Sam Nunn about his "Sherman-like statement...


March 16, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

AFTER QUOTING Sam Nunn about his "Sherman-like statement" lastWednesday, I advertised a column for today proving Sherman didn't mean it.

Here is that column. Sort of.

William Tecumseh Sherman was the most popular Civil War veteran of them all, U. S. Grant included. Grant became president after the war, and his reputation suffered as scandal piled upon scandal.

Sherman became what would today be called chief of staff of the Army. His reputation rose ever higher. Both parties kept begging him to run for president.

He always insisted in conversations and letters with his brother Sen. John Sherman and others that being president was not something soldiers were schooled for. He wouldn't take it on a silver platter.

Sherman retired as general-in-chief in 1883. In May, 1884, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, his old friend Sen. James G. Blaine wrote Sherman that he would probably be drafted, and if he were, "you can no more refuse than you could have refused to obey an order when you were a lieutenant."

Still Sherman refused. On June 4 he got a telegram from the convention chairman: "your name is the only one [the delegates] can agree on, you will have to put aside your prejudices and accept the presidency." Sherman wired back the immortal litmus test for future coy candidates, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected."

Blaine was nominated June 6. On June 7 Sherman wrote Blaine a less well-known message. His biographers have ignored it. He ++ wrote, "I will now admit that I was a candidate." He said his candidacy was passive and reluctant, and he thanked Blaine for winning, which "probably saved me from making a mistake which could have damaged my fame as you say, as much as the disobedience of a lawful order when I was a lieutenant in the Army."

I read "I was a candidate" and "probably" to mean he knew he would not turn down the "order." He might not have campaigned, but had he won the election (he surely would have; the incompetent Blaine narrowly lost), he would have served.

No biographer or historian has seriously argued this, I knew, but I knew also that no scholar had read all of Sherman's letters, which are scattered among several libraries. Maybe somewhere he confirmed this interpretation of the June 7 letter. At any rate, since no one had seen all the letters, who could flatly refute my interpretation?

On Thursday I talked with John Marszalek of Mississippi State. He is just completing a Sherman biography. He has read all the letters. (Wouldn't you know it!) He said (1) there is no such smoking-gun letter, (2) the "probably" means Sherman believed refusal probably would have hurt his reputation, not that it was only probable that he would have refused, and (3) "I was a candidate" was probably a joke, of the sort Sherman often employed in letters to friends.

So maybe he did mean it after all.

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