Articles

This Civil War general's legacy goes deeper than a tank and 'total war'

 


General William Tecumseh Sherman's military legacy rests on a lot more than just killing the enemy.

Of course, he helped change how the United States would wage war in the next 80 years. His name would also later adorn one of the country's most iconic symbols of military might.

Photo: D. Miller/ Flickr

But the one that probably matters the most for today's veterans was his influence on how to deal with the invisible wounds of war.

Sherman was a high-profile general and war hero who successfully overcame mental health issues to return to service and play the decisive role he played in the Civil War.

In late 1861, he grew despondent over his command in Kentucky, a secondary theater of the war. Knowing he was not well, he insisted upon his relief in November of 1861. Caught in the depths of what a number of historians believe to have been either bipolar disorder or depression, Sherman even contemplated suicide.

General William Tecumseh Sherman (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, he would recover, and Gen. Henry Halleck would return him to light duty. Eventually he would be paired with Ulysses S. Grant in time to win the Battle of Shiloh. In the Western Theater, Grant and Sherman were two high-ranking "battle buddies" who eventually won the Civil War.

For today's vets, his recovery without the modern understanding of mental health issues points to the important role that supportive friends, family, and superiors can play in treating the invisible wounds of war. In light of the recent suicide of Major General John Rossi, remembering the support that General Halleck and Grant gave to Sherman's efforts to recover may be his most important legacy.

While his legacy of overcoming the "invisible wounds" of mental health problems is the most important legacy for today, that misses other contributions he made.

Sherman's most immediate legacy was the introduction of the "total war" strategy to the United States military. The way he burned and pillaged his way through the state of Georgia, first taking Atlanta, then with his March to the Sea that took Savannah (near the present-day Fort Stewart), severed the supply lines for Confederate forces. The resulting logistics problems, combined with the bad news from home, helped force the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in April, 1865.

Eighty years later, Germany and Japan both surrendered, thanks to the use of that same doctrine. Whether it was the use of massed bomber formations, or submarines putting merchant vessels on the bottom of the ocean, Sherman's concept of total war was in play during World War II.

World War II also saw another legacy of William Tecumseh Sherman. This time it was the famous M4 Sherman tank that was named in his honor. Prior to the Civil War, Sherman had warned the South that it was about to pick a fight it could not win – particularly given the North's industrial might. In World War II, the Sherman was one of the most prominent examples of America's industrial might – over 49,000 were built. They saw combat in every theater of combat, and were used not only by the Army and Marine Corps, but by the British, Canadians, Soviets, and Chinese. After World War II, they saw action in Korea and the Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani Wars.

In an ironic twist, just as General Sherman warned the South prior to the Civil War that provoking a fight with the North was a bad idea, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned his superiors of America's latent industrial might. Unlike Sherman, who left the South and backed up his moral convictions, Yamamoto implemented the desires of the Japanese war lords, and helped plan the Pearl Harbor attack. While Sherman lived to be reviled through the South, Yamamoto met his end at the hands of Tom Lanphier over Bougainville on April 18, 1943.

It is said that William Tecumseh Sherman was the first so called "modern general." Given that his legacy to the United States military will continue to reverberate through the United States military and around the world, that seems to be a very fair statement.

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