, had won the biggest Northern victory of the Civil War’s first year. The author and Confederate soldier George Washington Cable wrote, “The South never smiled after Shiloh.”
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Shiloh was a great victory in itself, but that meeting in the rain symbolizes something more. Enormous military and political results flowed from the friendship between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, two men who had been obscure failures before the Civil War. Their relationship as superior and subordinate began when they moved toward the Battle of Shiloh, which took place ten months into the conflict. At Shiloh they came together on the field, and here Grant and Sherman took each other’s measure under fire and began two years of successful cooperation and friendship. They separated in the final year of the war to lead armies in different areas, but though their headquarters were hundreds of miles apart, they remained in virtually constant contact by what was then known as the “magnetic telegraph.” Throughout the war, each supported the other’s efforts in every way; each furthered and on occasion saved the other’s career.
In some ways the two men were different. Grant, whom a fellow officer described as “plain as an old stove,” was reserved in manner and worked with decisive inner power. A man who knew Sherman described his torrential energy: “He is never quiet. His fingers nervously twitch his whiskers…One moment his legs are crossed, and the next both are on the floor. He sits a moment, then paces the floor.”
Sherman was an intellectual, widely read in military history and theory. Early in the war, Sherman, greatly talented but insecure, asked President Abraham Lincoln to agree that he would remain as second in command in a specific assignment and not have to lead it. By contrast, Grant operated on military intuition, thinking boldly and acting with quiet confidence: another officer said that Grant looked “as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” (As Grant advanced into Confederate territory, Abraham Lincoln said of him, “When Grant once gets possession of a place, he holds on to it as if he had inherited it.”)
Grant needed a gifted and effective subordinate, and at first Sherman needed a man to give him orders and then stand by him, no matter what. And each needed a friend. They worked together for twenty-three months, planning, consuming countless cigars, learning the lessons taught them by their battles and campaigns.
At that point, in March of 1864, Lincoln summoned Grant east to assume command of all the Union armies and to oppose Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the final year of the war. Before they parted, Grant and Sherman agreed on what each had to do next. Grant would attack Lee in northern Virginia, working to outflank Lee until he could break through Lee’s extended and continually thinning lines. Sherman would march southeast from Chattanooga, Tennessee, disemboweling the South.
Turning that strategy into action, Grant’s forces and Sherman’s Army of the West supported each other as effectively as if the two men had remained together. By then the two leaders thought alike, and any differences they had were quickly resolved.
After Grant came east to take the Union supreme command, he and Sherman did not meet again for a year. When they did, it was Sherman who traveled north on a swift courier vessel from his successful Carolina campaigns to meet Grant at City Point, Virginia, prior to a conference with Lincoln concerning what all three knew would be the closing scenes of the war. As Grant walked down the dock to where Sherman was coming ashore, one of Grant’s staff witnessed this:
In a moment, they stood upon the steps, with their hands locked in a cordial grasp, uttering words of familiar greeting. Their encounter was more like that of two school-boys coming together after a vacation than the meeting of the chief actors in a great war tragedy.
Soon after that conference at City Point, Grant forced Lee’s final defeat at Appomattox Court House, and in North Carolina Sherman brought to an end the resistance of the South’s other remaining large army under Joseph E. Johnston.
Grant and Sherman learned the lessons that led to the final victory during many desperate hours in dramatic campaigns. Those who believe that the North’s greater industrial strength and manpower guaranteed the South’s eventual defeat forget that those well-equipped Union columns had to be led by generals. The North had other good generals besides Grant and Sherman, as well as many that Lincoln tried in various areas who failed, but the partnership between these two leaders was unique. Grant and Sherman’s way to victory required intelligence, luck, and brave soldiers, but it was built on the mutual trust that their friendship inspired.