William T. Sherman (Bio)

W.T. Sherman

Who was William T. Sherman?

As a namesake for an elementary school, William T. Sherman (1820-1891) might be a controversial choice. To many, Sherman was a Civil War hero and military mastermind who hated battle but loved his country. To others, particularly Southerners and Sioux Indians, Sherman was a demon hell-bent on death and destruction.

Sherman’s connection to PS 87 can be traced to his decision to spend his final years in Manhattan. From 1886 until his death in 1891, Sherman lived on the Upper West Side, about seven blocks from the school that today bears his name.

William Tecumseh Sherman was born Feb. 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio, the sixth of 11 children born to Charles and Mary Sherman. The name Tecumseh honored a Shawnee Indian chief, and Sherman was known to his family as “Cump.” At age 16, Sherman earned an appointment to West Point, where he was a smart and popular cadet yet was indifferent to the military academy’s strict rules.

Sherman entered the Army in 1840 and served in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and California. In 1850, he married Eleanor Boyle Ewing, and the couple eventually had eight children.

Sherman left the military in 1853 to go into business as a bank manager in San Francisco, but his career was unsuccessful. In 1859, he moved to Louisiana and became the first superintendent of the institution that would later become Louisiana State University. 

Sherman lived most of his adult life in the South and did not oppose slavery. But he was a staunch foe of dissolving the union, and he warned secessionist Southerners that any war would end in their bloody defeat. In 1861, after Louisiana seceded and war seemed inevitable, Sherman resigned his post.

After the Civil War broke out, Sherman won a commission as a U.S. Army colonel in charge of an infantry regiment, and he was one of the few Union commanders to earn praise at the First Battle of Bull Run. A series of military and personal setbacks followed (some believe Sherman had a nervous breakdown), and he fell out of favor with federal politicians and military leaders.

By spring 1862, Sherman was serving under his friend Ulysses S. Grant, the general who would ultimately lead Union forces to victory. The two commanders were instrumental in the North’s successful counterattack at the Battle of Shiloh, and both men’s military reputations steadily improved. By 1864, Grant was in command of all Union armies, and he placed Sherman in charge of the war’s western theater.

The series of scorched-earth campaign known today as Sherman’s March began in September 1864, after Sherman’s forces captured Atlanta and burned most of the city. Sherman led 62,000 troops on a path of destruction and plunder to Savannah, capturing that port city in December, then headed north into South Carolina, the first Southern state to secede. Union troops took Columbia, the state capital, on Feb. 17, 1865.

During the march, Sherman’s troops deliberately destroyed anything of military value, particularly railroads, bridges, cotton mills and telegraph lines. They also seized crops, horses, mules and cattle to supply Union troops. Sherman called his tactic “hard war,” an all-encompassing form of warfare that made little distinction between military and civilian targets. The goal was to decisively crush the South’s ability and willingness to fight.

Today, Sherman is often reviled in the South but seen as a military hero in the North, praised as one of history’s finest military strategists. His capture of Atlanta, months before the 1864 election, gave President Abraham Lincoln a decisive boost and helped seal Lincoln’s re-election. Sherman defended his harsh tactics as necessary but regrettable, and he disdained those who saw glory in warfare. In a letter dated May 1865, after most Confederate armies had surrendered, Sherman wrote:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers.”

After the war, Sherman served in a variety of military capacities before being named General of the Army in 1869 under President Grant. Sherman ordered or condoned harsh tactics with the Sioux and other warring Plains tribes thought to be hindering the United States’ westward expansion. “First, clear off the buffalo, then clear off the Indian,” he famously wrote to Grant. “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their total extermination — men, women and children.”

Sherman retired from the military in 1884. By 1886 he had moved to Manhattan, where he was an avid theatergoer and a sought-after speaker. He died in his Upper West Side home on Valentine’s Day in 1891, six days after his 71st birthday.

Sherman’s Upper West Side address was 75 West 71st Street, at the corner of 71st and Columbus Avenue. His home was torn down long ago, and today the site houses Harry’s Burritos. No historical marker exists, but monuments to Sherman are nearby. A small triangular park at 70th Street and Broadway was renamed Sherman Square in 1891, soon after his death. A larger monument to Gen. Sherman was completed in 1903 at the southeast corner of Central Park at a site known as Grand Army Plaza. An imposing golden statue depicts Sherman in uniform atop his horse, being led by a winged “victory.”

It’s not clear exactly when PS 87 adopted the name William T. Sherman School. The name begins to appear in news reports around 1954, around the time the school’s original building was replaced by the structure in use today. Tecumseh Playground is the official name of the adjacent city-run play areas better known as Big Yard and Metal Park.

— Written by Skip Card

For more information and images: Wikipedia