Sherman in Paint

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An interesting look at a painting of General Sherman in 1866.  Paintings do not bulk very large in our historical memory of the Civil War.  The cutting edge technology of photography had by the Civil War usurped the role of painting in preserving the images of the famous for posterity.  Sherman  looks distinctly more haggard and old in his Civil War photographs than in this 1866 portrait.  Of course, it is post war, so some of the difference is no doubt due to the easing of the burden of command and the trauma of war that Sherman had to the full during the conflict.  However, paintings do seem to often smooth the rough edges of the subjects of portraits with a calm that may not have been typical of the person being painted.  Photographs, even the primitive photography of the Civil War era, captured the more immediate emotions of the subjects than a portrait painted over several sittings.  Additionally, photographs made no pretensions to be art, but simply a utilitarian means of preserving likenesses, while portrait paintings usually strove to be both.


The portrait was  painted by George Peter Alexander Healy, perhaps the most renowned American portrait painter of his day.  Sherman, at least as represented in popular memory as a no nonsense soldier, one would expect to have a fairly prosaic mind and not to be interested in art.  Such was not at all the case.  Sherman suggested to the painter a portrait known as The Peacekeepers which recalled a meeting of Lincoln, Grant and Sherman near the end of the War:

In Chicago about June or July of that year, when all the facts were fresh in my mind, I told them to George P. A. Healy, the artist, who was casting about for a subject for an historical painting, and he adopted this interview. Mr. Lincoln was then dead, but Healy had a portrait, which he himself had made at Springfield some five or six years before. With this portrait, some existing photographs, and the strong resemblance in form of [Leonard Swett], of Chicago, to Mr. Lincoln he made the picture of Mr. Lincoln seen in this group. For General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself he had actual sittings, and I am satisfied the four portraits in this group of Healy’s are the best extant. The original picture, life-size, is, I believe, now in Chicago, the property of Mr. [Ezra B. McCagg]; but Healy afterwards, in Rome, painted ten smaller copies, about eighteen by twenty-four inches, one of which I now have, and it is now within view. I think the likeness of Mr. Lincoln by far the best of the many I have seen elsewhere, and those of General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself equally good and faithful. I think Admiral Porter gave Healy a written description of our relative positions in that interview, also the dimensions, shape, and furniture of the cabin of the “Ocean Queen”; but the rainbow is Healy’s—typical, of course, of the coming peace. In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening. Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter’s letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that “if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,” suiting the action to the word. It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again.



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  1. General Sherman may or may not have been a baptized Catholic but he attended Mass until the Civil War began. Sadly his church going ended with the War, although a son was ordained a priest. Unlike his friend Grant, Sherman never entered politics, probably because of the Catholicism of his wife and family which would have been a political liability in an America which was still overwhelmingly Protestant.

    I much prefer the photographs of General Sherman to the sanitized oil painting displayed in this post because the photos capture the grit of his character and seem to me to display his craziness. Never forget that Sherman’s March to the Sea was a horrific foreshadow of modern “total warfare” and the general later advocated a “Final Solution” for Native Americans who would not assimilate into American society. I wonder if he stopped going to Mass because he realized that his generalship was incongruous with whatever passed for Just War Theory in those days.

  2. “Never forget that Sherman’s March to the Sea was a horrific foreshadow of modern “total warfare” and the general later advocated a “Final Solution” for Native Americans who would not assimilate into American society. I wonder if he stopped going to Mass because he realized that his generalship was incongruous with whatever passed for Just War Theory in those days.”

    Sherman never advocated killing all Indians and his March to the Sea was not a precursor of Total War. He never had use for organized religion and only attended mass due to his wife’s nagging. His wife was a fervent Catholic as was her mother. When he was informally adopted into their family as a boy, after the death of his parents, he was baptized as a Catholic at age 9. His adherence to Catholicism ranged from pro forma to active hostility as he got older.

    If Sherman was crazy, which was alleged early during the War when he perceived that it was going to be a long and bloody struggle and said so, it is a pity that he did not bite quite a few other Union generals whose incompetence and ineffectiveness led to the lengthening of the War.

  3. My favorite Sherman quotes.

    “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

    “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

    Saving the best for last:
    “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.”

    In conclusion, “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.” Kipling

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