The Resurrection of William T. Sherman

I was startled to see William T. Sherman, scourge of the South, on the Delmar Loop the other day. His name was underfoot on one of the hundreds of bronze stars in the sidewalks that honor those with some connection to St. Louis. Chuck Berry, Redd Foxx, T.S. Eliot, and Agnes Moorhead, the mother-in-law on Bewitched, are there too. I did not remember Sherman’s residencies in St. Louis before and after the Civil War or realize he was buried in a local cemetery.

Sherman has returned to the popular imagination in recent years. Revisionist biographies have worked to correct misconceptions of his scorched-earth warfare, and he is the subject of listicles, a podcast, and William T. Sherman’s Dank Meme Stash on Facebook. This was probably inevitable, given the national sundering and new alliances of Confederacy-worshipers, neo-Nazis, Proud Boy-types, and rightwing militias.

The Facebook page that takes his name is anti-Confederacy, anti-Lost Cause, anti-Klan, anti-fascist, and anti- other illiberal movements, and it loves the idea of Shermanian fire as cleansing agent. It relies primarily on the trope of the hard man with the grim face, who metes Old Testament-style justice. In one meme, a sink faucet labeled “General William T. Sherman” gushes flaming water into a sink labeled “The South.” A WWII-style poster shows Sherman posing in his cape while Nazis and Klansmen shrink in terror; the caption says, “You again? Stop the ‘Alt-Right.’ We beat ‘em before. We’ll beat ‘em now.”

Sherman is not in the same vein as Lincoln the forgiver or Robert E. Lee, gentleman, both of whom “did not believe, either at the outbreak of the war or at its conclusion, in unlimited violence and lethal destruction….” Sherman might better be compared to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, who believed in “black flag” war—taking no prisoners.

(The Dank Meme Stash posted a photo of the real grave marker for “The Arm of Stonewall Jackson,” with the caption, “Loved America so much, took the Second Amendment literally,” and the comment, “Rest in Pieces.”)

Sherman is an ambiguous figure. As the first superintendent of the college that would become LSU, he told the governor, “If Louisiana withdraws from the Federal Union, I prefer to maintain my allegiance to the Constitution as long as a fragment of it survives…on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile to or in defiance of the old Government of the United States.”

But his fealty to nation over all, and his cold, calculating efficiency led not only to his role as punisher in the war but also to harsh treatment of Native Americans defying takeover of their lands. Southerners bemoan Sherman as a monster, but his “hard war” across the South was only training for what he inflicted on Native Americans when he became commander of the Military Division of the Missouri after the war. In 1866, this man named for a Shawnee chief, enraged over a military loss to the Indians, wrote General of the Army U.S. Grant that “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

Hardness is a dog that serves many masters.

The grave of William T. Sherman is in Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis, a 470-acre city of the dead with 300,000 graves. There is room for 300 years’ more burials. The place is so large The Common Reader once got lost there trying to show a busload of visitors the grave of Tennessee Williams.

I drove over from the Land of Lincoln; by coincidence a Bald Eagle was wheeling over the River above the city where Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, and even Robert E. Lee played their roles.

It was the day after Halloween, but the graveyard had none of the creepy feeling children love to fear. The west end of the property is a restored prairie, now in rust and gold, which shows what the city looked like in Sherman’s time. In the hills among the graves, large oaks and pines and maples blocked some of the cold rain. Brilliant leaves stuck to the car windows. There was a strong feeling of dignity, in a past upright and foursquare with maintenance, that meant honor in death, even if the rich got a little more real-estate, as in life. The Catholic sisters of great age were lined up in rows and marked with modest crosses. (“People are dying to get in there,” my father-in-law used to say any time we passed a cemetery.)

I was the only visitor, and the office was closed. A map taped to the inside of the window showed the rough location of Tennessee Williams’ grave, but not that of Sherman, Dred Scot, writer Kate Chopin, the Chouteaus (co-founders of the city), or any of the major-league ballplayers buried there. In the end, it was GPS and a website that permitted me to find William T. Sherman and his family, on a hill up from the mausoleum and columbaria. An American flag flew from a small mast.

“Faithful and honorable,” Sherman’s tombstone read. The dirt was nearly bare in front it, as if many people had knelt there.

It was as if he had just been buried.

I had an uncanny feeling that periodically, when times are ripe, he rises again. “War is all hell,” roars the old lion, as his fellow citizens cry, “Plenty of room, plenty of room!”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.