Father Thomas Ewing Sherman

Abraham Lincoln said that “A House divided against itself cannot stand”.  Thomas Ewing Sherman was born into a House divided by religion on  October 12, 1856.  He was the son of William Tecumseh Sherman, at the time an obscure former officer, and Ellen Ewing Sherman.  Ellen Sherman was a devout Catholic, and, I think, a saint.  She constantly did good works and was a champion of the Church her entire life.  Among her many activities was the foundation of the Catholic Indian Missionary Association, and a prominent role in the Golden Jubilee celebrations in the US of the reign of Pio Nono in 1877 for which she received the personal thanks of the Pope.

William Tecumseh Sherman attended mass with his family when he was at home prior to the Civil War, but ceased doing so during the war.  He and Ellen had been raised together, Ellen’s father, Thomas Ewing, a Senator from Ohio, taking the orphan “Cump” Sherman into his home after the death of Sherman’s father, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, in 1829.  The Ewings were devout Catholics, although Thomas would not be baptized into the Faith until just before his death after decades of attending mass, and “Cump” was baptized a Catholic while living with them.  Sherman’s religious views are often described as agnostic but that is an oversimplification.  I think he basically believed in God, but he was skeptical of organized religion and especially the Catholic Church.  However, he had no objection to Ellen raising all of their children as Catholics, but over the years the religious tension between Sherman and his wife grew.  

The Shermans had eight children.  Thomas Sherman was probably his father’s favorite, being his eldest surviving son and blessed with a good mind.  He attended Georgetown and graduated with a BA in 1874.  He received a law degree from Washington University in 1878.  His father assumed that Thomas would go far in this world and he was shocked when his son announced that he was going to become a Jesuit.

In a letter dated April 21, 1885 to Mrs. Mary Audenreid, the widow of his former chief of staff, and perhaps his mistress, he made his opposition to his son’s decision clear:  “With Catholics the church is Greater than God himself and they will abandon Father & Mother if the Church Commands.  I have read your letter carefully and now write to repeat my advice of this morning that you allow Florence [her 18-year-old daughter] rope. Let her play her own game.Tell her to take her own way and you choose yours. If she becomes a nun she can do no harm and is dead to the world. Natures God intended all women to be mothers but if all breed too fast, wars, pestilence and famine come to destroy the surplus. I confess that I feared Florence would err on the other side, but if she has been indoctrinated let her go her course – you keep up your house ready & willing to afford her at all times a safe refuge. I remember well my feelings when Tom [29-year-old son, Thomas Ewing Sherman, his eldest living son] left me, his sisters & all for the Church and my judgment remains the same that it was an awful crime against nature for I had a right to depend on him in my old age to look after those dependent on me. I hope Cump [18-year-old son, Philemon Tecumseh Sherman, his youngest child] will take his place but even in that I have not absolute confidence “

Nothing daunted by his father’s opposition Thomas went forward with his plans to become a priest.  He explained his decision with these words:    “People in love do strange things. Having a vocation is like being in love only more so, as there is no love so absorbing, so deep and so lasting as that of the creature for the Creator.”

He did his novitiate in London, England and Frederick, Maryland.  He was ordained a priest in 1889.  His mother died the year before and it is to be regretted that she did not live to see her eldest son become a priest in the Jesuit order.  His father died on February 14, 1891 in New York.  He was surrounded by his children who made certain he received the Last Rites of the Church.  Thomas said his funeral mass.

Father Thomas Sherman was a much sought after speaker among the Jesuits, emphasizing love of God and love of country, and ardently opposing socialism, anarchism and anti-Catholicism.  He was quite popular with Civil War veterans’ groups, and became very much a national figure.  He taught at Jesuit colleges in Saint Louis and Detroit.  During the Spanish American war he served as a chaplain in the Puerto Rican campaign.  He fell in love with the land and the people and often spoke about his desire to be a missionary priest there, but such was not to be. 

Father Sherman would be called a workaholic today, and after a little over two decades of strenuous activity in the priesthood, he suffered a nervous collapse in 1911.  He became convinced in his disturbed state of mind that he had no hope for eternal salvation.  He left the Jesuits, eventually living with his wealthy niece Eleanor Sherman Fitch shortly before his death in 1933.  Just before his death he renewed his Jesuit vows.

He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery at Grand Coteau Louisiana, next to Father John Salter,SJ, grandnephew of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.

16 Responses to Father Thomas Ewing Sherman

  1. jh says:

    Ah a interesting Man. For those that want to visit his grave if you happen to be on I-49 or near Lafayette Grand Couteau ( a beautiful historic liite Town with a ton of Great Catholic history) is just off the Intersate. You can get to his grave in minutes

  2. Dale Price says:

    I wonder if his nervous breakdown was partially genetic, given his father’s problems.

    Another great piece, Donald.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Dale. The same thought occurred to me, with both father and son touched with brilliance and madness.

  4. Jay Anderson says:

    “Ellen Sherman was a devout Catholic, and, I think, a saint.”

    Too bad her husband was a war criminal.

    “William Tecumseh Sherman attended mass with his family when he was at home prior to the Civil War, but ceased doing so during the war.”

    Too bad. Maybe if he had kept it up he wouldn’t have been a war criminal.

    That’s not just Southern sour grapes. I am a great admirer of men like Joshua Chamberlain and George Thomas (my favorite Union general). I’ll even give Grant his due, mostly for his magnanimity at Appomattox. Sherman and Sheridan? Not so much.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    No he wasn’t a war criminal Jay. As for Grant’s magnamity at Appomattox, Sherman was so magnanimous when Joe Johnston surrendered his army in North Carolina that Johnston became his life long friend and would not tolerate a word being said against Sherman in his presense.

    At Sherman’s funeral in 1891 Johnston stood bareheaded as one of Sherman’s pallbearers in the raw New York February weather. When it was suggested to him that he put on his hat due to the inclement weather, Johnston declined. “If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” Johnston caught pneumonia and died a few weeks later. Johnston’s grand gesture cost him his life, something I am sure would not have caused Johnston to alter what he did one iota, if he could have foretold the outcome of the final honor he paid to his adversary and friend.

  6. Tom says:

    Glad his son could infinitely repair the moral evil perpetrated by his, yes, war criminal father… an excellent example that there is no such thing as “fate” or genetic determinism, and every soul is free to choose the good and the right.

    The needless reduction by bombing of Atlanta (a grim foreshadowing of the deliberate destruction of civilian targets in WWII, e.g., Dresden, London, Hiroshima, Nagasaki); the crimes condoned by his command during the March to the Sea; the abduction and deportation of 400 women for the “crime” of weaving tents at a Georgia cotton mill, etc. etc.

    Sorry, but Sherman was certainly the father of the modern and immoral concept of total war which denied the distinction between combatant and non-combatant which had carefully developed over the centuries as part of the Christian just war doctrine.

  7. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Rubbish Tom, from start to finish. I will merely restate what I have written on my other blog Almost Chosen People:

    “People who make that accusation TC usually have a shocking lack of knowledge of military history. Nothing that Sherman and his army did on the March to the Sea was unusual for a military campaign before his time, except that mass killing of civilians was not involved.

    Here is Sherman’s Special Field Order 120:

    “Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, In the Field, Kingston, Georgia, November 9, 1864

    I. For the purpose of military operations, this army is divided into two wings viz.: The right wing, Major-General O. O. Howard commanding, composed of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps; the left wing, Major-General H. W. Slocum commanding, composed of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps.

    II. The habitual order of march will be, wherever practicable, by four roads, as nearly parallel as possible, and converging at points hereafter to be indicated in orders. The cavalry, Brigadier – General Kilpatrick commanding, will receive special orders from the commander-in-chief.

    III. There will be no general train of supplies, but each corps will have its ammunition-train and provision-train, distributed habitually as follows: Behind each regiment should follow one wagon and one ambulance; behind each brigade should follow a due proportion of ammunition – wagons, provision-wagons, and ambulances. In case of danger, each corps commander should change this order of march, by having his advance and rear brigades unencumbered by wheels. The separate columns will start habitually at 7 a.m., and make about fifteen miles per day, unless otherwise fixed in orders.

    IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day’s provisions for the command and three days’ forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.

    V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.

    VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or bridges. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

    VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms.

    – William T. Sherman, Military Division of the Mississippi Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864″

    Southerners, understandably from their point of view, have viewed Sherman as the Devil Incarnate for generations. However, there was nothing unusual in regard to his orders in general military history, or in American military history. Considering this as a precursor of the Total War of the 20th century is attributable to the fact that in our time people tend to substitute hyperbole and passion for knowledge of what is under discussion.”


    A good article on the myth of Sherman as some pre-cursor of Total War is linked below:


  8. Dale Price says:

    As with all discussions of Sherman and Sheridan, I recommend a review of the Lieber Code.


    Francis Lieber’s work was a codification of the laws of war as they existed at the time, and involved few, if any, innovations. The destruction of an armed enemy’s civilian property was clearly contemplated an an accepted part of warfare at that time. It would be limited and finally banned over the next few decades, just as slavery was written out of legitimacy.

    I don’t endorse or trumpet the morality of certain actions of some of the Union forces during the war, but “rubbish” is a lot nicer term than I’d use for analogizing the March to the Sea to Hiroshima or Dresden. Equating the incineration of property to the incineration of human beings trivializes the latter.

  9. Tom says:

    Well, under the Catholic just war doctrine, most recently embodied in the Catholic Catechism, what Sherman did was a violation of just war principles, or precisely, jus in bello.

    “Actions which are forbidden, and which constitute morally unlawful orders that may not be followed, include:

    – attacks against, and mistreatment of, non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners…

    – indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants.”

    The destruction of Atlanta alone violated these principles, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, such as cotton mills, and the forcible seizure and deportation of their civilian employees, certainly violates these principles.

    That this practice may appear mild vs. subsequent war crimes in the 20th century, or that these offenses were supposedly common practice, is irrelevant.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Dale. Tomorrow on Almost Chosen People I am doing a post on Washington’s Instructions to Sullivan prior to the campaign against the Iroquois in 1779. Some historians doubt that Washington acquired his Iroquois nickname of Town Burner as a result of that campaign, but certainly it was an appropriate nickname from the Irquois point of view following that campaign.

  11. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “That this practice may appear mild vs. subsequent war crimes in the 20th century, or that these offenses were supposedly common practice, is irrelevant.”

    Rubbish Tom. You as a prosecutor should know better. What Sherman did was accepted military practice of his time. That is the only standard applicable when throwing out a term like “war criminal”.

  12. Tom says:

    Oh, and the destruction of Atlanta is what presages Dresden, not the subsequent march to the sea. “I peremptorily required that all the citizens and families resident in Atlanta should go away, giving to each the option to go south or north, as their interests or feelings dictated. I was resolved to make Atlanta a pure military garrison or depot, with no civil population to influence military measures.”
    Then on Nov. 15, 1864 Sherman simply burned the town to the ground, destroying home, factories, churches, and shops.

    Why? He didn’t want a hostile civilian population in his rear as he began his notorious March to the Sea.

    Sorry, but deliberate destruction of private homes and businesses, and forcible depopulation and deportation of entire civilian populations is just flat out immoral and criminal, and can in no way be justified by reference to any Christian principles of just warfare.

  13. Tom says:

    My point of reference is not what was acceptable practice at the time (while not conceding that the Federal practice of deliberate destruction of civilian property and deportations was accepted practice), but whether what was done is justifiable by any recognized Christian principle of just war.

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Wrong Tom. Sherman gave his reasons for evacuating the civilian population of Atanta: “My real reasons for this step were, we want all the houses of Atlanta for military storage and occupation. We want to contract the lines of defenses so as to diminish the garrison to the limit necessary to defend its narrow and vital parts instead of embracing, as the lines now do, the vast suburbs. This contraction of the lines, with the necessary citadels and redoubts, will make it necessary to destroy the very houses used by families as residences. Atlanta is a fortified town, was stubbornly defended and fairly captured. As captors we have a right to it. The residence here of a poor population would compel us sooner or later to feed them or see them starve under our eyes. The residence here of the families of our enemies would be a temptation and a means to keep up a correspondence dangerous and hurtful to our cause, and a civil population calls for provost guards, and absorbs the attention of officers in listening to everlasting complaints and special grievances that are not military.” Sherman provided food and transportation to civilians who went to Tennessee, Kentucky and points North under Union control. Civilians who wanted to go South he provided transportation up to Hood’s army.

    The acrimonious correspondence between Sherman and Hood over this may be read here.


    Sherman evacuated the civilian population of Atlanta prior to deciding upon the March. When he decided upon the March in November, there were almost no civilians in Atlanta except civilian looters. Sherman burned Atlanta so that Hood’s Army could not use it as a fortified base. Sherman ordered that no Churches, hospitals or private houses were to be burned, although some private homes were burned by civilian looters. About 37% of the town was burned. After Hood launched his ill-fated invasion of Tennessee, civilians began returning to Atlanta, and by the end of the War the civilian population was up to pre-Atlanta campaign levels.

    Sherman’s decisions were completely legitimate actions of war, as any familiarity with military history would indicate.

  15. Jo Flemings says:

    Ok, I have not studied this indepth but I am interested in this because I am a Southerner and I was a cadet at West Point, and I am a Catholic convert. I think Sherman was pretty miserable about what he believed his duty required of him as a soldier and commander in the Civil War, and I think that might have been what stood between him and a more public expression of faith in God. I think he was a good man at heart, a principled man, but a man to whom a tragic duty fell and when it did he saw very clearly the brutal path necessary for a successful end and outcome to the war. I also believe he was pretty disgusted by the whole thing, by the war, by his own actions- but would see it to the finish because it was his duty- and he was a man of tenacity. Who knows but maybe that up close misery made anything idealistic about God’s goodness, mercy, and love hard to swallow.You know there is never a civil war that does not devastate all participants so it’s not like anyone who lived through that could walk away feeling good about any of it. I think Sherman found his own peace in life, but the chasm in his understanding gouged out by his experience might have made his family’s faith life foreign to him- and who knows how much his ‘saintly’ wife was able or willing to help him with that? And then later when his son cracks- is it possible that his sorrow was the same kind- maybe he could not find a path of reconciliation between something in himself and the idealism inherent in our understanding of our faith or in its expression- until the time when God’s grace reached him in a critical place/plane. I am guessing, but it’s possible. In any case these men were heroic in so many ways, both of them.

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