“I could a tale unfold . . .”
Have you seen Sherman? It is necessary to see him in order to realize the Norse make up of the man—the hauteur, noble, yet democratic. . . . Try to picture Sherman—seamy, sinewy, in style—a bit of stern open air made up in the image of a man.
—Walt Whitman, “Of the Corps and Generals,”
Walt Whitman’s Civil War, 1881
To the blue-clad men who’d spent the past three days pouring off the transports at Pittsburg Landing, and trudging inland to pitch their tents around a small log church called Shiloh Meeting House that chilly spring of 1862, it must have seemed inconceivable that civil war had gripped their promising young nation for almost a year.
The months had slipped by and with them their innocence. Next month would see the first anniversary of Beauregard’s firing on Fort Sumter and here they were bivouacked on the west side of the Tennessee more miles than they cared to think about from their homes and loved ones in the North.
Maybe it would soon be over. After the ignominious defeat of First Bull Run, the Federals had tasted some recent success. The U.S.S. Monitor had battled the Merrimack to a standoff in Norfolk, Virginia. General Buell’s army had flushed the Rebs out of Kentucky and then taken Nashville. General Burnside had captured Roanoke Island, General Curtis had defeated Earl Van Dorn at Pea Ridge, and General Pope was about to invade the uninspiringly named Island No. 10, in the swamps of the Missouri. As for Sam Grant, his victories at forts Henry and Donelson were being hailed as “the turning point.”
The only fly in the Federal ointment right now was George McClellan. That very week Abe Lincoln himself had told the newspapers, “Mr. Joseph E. Johnston is falling back in Virginia and General McClellan is after him,” but these men knew the army in the east wasn’t after anyone. It was going around in circles, like its leader.
They may have lost much of their innocence, but they still had hope. Maybe the war could be won right here in the West, where there were some good men and some good commanders.
William Tecumseh Sherman was not a handsome man. Yet his features—the sharp, arching nose; the firm, set mouth; the coarse, cinnamon- colored beard; and red hair—were striking in the extreme. The six- foot, rail-thin general with the almost feminine narrowness that belied a muscular build was a man blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a peculiar nervous energy that knew no cessation. Every action, every gesture, every thought and word bespoke intellect and vigor. Careless of dress, shiny brass buttons and gold bullion held no attraction for this man. His shabby field officer’s coat was stained with ash; his boots were caked in mud and his hat, without cord or badge, was of the wool slouch variety, commonly referred to as shapeless, since it lived up to, or rather down to, its name. From under the narrow brim the Ohioan’s most striking feature, eyes of an indeterminate color, fixed the world with the intensity of a bird of prey.
By suppertime the rain had finally stopped, though a threat of more hung in the damp air above the bare hills, and the ground beneath many an army blanket was hard with frost. Nevertheless, rain or no rain Sherman would take his nightly stroll.
As he walked, he reflected with satisfaction upon this good high ground, with plenty of room for drilling and exercise. It was an excellent site for the Federals to camp when its main objective was Corinth, Mississippi, and the Rebel force gathering there only twenty miles away. Once captured, this railroad town would leave Memphis naked, and open the Mississippi for hundreds of miles. Sherman knew all this, since with characteristic thoroughness, he had made a personal reconnaissance of the area.
By now, the division commander with the distracted look in his eye and a half-smoked “segar” protruding from the left side of his mouth was a familiar sight to his soldiers. They would call out to him as he passed. A disembodied growl and an inclining of the large head would, invariably, greet a friendly “Evenin’, Gen’al.” Not that Sherman was distant or cold; on the contrary, any honest soldier would find in him the easiest of men to approach for a fair hearing. It was simply that such an active mind as his was constantly occupied, constantly engaged in thought, never at peace, never in repose. His was a truly tense soul.
This night as he walked in the direction of the distant picket lines on the Hamburg-Purdey road his ever-racing thoughts were interrupted not by the greetings of his men, or the strains of a familiar song, but by a muffled rustling in the bushes. Drawing his sidearm, he strode unafraid over the tangle of fallen timber, holding the branches aside with his free arm and demanding, red-faced, “Make yourself known. Speak up, or I’ll shoot.”
There, kneeling on the wet earth with bowed red head, was a small figure, a will-o’-the-wisp in the oversized uniform of an infantryman.
Sherman took a step closer. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Have you fallen out of the sky?” He grasped the boy by the chin and raised his head. “Answer me.”
The boy stared at him, eyes wide with an undisguised devotion that for a second left the usually articulate man lost for words. He said, “Are you hurt? You should not be out here alone. The enemy have cavalry and pickets scattered all around.”
“You’re out here alone, sir,” the boy now said boldly.
“That’s different. I know the dangers; you evidently do not, why else would you be wandering around in the dark?”
The young soldier, who was beginning to feel very cold, could not restrain a shiver. He was wearing only a blouse, the sleeves of which hung down over his fingers, and there were but two buttons holding it together across his narrow chest. Sherman peered closely at his cheeks, smooth and freckled, cheeks that had never seen a razor. Why, he was nothing more than a child, with a wide, full mouth and a strong chin, punctuated by a deep cleft. His pants, of such ample proportions they could have accommodated a sack of potatoes without straining a seam, were held up with a length of coarse rope.
Sherman’s breath, a potent mix of whiskey and cigar smoke, appeared to make the young soldier dizzy, for he momentarily closed his eyes and seemed to sway.
“Get yourself back to your camp,” Sherman ordered, “and into your blanket before you freeze to death or the enemy carries you off. Go on!”
As he turned, the young soldier sprang up before him: “Sir—may I go with you?”
“With me? Certainly not. What regiment are you with, my boy?”
“None, sir, I came here to serve you.” The enormous eyes, like the stained-glass blue of a cathedral, round and shiny as military buttons, watched him with an intensity that might have been disconcerting to a lesser mortal. However, the gaze was without guile, and he had as pleasing a countenance as the general had seen for many a year.
Sherman laughed his sudden snatching laughter, laughter that was somehow shocking, coming as it did from such a grim and dignified personage. The sound itself was an identical twin of his hoarse, basso voice, guttural and rasping, starting deep within his chest, and building up with every gasp of air sucked into his lungs until it burst forth possessed of all the force, energy, and enthusiasm that characterized every aspect of the man. “You came here to serve me, ah?” he asked gruffly, giving the boy a kind of cuff, but only gently, around the ear.
“Where is your equipment?” Sherman asked, and tugged at the boy’s collar. “Your musket? A soldier should never be without his musket. What would you do if the Rebels attacked?”
“I have no musket, sir, I have no equipment.”
“Did your quartermaster sergeant not issue you with any?” Sherman made a noise of disgust, but the young soldier could not say if it was directed at him or at the quartermaster sergeant. Before he could reply, the Ohioan had marched off with the brisk order, “Follow me.”
Five minutes later, when this particular quartermaster sergeant was rudely aroused from his bleary-eyed beauty sleep, he burst from his tent, a mad bull cursing all God’s creatures, but most specifically the man who had so thoughtlessly disturbed him. Then he recognized his commander and fell instead to apologizing with the same energy he had invested in his cursing. Sherman brushed him aside to demand brusquely, “Sergeant Wiley, issue this boy with blanket, sack jacket, knapsack, and all accruements.”
“Yes sir, first thing in the morning, sir.”
“No, Sergeant, not first thing in the morning. Now!”
“Certainly, sir, right away, sir.” The sergeant looked at the young soldier with eyes that warned swift and savage reprisals when they were alone.
To the young soldier the general said, “In the morning see the ordnance officer in your company, ask him to issue you with musket and ammunition—sixty rounds of minié cartridges—percussion caps. They go in a box on your belt, which this sergeant will give you.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir.” The young boy shivered as he spoke.
“Find yourself somewhere warm to sleep, beside a fire, but not too close. I have known men sleep too close to a fire, fall asleep and burn themselves. Isn’t that so, Sergeant?”
“Whatever you say, Gen’al.” The sergeant, nursing a punishing hangover, wished both commander and boy would be consumed by fire, and the flames of hell themselves would not have sufficed.
“Make the acquaintance of some older men,” Sherman advised. “They’ll teach you what you need to know to survive. Keep your musket by you, and stay around camp at night unless you are on picket duty. Then there’s safety in numbers,” he added emphatically, wreaths of smoke enveloping his large red head as he gave the young soldier’s cheek a gentle slap.
“Sir, will you wait for me!” the boy called hopefully, but the commander was already gone, swallowed up by the darkness. He looked up at the sergeant’s cruel red face and could not help uttering a howl of pain as his ear was twisted viciously.
“Wake me in the middle of the night, will yer? Scabby little son of a bitch—we’ll see ’bout that—I’ll make yer sorry yer mother ever suckled yer. I’ll break that scrawny back of yers.”
When the boy caught up with the general, he found him before the dying embers of a campfire, kicking at the smoldering ashes with the tip of his boot, while his mind seemed to be elsewhere, perhaps on the battle to come. As the boy approached clanking and clanging, the Ohioan turned abruptly. “What in the devil—!”
“I was trying to stay with you, sir, but I don’t think I can go another step—” Bent-shouldered, the boy looked up pleadingly at the commander from under the brim of a brand-new Hardy hat complete with gold-bullion cord, a hat that only the bend of his ears and the thickness of his curls prevented from falling over his eyes. He was laden down with what the general had called “accruements.” They hung from every part of his body and clothing. Much, it was true, useful to a soldier in the field—tin cups, tin plates, a coffee pot the size of a small bucket, skillet, drum canteen, sewing kit, eating utensils, belt and ball pouch, cartridge box and sling. On his back was a knapsack; slung across the top was a woolen blanket roll and a rubber-lined blanket and inside was a large cake of evil-smelling soap, a wedge of chewing tobacco, and two pairs of hard woolen socks knitted by some elderly matron of Maine. The quartermaster sergeant had been true to his word. Oh, yes, much that was necessary, but also much that wasn’t, such as a pair of spiked riding spurs and a pair of enlisted man’s shoulder scales!
“Well, my boy, now you look like a soldier in the field,” Sherman declared before he tossed his cigar stub into the fire and walked on.
Actually, the boy, laden down as he was, looked less like a soldier in the field and more like a beast of burden. “Sir—” He struggled after the general, clattering and banging like a portable galley, breathing noisily as if his lungs would burst. “Sir—will you . . . teach me to be a good soldier?”
Sherman stopped again and turned around. He would have lost his patience had the soldier not been buried under this mountain of equipment. However, it was difficult to be angry with someone when all you could see of him were two big round eyes. Besides, there was something else, the boy’s coloring reminded him of his own son, Willy, just seven years old and already taking a keen interest in his father’s military career. The thought might certainly have occurred to the general that if Willy were in a war far from home, might not the father pray that another commander take the time to teach his son some basic rules of survival? “Five minutes,” he said suddenly, “and what you do not understand the first time of explaining I shall not repeat.”
“Yes sir!” the young soldier agreed enthusiastically, managing a broad grin despite the pain between his shoulder blades. Had he not been on his last legs he would have broken into a run to catch up with the rapidly disappearing Ohioan. But he moved as fast as he could, struggling manfully with every step, the tin plate and large coffee pot banging remorselessly against his bony knees. Nevertheless, he soon fell behind as he drifted into a group of men concentrating on a game of chuck-a-luck in the light of their campfire.
“Cut that goddamn hullabaloo!” one of them bellowed as he passed. “Kain’t hear maself think.”
“Damn your eyes!” shouted a second soldier, while a third tossed a brogan that struck the boy squarely in the tin plate hanging from his sack jacket. “Nex’ tayme’ll be a bullet, yer goddamn shit-house rat!”
“Why you dirty bag-a-bones country boy, stop that goddamn noise!” came an order from one of the tents.
“Lord a’mighty, it’s the whole goddamned Reb army!”
“I guess that’s one way a scarin’ Johnny Reb” was a wry comment.
“I reckon they can hear yer all the way to Richmond, boy. Ain’t yer got no place to bed down? Yer lookin’ ter git yerself hog-tied.”
A third man stuck out his leg and this portable cook’s galley went crashing headlong to the ground amid a cacophony of tin cup, plate, and coffee pot.
“Haw, haw, haw!” came the chorus of laughter.
Just when the boy was beginning to think he had lost the commander in the maze of canvas streets, every tent identical, from out of the darkness was heard the hoarse command, “I’m over here, and for pity’s sake, cease your noise, you will rouse the entire camp!”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Better Angels of Our Nature by S. C. Gylanders. Copyright © 2006 by S. C. Gylanders. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.