Friday, October 4, 2013

150 Years Ago - "Our Little Sergeant" - The Death of Willie Sherman

150 years ago - October 3, 1863 - "Willie" Sherman, the 9-year old son of General William T. Sherman, died in Memphis, Tennessee, with his family by his side...and a Notre Dame priest as well.  

The story is below in an excerpt from my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory. The story begins shortly after the surrender of Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July 1863.

A Soldier’s Fate
An Excerpt from
Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory
(The History Press, 2010)
by James M. Schmidt

“I wish you could see [Vicksburg] for a minute, but it is not right for children to be here, as the danger is too great,” William T. Sherman had written his son, Willy, but after the surrender of the city, the general felt confident enough to invite his family to his new camp on the Big Black. Sherman assured his father-in-law that the camp was “one of the best possible,” that it “combine[d] comfort, retirement, safety, and beauty” and that he had “no apprehensions on the score of health.” His wife, Ellen, was thrilled at the invitation, writing, “We are all so crazy to go…The thought of going down to you has spread sunshine over everything—all have gone to bed to dream happy dreams & my own heart is full of joy—God grant that nothing may occur to mar the happiness we anticipate.” (1)

Ellen, daughters Lizzie and Minnie and sons Willy and Tommy—Ellie and Rachel, only toddlers, remained at home—arrived in mid-August, and their days were full from dawn to dusk. “The children are happy and well and their Father is delighted to have them with him,” Ellen wrote her mother. “Minnie and Willy ride horseback with him while Lizzie and Tommy drive about with me in the carriage.” Ellen also had the comfort of a Notre Dame chaplain, adding, “Sunday we attended Mass at Hugh’s headquarters and heard Father Carrier preach.” (2)

For Willy, especially, the visit was a great adventure, and he reveled being so close to his father, who recalled, “[He] took the most intense interest in the affairs of the army. He was a great favorite with the soldiers, and used to ride with me on horseback in the numerous drills and reviews…He was called a sergeant in the regular battalion, learned the manual of arms, and regularly attended the parade and guard-mounting of the Thirteenth [U.S. Infantry], back of my camp.” In a letter a few weeks later, Sherman thanked the soldiers for the kindness they had extended to his son that summer, writing that “Willie was, or thought he was, a sergeant in the Thirteenth. I have seen his eyes brighten, his heart beat, as he beheld the battalion under arms, and asked me if they were not real soldiers.” (3)

In late September, duty called again, and Sherman was asked to move his corps from its camp on the Big Black to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sherman dispatched his troops immediately and followed quickly with his family, all boarding the steamer Atlantic bound for Memphis. Both
Minnie and Willy became ill on the voyage. The usually energetic boy was listless and weary as they pushed up the river. A regimental surgeon on board the Atlantic examined the little soldier and declared him quite sick—perhaps fatally so—with “camp fever.” As soon as the steamer reached Memphis on October 2, 1863, the Shermans took Willy to the Gayoso Hotel and called for the town’s best physicians, yet the ministrations were to no avail.

“Our Little Sergeant Willie” is buried in the Sherman family plot at Calvary Cemetery, St.
Louis, Missouri. Photo is courtesy Curtis Fears
Notre Dame’s Father Carrier had traveled with the family and stayed at Willy’s side almost constantly. Sensing the seriousness of Willy’s condition, the chaplain began to gently speak to Willy of heaven. “He told me that he was willing to die if it was God’s will,” Father Carrier wrote Ellen a few weeks later, “but it pained him to leave his Father and Mother.” He continued:

Fr. Joseph C. Carrier
He said this with an expression of such deep earnestness that I could hardly refrain from giving way to my feelings. I endeavored to soothe his sentiments of subdued regret. “Willy,” I said quietly and calmly, “If God wishes to call you to Him now do not grieve, for He will carry you to Heaven and there you will meet your good Mother and Father again.” “Well,” he breathed, with an air of singular resignation. (4)

Willy drifted in and out of sleep, waking only to inquire of the whereabouts of his prized rifle. “He never complained; how I wish he would have complained more!” Ellen wrote. Willy Sherman died the next day, October 3, 1863, at 5 p.m. (5)


The young William Sherman was referred to as both "Willie" and "Willy" in Sherman family correspondence.

(1) Letter, William T. Sherman to William T. Sherman Jr., June 21, 1863, CSHR 2/170, University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA); Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, eds., Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 521; Letter, Ellen Sherman to William T. Sherman, July 26, 1863, CSHR 2/108, UNDA.
(2) Anna McAllister, Ellen Ewing: Wife of General Sherman (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1936), 264.
(3) William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1886), 377, 373.
(4) Letter, Ellen Sherman to William T. Sherman, October 1863 (n.d.), CSHR 2/109, UNDA.
(5)McAllister, Ellen Ewing, 268.

Learn more about the Sherman family and Notre Dame in previous posts here and here and here

Learn more about Fr. Carrier of Notre Dame in previous posts here and here