In Ages Past
General Sherman's Jesuit Son
In the spring of 1878, General William T. Sherman opened a letter from his oldest son Thomas, a young man for whom he held great hopes. At 22, Tom had studied at Georgetown and Yale, and had graduated from law school. Sherman envisioned a bright future for Tom, one which would ensure the family's security. The letter, however, left him shocked, distressed, even furious.
Tom wrote that he wasn't going to continue as a lawyer, but was joining the Jesuits that summer. The General told Tom in no uncertain terms that he had betrayed him, his sisters and mother, who looked to him for support in their old age. (He always felt his army salary didn't go far enough.) It's not clear that Sherman ever fully forgave his son.
While Mrs. Sherman, a devout Catholic, was overjoyed, her husband held a lifelong skepticism toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Born Tecumseh Sherman to Protestant parents, he was orphaned early and raised by Catholic neighbors who insisted on his being re-baptized. His baptism occurred on June 28th, 1829, the feast of St. William, and he was renamed William Tecumseh.
But as his biographer John Marszalek notes, Sherman "refused to call himself a Catholic or practice that creed." Yet his children were all raised Catholic. Ellen Sherman actively supported Catholic causes, numbering many priests, bishops and even cardinals among her close acquaintances. The General, however, frequently berated what he called her "unnatural fascination for the Church."
Born on October 12, 1856, Thomas Ewing Sherman was the grandson of one United States Senator and the nephew of another. His father, a central figure in the American Civil War, served for two decades as commanding general of the U.S. Army. Raised in Washington, D.C., among the nation's political elite, through his mother Tom was on intimate terms with the country's leading Catholics.
Priests and bishops were frequent guests at the Sherman home. One family friend who made a strong impression on him was Father Peter DeSmet, a Belgian Jesuit who worked extensively with Native Americans. The General complained that Ellen "thinks religion is so important that everything else must give way to it." He told young Tom: "I don't want you to be a soldier or a priest but a good useful man."
Nonetheless, it was while at Georgetown that Tom became seriously interested in the Jesuits, who ran the university. But he went on to study law at Yale. After graduation, he practiced law for two years in St. Louis. By 1878, he had made his decision to join the Jesuits. Although his father felt he was shirking his family duties, Tom wrote his sister Minnie:
People in love do strange things.... Having a vocation is like being in love, only more so, as there is no love more absorbing, so deep and so lasting as that of the creature for the Creator. What a grand thing it is to be, as it were, shooting straight at one's mark, living every hour, performing every action in preparation for the great hereafter.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.