Fourth of July Speech by William Tecumseh Sherman

Address by William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) Presented in Salem, Illinois, on July 4, 1866

Researched by James R. Heintze. American University, Washington, D.C.

Editor's note: General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) fought in the Civil War for the Union and is perhaps best remembered for his invasion of Georgia when he captured Atlanta (September 1864) and commenced his "March to the Sea," finally taking Savannah (December). Sherman's army of 60,000 men pillaged and destroyed everything within a 60-mile wide swath of land, 300 miles in length. Although the march was largely unopposed and helped bring the war to a close, the general's tactics were loathed by many. The significance of Sherman's speech below is the explanation he gives as to why he felt compelled to adopt this military tactic. Notice Sherman's comment, "I know there are parties that denounce me as inhuman," voiced before this mostly friendly crowd. Perhaps he was concerned about his legacy in history, given the disfavor of his name in the South, and that this speech was more of an address to the nation than just the residents of Salem.

Approximately 25,000 persons were there to hear his speech which he presented on a wooden platform having a backdrop of "tattered battle-flags of various Illinois regiments and mottoes complimentary to General Sherman, Governor Oglesby, and General Logan." In addition, Col. E., N. Bates, of Centralia, read the Declaration of Independence and General John Alexander Logan (1826-1886), Union general and U.S. senator, also gave a speech that day.

Perhaps the most ironic incident regarding the ceremony is that at the completion of Sherman's remarks, a glee club sang the tune "Sherman's March to the Sea.."

Take note that the governor mentioned is Governor Richard J. Oglesby of Illinois (1865-68) and the George Thomas mentioned is General George Thomas (1816-1870). Source: "Speech of Gen. Sherman," Weekly Missouri Democrat, 10 July 1866, 1. Click on William Sherman for a photograph.

Ladies and Gentlemen, and Fellow-Citizens:

When I accepted the invitation to come over to your town and join with you in the festivities of this Fourth of July, I little dreamed I would be ushered so soon upon the stage. I thought some younger and more ambitious man would break the way, and prepare for those who were to follow.

But, I find myself here at your bidding. I believe I have never failed you, and I will try to do my best now. I think every old soldier will give me full credit for being in earnest.

It is a long time, my friends, since I have seen a Fourth of July within the groves with ladies and children, all free in the woods of nature. I have seen crowds of all kinds in the cities and on the battle-fields, but I cannot recollect having seen a crowd of ladies and children all mingled together in the native forest, for many, many years.

I trust you will bear with me if my voice does not reach you all, for I am not accustomed to pitch it through the woods and over the heads of a crowd like this, and I hope you will be as quiet and silent as possible.

I regret that Governor Oglesby is unwell, for I thought that he, with his herculean frame and giant intellect, would take the load off my shoulders; but I am going to leave a big pile for my friend John Logan, who has got to fight it through. [Laughter.] Now, my friends and fellow soldiers, with this introduction, let me ask you if we have not a right to come here together and be satisfied and rejoice. [Applause.] We have a right to come here and say that this is our National day, and that we will celebrate it just when and how we please--that we will fire guns or raise flags or do what we please, for it is our day--your day, my day. We are all free in this country. And when did we acquire this freedom? Just ninety years ago, as these young ladies who sang to us in so sweet a melody served to remind us just nine years ago it was boldly proclaimed to the whole world that a new nation was born.

I wish they had called it Columbia, but they called it the United States of America, and we have inherited the name and the fame, and now it becomes us to transmit both to those who may come after us, and we will do it. [Cheers.] But, my friends, inheriting a national name on that day ninety years ago we can look back into the past and into the still darker future, and see whether we were entitled to that name.

I remember well to have read of Columbus on his voyage of discovery, and I have always felt for him as he stood by that foremast looking into the future, into the unknown distance of time, and never doubting but what he would discover at last the land which we have inherited. I would rather have him standing there by that foremast as our National emblem than almost anything else--standing there full of confidence and hope, looking into the future, never doubting and regardless of the tumult and turmoil around him. He did discover our country and then the nations of the earth commenced grasping for territory--he Spaniard for his gold and for the fountain of perpetual youth. He has found his gold and passed away. The English, the Swedes, the Germans--all came in search of fertile lands. They looked for the land which would remain forever yielding its grain, its grass and its timber; so that not only they, but their children after them should live and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The Spaniards have nearly vanished from our territory, but the English, the Swedes, the Germans, the French remain, and their posterity will remain till the end of time.

From this I infer the fact that the soil and climate such as you enjoy here in Illinois is the wealth of America not alone its mineral resources. They are incidental. They are dug up and are taken away, but this soil remains to you today, next year and forever to the end of time; and will produce food and raiment for all men on the face of the earth.

Then comes the intellectual part of our history. Look at Franklin drawing from the clouds the agency of electricity, so that now you are able to communicate with your friends far away that you are well and comfortably assembled together. He is also another man whom we should cherish with pride--he and other men who made your constitution according to the best of their understanding, believing that it would fulfill the destiny for which they contemplated it. No one doubted that it was fair upon its face; every paragraph had been well studied, and it did work like a charm, and I still think it is the best heritage which they could have given us.

But like many of the people of the world, are we not governed by reason alone. We are full of passion; I am full of passion and sometimes act wildly. So do you, and so do all men. We do not follow the dictates of our intellect and reason; but are swayed hither and thither by passion. Passion carried us into one war with England; then came the Mexican War, and finally the great war which is now over, thank God, and you are the living witnesses of it.

I know that you connect my name with this last war; but I must confess there were phases which I was powerless to meet. Everyone of you have seen and comprehended perfectly the whole problem. A part of our people supposing they had sustained wrongs endeavored to break down our Government. You said no, they said yes. There was no use disguising it further, it had to be fought out. All arguments were at an end. All discussion should have ceased then and there; and every man capable of bearing arms should have siezed [sic] his musket and rushed to the standard of his country and rescued it from danger as you did.

But it was difficult for a time, as you all know, to comprehend that any part of the American people would rebel against any other part. I could not believe it until I saw it. I doubt if any man in Illinois comprehended in the beginning that we were to be swamped in civil war. But when at last it flashed upon us how majestically rose our people. It is one of the proudest points in our history that our young men, regardless of party and of former associations, rushed to the rescue of that flag which is the symbol of our Nation and rescued it. [Cheers.]

But I hope that never, never again will you be called on to be exposed, as you were, to the dangers and vicissitudes of war. But I believe that you, and such as you that fill our Western country and the far off East, will solve and make plain that course which will bring us all back to our true position in reference to National right and National duty.

[At this point Governor Oglesby made his appearance on the platform and was received with loud cheers.]

As I remarked in the first place, ladies and gentlemen, I do not intend to make a Fourth of July speech, and I am glad to see that the Governor has come to my rescue. There are two or three points in relation to the last war upon which I want the Illinois boys to understand how I feel, because in those days you remember I could not talk to you very confidentially. [Laughter.] I believe, as a general rule, there was a full understanding among the Generals of the army; but even we had to be very careful lest information of our intentions should get abroad and result in your loss. If I had said in advance that I was going to do a certain thing, many of you now living might not be here now. It was our desire--the desire of every officer in the army, every general officer--to accomplish the object in view, and as far as possible restore you back in health to your families.

We did not like to see blood shed, but we were determined to produce results. Now, what were those results? To make every man, woman and child in the South feel that if they had rebelled against the flag of our country they must die or submit. [Loud cheers.] That was the problem which we had to solve. As long as they met us man to man, and face to face, we went at them and struck in front and rear. And when they tried the game of drawing us farther and farther away--compelling us to leave our garrisons or guard here, so as to absorb our strength--when they undertook to play that game, it became necessary for us to defeat it, and to make it appear that we were going to do one thing, and then go and do another. [Laughter.] Now you all remember when we took Atlanta it looked as though with our army strung along a line of six or seven hundred miles the head of the column would be crushed.

If I had gone on stringing out my forces would there not have been a time when the head of that column would have been crushed in? You soldiers are generals enough to see that. Therefore I resolved in my mind to stop the game of guarding their cities, and destroy their cities. [Cheers.]

Now, my friends, I know there are parties who denounce me as inhuman. I appeal to you if I have not always been kind and considerate to you. [Cheers.] I care not what they say. [Bully for you and cheers.] I say that it ceased to be our duty to guard their cities any longer, and had I gone on stringing out my column, little by little, some of your Illinois regiments would not have come home, but would have been crushed. Therefore I determined to go through their country, and so I took one army myself and gave my friend George Thomas the other, and we whaled away with both. [Loud cheers.] Therefore we destroyed Atlanta, and if we had destroyed all the cities of the South in order to bring about the result in view it would have been right. [Loud cheers.]

The course we pursued did produce the desired result, and now, ladies, you see your young friends returned to you, wives see their husbands-- all reunited in this beautiful grove in Illinois, and God knows, I hope you will never be sent forth again; but if you are, I know you will respond more promptly than you did before. [Loud cheers.]

As to the future, I have been over all that part of the country which is assigned to me, and I have never yet, at any period of our history, seen the country looking so prosperous, the grain growing so luxuriantly, and the people so well contented and happy, the table so bountifully spread; and all this, too, out on the plains of Kansas where, six years ago, it required an escort of three hundred men to guard an officer sent to pay off a garrison. Now I can go, and anybody can go with a single horse a way out to the limits of Kansas, or even to Colorado, without an escort, and that too at the close of a long and terrible war. So that I say that we are progressing to the end we have in view, and that whether the politicians, whether the statesmen, I will call them, the judges and lawyers, will adopt a policy to produce the desired result, I don't know and don't much care, because it will be done anyhow. [Laughter and cheers.] I say if the farmers, mechanics and businessmen will go on and attend to their own business the people of Missouri will do the same. Iowa the same, and so it will be all over the Western and Northern country, and politicians will be compelled to adapt their policy to this end--and that is the true end, namely, the great prosperity of our country.

Therefore it is unnecessary to even allude to the position in which our national affairs are placed, for I do not pretend to comprehend or understand them. It is not my task; but it is my task to see that the forces placed at my disposal to put down opposition to the laws quickly and forever, do their duty. [Cheers.] Whenever the United States Marshal comes to me and tells me that his power is resisted, and he has not sufficient civil force to execute the laws, if I have soldiers I will go to his assistance and see that the laws are enforced. And my friends, if that rule is carried out in the land, if the laws of Congress are to be enforced wherever this flag floats, then in truth are we a nation to all intents and purposes, at home and abroad.

I have also had occasion to meet with a great many foreigners of late and I tell you they have a great deal of respect for us; far more than they did five years ago, and they have reason to. At the same time I believe the policy that General Washington laid down is the true one, not to interfere with other people. We have plenty to do ourselves, at home. [We?] have land enough in all [causes?] level land, mountain land [?] for that three hundred millions of people. [?] All the riches of the [?]. Therefore, I hope we will never be jealous of our neighbors' prosperity, and that our people will not become involved with any foreign nations; but when it becomes necessary to assert our authority with foreign nations, let Congress and the Executive do it by due course of law, and then it becomes our right and not before. [Cheers.] Now, fellow soldiers, I have spoken longer than I could wish, but I beg you would consider it as a measure of my love for the old army. I do not believe you realize or understand the feeling which I had for you, as you left all behind you and followed me blindly, not knowing what was transpiring in my mind--followed me in my long and devious career without asking any questions--cheerfully and well. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because then you were serving your country. You realize it now--you and I surviving. I did not expect to survive the war, but I have survived it, and you have survived it, and now from the bottom of my heart I thank you for that cheerful performance of your duty-- noble and manly endurance which at last caused the clouds of war to vanish, and enable our flag to float triumphantly over our whole land.

And now, here we are in peace and quiet at home in the midst of plenty, prosperity and kind friends, and I trust these old flags may remain with you forever.

This page last updated July 2009.

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