January 12, 1865: Sherman on “Sambo”

William Tecumseh Sherman

As we’ve seen, Halleck wrote to Sherman to caution him about public perceptions of his attitude toward blacks. Here Sherman replies that it was Jeff C. Davis who turned the ex-slaves back at Ebenezer Creek, and he just needed his pontoon bridge. Also, he argues reasonably that it would have done nobody good for his columns to be so burdened with ex-slaves that they would be unwieldy and defeated by the rebels. However, his general attitude is summed up by the statement “The South deserves all she has got her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.” I’d think the other extreme would be treating the former slaves with justice.

While all of us are products of our times, Sherman was a bit further toward the racist end of the spectrum in 1865 than many Union officers. That said, the free black people of Savannah felt fairly treated by him, as we see in another item with the same date.

Official Records:


HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
In the Field, Savannah, January 12, 1865.
Major-General HALLECK:

MY DEAR FRIEND: I received yours of January 1* about the “negro. “ Since Mr. Stanton got here we have talked over all matters freely, and I deeply regret that I am threatened with that curse to all peace and comfort-popularity; but I trust to bad luck enough in the future to cure that, for I know enough of “the people” to feel that a single mistake made by some of my subordinates will tumble down my fame into infamy.

But the nigger? Why, in God’s name, can’t sensible men let him alone? When the people of the South tried to rule us through the negro, and became insolent, we cast them down, and on that question we are strong and unanimous. Neither cotton, the negro, nor any single interest or class should govern us.

But I fear, if you be right that that power behind the throne is growing, somebody must meet it or we are again involved in war with another class of fanatics. Mr. Lincoln has boldly and well met the one attack, now let him meet the other.

If it be insisted that I shall so conduct my operations that the negro alone is consulted, of course I will be defeated, and then where will be Sambo?

Don’t military success imply the safety of Sambo and vice versa? Of course that cock-and-bull story of my turning back negroes that Wheeler might kill them is all humbug. I turned nobody back. Jeff. C. Davis did at Ebenezer Creek forbid certain plantation slaves- old men, women, and children-to follow his column; but they would come along and he took up his pontoon bridge, not because he wanted to leave them, but because he wanted his bridge.

He and Slocum both tell me they don’t believe Wheeler killed one of them. Slocum’s column (30,000) reports 17,000 negroes. Now, with 1,200 wagons and the necessary impedimenta of an Army, overloaded with two-thirds negroes, five-sixths of whom are helpless, and a large proportion of them babies and small children, had I encountered an enemy of respectable strength defeat would have been certain. Tell the President that in such an event defeat would have cost him ten thousand times the effort to overcome that it now will to meet this new and growing pressure.

I know the fact that all natural emotions swing as the pendulum. These Southrons pulled Sambo’s pendulum so far over that the danger is it will on its return jump off its pivot. There are certain people who will find fault, and they can always get the pretext; but, thank God, I am not running for an office, and am not concerned because the rising generation will believe that I burned 500 niggers at one pop in Atlanta, or any such nonsense. I profess to be the best kind of a friend to Sambo, and think that on such a question Sambo should be consulted.

They gather round me in crowds, and I can’t find out whether I am Moses or Aaron, or which of the prophets; but surely I am rated as one appreciated by Sambo-in saving him from his master, or the new master, or the new master that threatens him with a new species of slavery. I mean State recruiting agents. Poor negro-Lo, the poor Indian! Of course, sensible men understand such humbug, but some power must be invested in our Government to check these will oscillations of public opinion.

The South deserves all she has got her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.

I do and will do the best I can for negroes, and feel sure that the problem is solving itself slowly and naturally. It needs nothing more than our fostering care. I thank you for the kind hint and will heed it so far as mere appearances go, but not being dependent on votes, I can afford to act, as far as my influence goes, as a fly wheel instead of a mainspring.

With respect, etc., yours,
W. T. SHERMAN.

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* General Halleck’s copy is dated December 30, 1864; see Vol. XLVI. p. 836.
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