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Unit 3: Abolition and the Civil War

Suggested Activities

Union Generals William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction

  1. William T. Sherman was one of several Union generals who, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant, helped achieve a Union victory in the Civil War. Who were other important military leaders for the Union? For the Confederacy? Compare the armies, supplies, strategic positions, and overall goals of both the Union and the Confederacy at the outset of the war. Considering the strengths and weaknesses of each side, do you think a Union victory was assured? Why or why not?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

The important military leaders for the Union included: Ambrose Burnside, John C. Frémont, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Hooker, George B. McClellan, Irvin McDowell, George Meade, and Winfield Scott.

The important military leaders for the Confederacy included: P.G.T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee, and James Longstreet.

The Union could boast many advantages over the Confederacy at the start of the war. The Union had a population of 18 million, while the Confederacy had only 9 million, 3.6 million of whom were slaves. Farmers in the North produced more edible crops like corn, wheat, and oats than their southern counterparts, and most of the country's deposits of iron, coal, copper, and precious metals were found in the North. Ninety percent of the county's manufacturing capacity, two-thirds of the total railway mileage, and most of the factories for building trains were located in northern states. The Union controlled the seas and had access to European factories and trade.

Despite the enormous advantages that the Union had in manpower, wealth, and commercial and industrial strength, it was not a certainty that the Federal army could defeat the Confederacy, however. When the conflict began, the regular United States army only numbered about sixteen thousand troops, and masses of volunteers were needed. While the North was fighting to maintain the Union (slavery was not a definitive issue yet, since the North was not yet unified in its position and the border states were slave states who supported the Union), the Confederacy was fighting for independence. This gave the South a psychological advantage because its people and soldiers had a clearer idea of what was at stake; furthermore, since most of the battles took place in the South, the Confederate soldiers were fighting on home turf. In addition, the South occupied a vast territory, which meant that supply lines for the Union were very long and tied up a large number of troops for protection instead of for combat.

William T. Sherman (1820–1891)
George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–1894)
Oil on canvas, 1866
Transfer from the National Museum of American Art; gift of P. Tecumseh Sherman, 1935

  1. This portrait of William T. Sherman was painted in 1866, two years after Sherman and his army captured Atlanta, a vital southern industrial center and railroad hub. Sherman and sixty thousand troops followed up this victory with a march from Atlanta to Savannah along the Atlantic coast. Describe this "March to the Sea," and explain why it was so devastating to the Confederacy. Plot the march on a map, including its continuation from Savannah. Why is the March to the Sea generally considered the first example of the use of "total war" in the modern era?
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

After capturing and occupying Atlanta, Sherman's next move was a bold one. Instead of following Grant's strategic plan to target the remaining Confederate armies in the surrounding area, Sherman decided to squash the very spirit of the Confederacy by marching from Atlanta to Savannah ("March to the Sea"). Operating without a supply line, Sherman and his sixty thousand troops traveled through Georgia on a month's leisurely march covering sixty miles from wing to wing. The Union army lived off the bounty of the Georgian countryside, leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. Sherman correctly believed that if he could pull this off, it would demonstrate the North's overwhelming power and prove that the Confederacy was too weak to protect its own people and land.

Sherman's March to the Sea is considered the first example of total war because it resulted in wholesale destruction of the countryside, much like a modern bombing raid. The Union army burned bridges, railroads, factories, warehouses, barns, and plantations, taking or destroying food that could not be eaten by the troops.

  1. As this equestrian portrait shows, Philip H. Sheridan was a Union cavalry officer in the Civil War. Explore the role of the cavalry in the Civil War for both the Union and Confederate sides. Research J.E.B. Stuart [thumbnail], the famous Confederate cavalry leader, and detail his accomplishments. At what point did Sheridan's and Stuart's armies meet? What was the outcome of the conflict?
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

The Confederate cavalry was much more skilled than the Federal cavalry, at least throughout the first half of the war. Most southern recruits came from rural areas where horsemanship was a routine part of life, and going to war on horseback carried with it a certain amount of prestige. Although the cavalry was essential for scouting and screening an army, it was actually not so important in terms of fighting. Sometimes cavalry fought with other cavalry, but it was admired more by the press and public than by the infantry and the artillery.

Major General J. E. B. Stuart commanded the Confederacy's boldest cavalry corps and distinguished himself as a brave soldier and a talented intelligence officer. Stuart and his cavalry played an important role in locating Federal troops, defending Confederate positions, and checking Federal attacks in the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, the Seven Days' Battle, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1864, General Sheridan purposefully drew Stuart's cavalry forces away from Lee's army by making a raid on Richmond. During this engagement, known as the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Stuart was shot by a Federal soldier and died a day later.

Philip H. Sheridan (1831–1888)
Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872)
Oil on canvas, 1871
Transfer from the National Museum of American History; gift of Ulysses S. Grant III, 1939

James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833–1864)
George S. Cook (1819–1902)
Salt print, 1863
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

  1. After the Civil War ended, Major General Sheridan was appointed military commander of Louisiana and Texas as a part of Reconstruction. What were Abraham Lincoln's goals for the reconstruction of the Union? After Lincoln's assassination, how were the policies of Reconstruction carried on by Andrew Johnson [thumbnail]? How did the Republican Party react to Johnson's proposals, and what did it do to protect the rights of freed slaves?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

Even before the last battle of the war, Lincoln was starting to think about ways to repair the Union. He did not believe that the South should be harshly punished for its role in the war, since everyone involved shared in the blame for and cost of the war. Lincoln basically wanted the Confederacy disarmed, the slaves freed, and southern citizens to pledge their loyalty to the Union. He was working out plans for reestablishing civil governments based on these terms when he was assassinated.

When Andrew Johnson became President, he continued to follow the moderate Reconstruction policies shaped by Lincoln. The Radical Republicans in Congress vigorously protested the leniency of these procedures by launching their own Reconstruction plan (called Radical Reconstruction). These policies were set forth in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, in which each of the ten remaining southern states had to accept the Fourteenth Amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union. The Radical Republicans organized new state governments, which were primarily governed by coalitions of carpetbaggers (northerners sent to the South to carry out reconstruction policies) and freed slaves. In addition, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, which helped provide social services to emancipated slaves.

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
Alexander Gardner (1821–1882)
Albumen silver print, 1865
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Andrew Johnson (1808–1875)
Washington Bogart Cooper (1802–1889)
Oil on canvas, after 1866
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

  1. Compare the portrait of Sherman to that of Sheridan. How are they similar? How are they different? Which portrait do you think best conveys a victorious Union commander? Explain your choice.
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

Sheridan's portrait, painted by artist and poet Thomas Read, was painted to illustrate a popular poem written by Read called "Sheridan's Ride." Read the poem (visit and compare it to the painting. Ask students which medium they think is more dramatic and have them explain why.

Each student's response will vary, but some common observations about similarities and differences may be as follows: Both Union generals are depicted in military uniform with determined and serious expressions on their faces. Each man holds a sword, but Sheridan's is raised aloft as he rides into battle, while Sherman's rests at his side. Sherman is painted in three-quarter length, standing against a plain background with an artificial light illuminating his upper half. He appears in control, contemplative, and heroic, but not idealized. Sheridan is painted in action, riding a leaping horse over a smoke-filled and desolate battlefield. He appears assured and ready for a fight, yet calm and in command. Sheridan's horse adds to the drama of the scene, painted in mid-gallop with a gasping mouth and flashing eyes.

The circumstances under which the two portraits were painted may explain the artists' different approaches to some degree. George P. A. Healy's painting of Sherman was started a year after the end of the Civil War and was owned by and displayed in the home of the general himself. It depicts the sitter as both a man and a victorious general. Thomas Read, an artist and poet, wrote a poem called "Sheridan's Ride," memorializing Sheridan's victory in the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia. Read was commissioned by the Union League of Philadelphia to paint a life-size portrait of Sheridan to accompany his famous poem. The resulting work is dramatic and idealized, celebrating the Union victory over the Confederacy.

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