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Sherman’s “Insanity” For Saying 200,000 Men Would be Needed to Fight the Civil War
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After having recently stepped down as Commanding General of the Army, Sherman reviews a biographical article. While explaining the story of his being labeled insane in 1861 for believing that 200,000 Union troops would be needed, he asks that Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s name be left out. Smalley published his article in the Century Magazine, January 1884.

WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN. Autograph Letter Signed, to E.V. Smalley. St. Louis, Missouri, November 13, 1883. 3 pp., 5 x 8 in. On Sherman’s imprinted stationery. With an endorsement initialed by Smalley requesting the change be made if possible.

Inventory #23562.07       Price: $3,800

Complete Transcript

     912 Garrison Avenue,

          St. Louis, Mo., Novr 13, 1883

E. V. Smalley Esq./ New York.

Dear sir,

            After seeing you & returning your proof with the few corrections I thought I could propose[.] you should omit all mention of Mr Camerons name in connection with the story of my insanity in 1861.

The full meaning can be conveyed by simply saying that the report went to <2> press by “some one” from the War Department.

My belief is that Adjutant General Thomas in some notes of our Louisville conversation used the expression “that General Sherman made the insane request for 60,000 men now, and that 200,000 would be needed before long” – that those notes were called for by Mr Cameron, and that some correspondent saw them and started the story of insanity.

Mr. Cameron & I are strong <3> friends and I would not willingly be privy to associating his name with that story.

Yours truly,

W. T. Sherman


Mr Buell / I presume it is too late to make this change. If not a line or two could be altered without much trouble / Truly / E. V. S.

Historical Background

Sherman was one of the few military leaders who understood early that the Civil War would be long and costly. Although President Lincoln initially called for 75,000 troops, they proved inadequate to the task of suppressing the rebellion. Northern over-confidence accounted in part for the disastrous Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Although many may have questioned Sherman’s sanity when he saw the need for hundreds of thousands of men, even he could not foresee that more than 2.5 million men would serve in the Union Army and another 85,000 in the Union Navy during the American Civil War.

Despite Sherman’s downplaying of his mental state in this letter, though, in other letters, he admitted that the concerns of command in 1861 “broke me down” and that he had considered suicide. Sherman’s breakdown appears to have stemmed from a lack of confidence, both in himself and in the Union war effort. Despite accounts that he was one of the few generals who positively impacted the Union cause at the First Battle of Bull Run, the calamitous defeat led Sherman to question his own judgment and the capacities of his volunteer troops. Lincoln, however, was so impressed by Sherman’s actions that he promoted him to Brigadier General in July 1861. Soon, Sherman was given command of the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky, therefore responsible for the Union cause in this crucial border state. Ironically, Sherman was not pleased with this promotion, as he believed it broke a promise from Lincoln that he would never be given an excessively prominent position.

Once in Kentucky, Sherman became increasingly pessimistic, believing his Army to be short on men and supplies; he also provided Washington with seemingly exaggerated accounts of the strength of the Confederate forces. By early November 1861, Sherman insisted that he be relieved of command. He was transferred to St. Louis, and by December he was put completely on leave by General Halleck, Commander of the Department of Missouri. While home, his distraught wife Ellen wrote to Sherman’s brother John, complaining of “melancholy insanity to which your family is subject.” By mid-December, Sherman was well enough to return to work, providing logistical support for General Grant’s capture of Fort Donelson, which together with the capture of nearby Fort Henry, was the first significant Union victory of the Civil War. Still suffering from a lack of confidence, Sherman asked Grant to “command him in any way,” despite Grant’s being the more junior officer. By March 1862, Sherman was finally allowed to serve under Grant and was apparently stable again. Even at the Battle of Shiloh, however, Sherman’s past demons crept up on him; he made sure not to appear overly alarmed at reports that Confederate general Albert Sydney Johnston would leave his base at Corinth, fearing “they’d call me crazy again!” (Larry Daniel, Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War (1997), 138.) The lack of defensive precautions in place nearly led to a disastrous first day for Sherman’s Army. Overall, through the autumn and early winter of 1861, the man who would soon become one of our nation’s most revered, and one of the Confederacy’s most feared, generals truly did suffer from debilitating mental illness.

William T. Sherman (1820-1891), a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, served as a corps commander under General Grant in successful campaigns down the Mississippi and in Tennessee. He then took command of the western armies when Grant was reassigned to the Virginia theatre. He was both recognized and criticized for his tactics of “scorched earth” and “total war,” evidenced by his capture of Atlanta and “March to the Sea” through Georgia. He followed this feat by a swift campaign north through the Carolinas to force the surrender of the last major Confederate army. Sherman served as Commanding General of the U.S. Army from 1869-1883, during a period of Westward expansion and Indian Wars.

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