Excerpt from Fierce Patriot – The Tangles Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman,
by Robert L. O’Connell
The spring of 1856 found Sherman a public figure of sorts: acting as chairman of a committee boosting a national wagon route from Missouri to California, speaking at the dedication of a twenty-two-mile railroad heading east, and accepting a commission as major general of the California militia. In the last instance, his timing couldn't have been worse, since it put him on a collision course with the very hand that fed him: the city's business community.
Like most things here, politics in San Francisco were extreme, and extremely corrupt-speculation, extortion, rigged bids, and stuffed ballot boxes were key instruments of municipal government. Public reaction was spasmodic, what historian Lee Kennett terms "a kind of spontaneous combustion of extra-legality," manifested in the so-called committees of vigilance. This first took place in 1851, when such a committee temporarily displaced city government, hanged a few purported malefactors, and then withdrew. The business community prided itself on the episode-their version of cleaning up city hall-and they were ready to do it again should the occasion arise.
It did, just as Sherman took command of the militia. A member of the board of supervisors, James Casey, had openly gunned down a political opponent and then turned himself over to the sheriff, a trusted associate, thereby galvanizing the elite to go vigilante. A throng of armed men surrounded the jail holding Casey, protected by a nervous and greatly outnumbered posse, virtually a cinematic archetype. Sherman, in his military capacity, inspected the jail, promptly declared it indefensible, and left, only to watch helplessly with the governor and mayor from the roof of the International Hotel as Casey and another suspect were removed by a crowd of twenty-five hundred men several days later, their fate a quick and public hanging.
Sherman wasn't sorry to see Casey go, but he was determined to support Governor John Neely Johnson's efforts to checkmate the vigilantes. On June 1, he and the governor met with General John Wool and Commodore David Farragut, the senior U.S. military representative, in nearby Benicia, asking for muskets and a ship to land them i11 San Francisco. Farragut promised only a naval demonstration (which he delivered), but they thought they had a deal with Wool to supply the guns.
On this basis, two days later Johnson declared a state of insurrection in San Francisco and ordered Sherman to call out the militia. At this point, things didn't simply unravel, they dissolved. Sherman suffered the indignity of learning from a bank customer that General Wool had no intention of delivering the proffered weapons. Meanwhile, the governor's proclamation had produced precious little in the way of volunteers, "the fizzle-call of General (?) Sherman," one local paper called it. In less than a week, Sherman resigned his commission as general without arms or an army; but retaining his sardonic sense of humor, he recommended Halleck as his replacement.
Along with pretty much everybody else in authority, Sherman found himself in the crosshairs of the press, publicly lampooned as "a Mighty Man of War taken from the desk of a counting house." For the first time in his life, he felt the sting of journalistic ridicule, and it revealed a very thin skin. "I conceived a terrible mistrust of the press in California," he wrote long after. While Sherman was actually handled much less roughly than others, he remembered that the papers "poured out their abuse of me." He would continue to read newspapers compulsively, but now it was with an anger seething and growing until seeing his name in print became virtually synonymous with seeing red.
It has been suggested - and Sherman's own words can be used to support the view - that his retreat in the face of the vigilantes was politically transformative and imprinted a kind of nightmarish fear or grassroots democracy gone wild and one that was at the root of his fury over secession. The impact was apparent, but not the whole story. Sherman was far too gregarious and egalitarian in the way he treated people to become a pure authoritarian. He liked much that democracy had created and feared just its logical conclusion, which he believed he had seen in California and again in the Confederacy.
More significant, perhaps, for his fate as a strategist was a trait he first exhibited here in the face of overwhelming odds: He knew when to quit and cut his losses. This is a much-overlooked military capacity: in the heat of the moment to retain sufficient objectivity to recognize the prospect of sure defeat and then to summon the self-control to reverse course and withdraw. For some-Grant, for instance-this proved impossible. But Sherman's military career was studded with such moments, epiphanies of defeat, and they were emblematic of his eventual success. He came to realize that in war there would be good days and bad days, but the ultimate objective must always remain paramount.
The remainder of Sherman's stay in California also turned out to be about cutting his losses. Boomtown's bubble had burst, the easy river of gold was long gone, and the economy was only scraping along. Lucas decided to shut down his bank's San Francisco branch, and Sherman handled the closing in an orderly and responsible fashion. A new branch was being opened in New York, and Lucas would put Sherman in charge.
Sherman departed in a dark state, with many regrets. Halleck persisted; he did not. The dream of big money in the Golden State had hardly panned out. And then there had been the vigilantes. In his mind, at least, the whole interlude had been a litany of failure; but in spite of everything, he liked California and wanted to stay. He had held his own in a tough environment and continued to impress capable and powerful people. His skills as a banker were sufficient for Turner and Lucas to send him on to the real financial big leagues. Meanwhile, his strategic skill set was gradually, silently, growing, his capacious mind filling with useful knowledge and experience. He would need it all. He was headed for even worse times.
Fierce Patriot – The Tangles Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell. Random House, NY, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4000-6972-9. Excerpt from pages 49-52.