For decades, the University of Notre Dame has featured nationally and internationally renowned speakers at its commencements, ranging from popes and presidents to generals and CEO’s. The first speaker of national renown was Major General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), a key figure in preserving the Union. Two of Sherman’s sons had attended the school (one would become a Jesuit priest). His wife Eleanor Boyle Ewing Sherman (1824-1888) was a devout Catholic who was close to the Holy Cross Fathers who ran Notre Dame.
Sherman himself had been baptized a Catholic, but never associated himself with any church. It was said that he and his wife frequently quarrelled over religious topics (and he usually lost). But their eight children all were raised Catholic, and almost all of them attended Catholic schools. The Sherman family papers are housed at the University of Notre Dame Archives.
General Sherman and his wife are buried together at Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery, in St. Louis. (The same cemetery also contains the remains of Dred Scott, whose case helped propel the nation toward the Civil War.)
The following excerpts are from Sherman’s speech at Notre Dame.
“Perform Bravely the Battle of Life”
“I am called upon to take a novel part here today. I don’t pretend to be a speaker, nor have I prepared a speech for the occasion. But it is clear that you expect me to say something and I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Sherman talked briefly about his own experience as a student, his war service, and perhaps most importantly for the students, the need for self-reliance and trusting one’s self:
So I call upon the young men here to be ready at all times to be ready at all times to perform the battle of life. We might never have to go to war anymore on this continent but then again we might. War is possible and we must be ready for the contingency. But more than this I want to say there is a kind of war which is inevitable to all– it is the war of life. A young man should always stand in his armor, with his sword in his hand and his buckler on. Life is only another kind of battle and it requires as good a generalship to conduct it to a successful end as it did to conquer a city, or to march through Georgia.
Source: Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., ed., Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).
(The drawing of General Sherman is by Pat McNamara.)