The Unwilling Catholic: General William Tecumseh Sherman

The Unwilling Catholic: General William Tecumseh Sherman December 11, 2018

Not long before his death, General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) told an interviewer: “My family is strongly Roman Catholic. I am not.” Technically, that wasn’t true.

Born Tecumseh Sherman, his father died when he was age nine, one of  eleven children, leaving the family in dire straits. The family of Ohio Senator Thomas Ewing, nearby neighbors, took him in and raised him as their foster child. Mrs. Ewing, a devout Catholic, had one condition: the boy had to be baptized Catholic. On June 25, 1829, he was baptized by a Dominican priest from Youngstown who christened him William Tecumseh, for the saint whose feast was commemorated that day.

Sherman never formally withdrew from the Catholic Church. Raised Catholic with the Ewings (and his future wife Ellen), neither did he ever truly accept Catholicism, becoming something of a skeptic in later years. In 1850, he married Ellen in a Catholic ceremony and they raised eight children together, all of them Catholic. His son, Thomas Ewing (Tom)  Sherman (1856-1930) became a Jesuit priest, much to his father’s dismay.  Ellen, a devout Catholic, often at odds with her husband over religious issues, but he left her alone and he remained amusedly cynical on such matters.

Right at the end of the Civil War, in 1865, General Sherman addressed Notre Dame’s graduating class. (Thanks in part to her influence, the Sherman family papers are deposited at the University of Notre Dame Archives.) After his death on February 14, 1891, two ceremonies were held for Sherman. The first was a public service in New York City, and the second a funeral Mass at St. Louis celebrated by his son Tom. He is buried in a Catholic cemetery alongside his wife, Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, unwillingly Catholic to the end.

(*The above drawing of General Sherman is by Pat McNamara.) 

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