Sherman’s 200,000 in Kentucky & bad historiography 2 comments

After Brigadier-General William T. Sherman took over command of the Department of the Cumberland from General Robert Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame) in 1861, he began to get nervous about his army’s dispositions in Kentucky. Sherman believed that the enemy had superior numbers (or easily could have with a rapid concentration, by utilizing the railroad system). In reality, his Federals outnumbered the Confederates on his front by two to one. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and his entourage traveled to Louisville in mid-October, and he asked what was needed.

Sherman’s response? 60,000 men to defend against the enemy and 200,000 to drive them out of Kentucky![1]

Of course, these were patently absurd numbers, and administration officials, other officers, and newspaper correspondents knew it. Even Sherman realized his mistake in short order: “I committed a fearful mistake in Kentucky.”

But that’s not the story passed down by Sherman, his supporters, and all too many historians. As early as 1864, Samuel M. Bowman wrote in the United States Service Magazine that Sherman’s request demonstrated “the inspiration or the judgment of a military genius,” while a soon-to-be Grant biographer, Albert Deane Richardson, remarked that it “proved wisdom and prophecy.”[2] Richardson’s later biography asserted that the 200,000 were necessary “to deal effectively with the rebels in the West.”[3] Another Grant biographer, John Emerson, stated the same.[4] In his Memoirs, Sherman claimed that the 200,000 would be needed “before we were done.”[5]

Such mischaracterizations continued into the 1900s. Basil Henry Liddell Hart, the British military historian, got both of Sherman’s stated needs wrong. Liddell Hart wrote that Sherman “argued that, to safeguard this and drive out the Confederates, sixty thousand men were needed at once,” while the two hundred thousand would be “necessary to conquer the Mississippi Valley down to the Gulf of Mexico.”[6]

Dr. John F. Marszalek, in Sherman: a Soldier’s Passion for Order, wrote about Sherman after Shiloh: “The huge numbers of troops involved in the battle began ‘to approximate my standard,’ he insisted, demonstrating that his estimates in Kentucky might not have been all that wrong.”[7] Dr. Steven Woodworth, another professional historian and Sherman biographer, believed that these 200,000 soldiers were needed to march to the Gulf of Mexico and that this estimate “would later prove prescient.”[8] Other writers making similar mistakes included Henry A. Barnum, James P. Boyd, Victor Hanson, Andrew Hickenlooper, James McDonough, Charles Royster, James F. Rusling, Oliver Perry Temple, and George Walsh.

Besides the wording of his official military correspondence, however, Sherman confirmed in a letter the next month to his brother, Senator John Sherman, soon after the interview with Secretary Cameron, that he had no idea of using the 200,000 to clean out the Mississippi Valley. Instead, he wrote, “One soldier less than two hundred thousand will be imperilled the moment the Confederates choose.”[9]

He reiterated this grossly mistaken estimate a few weeks afterward, writing to foster-father Thomas Ewing Sr.: “If the Country has 640,000 volunteers, or even 500,000–at least 200,000 of them should be in Kentucky or on the Ohio River, and though I may be mistaken I am still firmly of the opinion that unless that number of armed men, are distributed along that Line, it will fall into the hands of the Rebels.”[10] That was a far cry from the supposition that these same 200,000 soldiers would be sufficient to clean out the entire Mississippi Valley. In the meantime, Sherman’s successor, Brigadier-General Don Carlos Buell spoke of possible offensive operations with General-in-Chief George B. McClellan: “Sherman still insists that I require 200,000 men. I am quite content to try with a good many less.”[11]

Historian Albert Castel correctly summarized the affair: “Later Sherman and his apologists claimed that in referring to 200,000 troops he had in mind a campaign to open up the entire Mississippi Valley. … The subject of Sherman’s interview with Cameron, however, was not long-range strategy but the immediate situation in Kentucky,” and documents confirmed this.[12]

Having respect for the subject of one’s biography is one thing. But taking one of Sherman’s major failings and turning it into a positive virtue is terrible historiography. In much the same way, Grant’s apologists took his foolish orders to seize and occupy the rifle-pits at the bottom of Missionary Ridge and transmogrified them into inspired military genius, after the Union soldiers successfully ascended the ridge. Although certain readers of Civil War history may love a hero, one shouldn’t be manufactured when the evidence demonstrates the opposite.


[1] OR 4:1:313-14.

[2] The United States Service Magazine 1864, 2:117-18; Albert D. Richardson, The Secret Service : the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape, 1865, 247.

[3] Albert D. Richardson, A personal history of Ulysses S. Grant, and sketch of Schuyler Colfax, 1868, 237-38.

[4] John W. Emerson, “Grant’s Life in the West and His Mississippi Valley Campaigns.” Midland Monthly Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 4 (April 1898), 322.

[5] Sherman, Memoirs 1875, 1:203.

[6] Basil Henry Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American 1993, 107.

[7] John F. Marszalek, Sherman : a soldier’s passion for order 1993, 182.

[8] Steven E. Woodworth, Sherman: Lessons in Leadership, 2009, 42.

[9] Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, 1999, 160.

[10] Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, 1999, 163.

[11] OR 7:1:444.

[12] Albert Castel, Articles of War, 2001, 201-2.

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