Alabama, LSU and Prophets, or General William Tecumseh Sherman as Prophet

Posted on October 31, 2019

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Alabama and LSU are surely looking forward to their meeting on the gridiron in November of this year. It is a great rivalry, fueled by the fact that Nick Saban also led the Tigers to a national championship a few year ago, and, of course, Nick is now here, having abandoned, from the LSU perspective,  the Bayou Bengals just when they were riding high and looking forward to continuing greatness.

I’m sure the betting world will have line on predicting the winner. This keeps a lot of people entertained, and some probably even win some money occasionally. While doing some research for another little project I ran across a form of prophecy made by General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman, recall, was the famous Union commander who led the military sweep across Georgia in late 1864 from Atlanta to Savannah, the famed “march to the sea,” and effectively gutted the Confederate will to keep on fighting by the brutality and effectiveness of his campaign.

Sherman, like many of his peers in the ranks of both the Union and the Confederacy, had graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. As Sherman slowly progressed through the ranks, he accepted a job in 1859 as the first superintendent of the new  Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana, a position he sought at the suggestion of Don Carlos Buell, another West Point graduate who led the Union armies at the Battle of Shiloh among others.

Sherman proved an effective and popular leader of the institution, which later became Louisiana State University.

Although his brother John was well known as an antislavery congressman, Sherman did not oppose slavery and was sympathetic to Southerners’ defense of the institution. He opposed, however, any attempt at dissolving the Union. On hearing of South Carolina‘s secession from the United States, Sherman, born and reared in Ohio, wrote to a close friend, Professor David F. Boyd of Virginia, an enthusiastic secessionist. Sherman’s letter is one of the most prophetic letters I’ve ever seen, and attests to his skills both as a soldier and leader, and also, in this instance, as a visionary.

“You people of the South,” he wrote, “don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization!”

He almost prophesied his march to the sea, an aspect of modern total war, in which he brought the terror and brutality of the war to bear on the staggering Confederacy.

“You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… “

As he wrote, he noted with amazing candidness the differences in North and South. “Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors.’

Not mincing any words, Sherman concluded “You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”

Recall he wrote this in late December of 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 when the South Carolina militia fired on the Union Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

I have read on an off over the years about prophets, most in the Old Testament, who prophesized the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Some, such in the Book of Isaiah, are amazingly accurate. Prescient we would say today in secular talk, prophetic, visionary, and providential from the perspective of Christianity.

Prophets fulfilled two roles in the Old Testament: calling the Hebrews who strayed into sin back to God; and, prophesizing or predicting the future, usually, but not always, a dismal one based on the Hebrews straying from the will of God.

Sherman’s prediction was amazingly accurately, almost describing the course of the Civil War from beginning to end. Southerners wouldn’t listen to him. Perhaps much of his success as a general was due to his prescience. When later you added the experience he gained from the war itself, one could almost have predicted the “march to sea” in 1864.

The great hymn of the Union in this war was the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with the line of the “terrible swift sword” lifting its hearers up to battle. As I was composing this little piece on Sherman and prophecies, I reread the words of the Hymn and was reminded by Wikipedia that the song links the judgment of the wicked at the end of the age (Old TestamentIsaiah 63New TestamentRevelation 19) with the American Civil War.

We tend to think back nostalgically about this terrible war, perhaps humming with Joan Baez the night they drove old Dixie down. But don’t be disabused. Sherman was not the first to observe that war is hell, but he may have been the first modern master of complete and total war. People say our country has never suffered this catastrophic disaster, but our ancestors in the Confederacy would tell a different story.

God, prophecy, and salvation were all wrapped into the war, captured by the last poignant, uplifting lines of the Hymn.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.

Published as “Sherman prophesizied horrors of secession” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Oct. 29, 2019.

Posted in: Civil War, War