In 1891, on this day former Union President William Tecumseh Sherman died in New York City. He was seventy-one.
Passing of President ShermanDuring the 1876 campaign he was a reluctant candidate, but had finally been persuaded to run by his friend and fellow commander in the War of the States, General George H. Thomas, who warned that the U.S. had become dangerously politically unstable in the decade following Southern secession and needed "a strong hand in these times of trial". Sherman was one of the few prominent Union commanders to escape disgrace in defeat, despite having been involved in the debacle of April 6-7, 1862 at Shiloh, Tennessee. Badly wounded in the Confederate assault on the 6th, he was unable to function effectively the next day, when what might have been an orderly Union retreat turned into a full-scale rout. Historians would later identify Shiloh as a crucial turning-point in the war, but it would be Sherman's junior, Hiram Ulysses Grant - more commonly known as Ulysses S. Grant - who would take the bulk of the blame for the disaster.
Grant's reputation would never recover, and after the war he would prove unsuccessful in private life, slowly sinking into alcoholism. By contrast, Sherman would find powerful patrons among wealthy businessmen who, surviving the postwar financial panic and the disgrace of the Republican Party, would organize the Union Party in 1873. But until the 1876 presidential race, Sherman had resisted entering politics; not only did he find the field appalling for its corruption, but in addition he feared the commingling of military and civilian authority a presidential general might produce in a humiliated United States desperate for a strong authority figure. "Rome begged Caesar to become its emperor, and he obliged her, and that was the end of the republic," he observed. "I have no wish to play a similar role in these United States".
And yet in the end he did, swayed by Thomas's warning that if he did not there was no one else who could prevent the civil unrest plaguing the beaten nation from exploding into full-scale insurrection. "Better to take what measures need be taken now," Thomas had written in a letter to Sherman, "than wait, and hope someone else does what I am confident you will do as president while there is still time". Addressing Sherman's fears of "the end of the republic," Thomas wrote, "These United States have already been disunited in part, by the late war; if things proceed as they are going, our Union may be shattered altogether".
On Nov. 7, 1876, Sherman would become the first candidate from the Union Party to be elected U.S. president, easily defeating Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, who carried only his home state. Tilden would be the last Democratic nominee; already near ruin due to charge of treason hung on it because of the large number of Southern Democrats and Northern so-called "Copperheads" who had supported the Confederate cause and what many saw as its excessive willingness to accept the verdict of the war and deal with the newly-independent CSA on friendly terms, the Democratic Party would splinter after the Tilden debacle; in the 1880s, most of its former membership would join the new People's Party, a rural-based party favoring high tariffs, nationalization of the railroads and bimetallism, the use of silver as well as gold as currency. The Populists would remain largely opposed to the burgeoning urbanization and industrialization of the United States well into the twentieth century, and would win no presidential elections until the upset victory of Massachusetts governor Eugene R. Foss in 1912. Perhaps not coincidentally, Foss would win as the leader of the party's emerging pro-urban wing, which argued for making common cause between agricultural and industrial interests.
In office, Sherman would struggle with the legacy of Southern secession. Only five years before his run, California had tried to break away in its ill-fated second Bear Flag Rebellion (the first, in 1846, had been against Mexico), and separatist sentiment continued to run high in that state and elsewhere, particularly as the economy struggled to right itself. Some of the measures the Sherman administration would take would be viewed as extreme, and anger against, for example, the use of the military to "maintain order" in particularly rebellious areas and the employment of private detective agencies as de facto secret police ferreting out dissent would play a role in Sherman"s defeat for renomination in 1880. During his term,. however, the foundations were laid for the later recovery which by the 1890s would produce the prosperous period known as the Gilded Age.