Sunday, June 7, 2015

150 Years Ago Today - Gen. W. T. Sherman's 1865 Commencement Address at Notre Dame

Cross -posted from my "Notre Dame in the Civil War" blog.

I am pleased to provide an excerpt from my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the commencement address delivered by Union general William T. Sherman at the University of Notre Dame, on June 7, 1865.

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.

–William T. Sherman, Notre Dame commencement address, June 7, 1865
The Sherman family—fresh from grand reviews and a series of congratulatory banquets—stopped at Notre Dame on Wednesday, June 7, 1865. The university took advantage of the presence of their distinguished guest and invited him to speak at that day’s commencement exercises. When Sherman entered the refectory, the students gave him an ovation. Timothy Howard, the wounded veteran of Shiloh—and now a Notre Dame professor—addressed the general on behalf of the faculty. The professor first congratulated Sherman on his military exploits and success and then on the general’s special connection to the university:

We are glad that you have kindly visited us on your way; we knew you would not forget us. From the field of strife and the march, your heart must have often turned to the quiet shades where dwelt the treasures of your soul. And when the war was over, we knew that General Sherman would come to see the places made sacred to him by the consecrating footsteps of his family, and rest with us and let Notre Dame be a gentle spot in the midst of toils in the present and honors in the future. (1)

Tommy Corcoran, a senior from Cincinnati, also congratulated the general and spoke with pride of how the university had a part in the Union victory, stating that “[p]riests, sisters, professors and students have gone out from their quiet places, and have become part in your grand armies; and a feeling of glory goes up in our souls as we remember that we, too, have a share in your renown.” (2)

The general’s nephew, Tom Ewing, then spoke on behalf of the junior department. He first poked fun at the seniors, saying that most of them were going to be doctors so that they could “kill other people without endangering their own lives,” while the rest would become lawyers so that they “may be smart enough to find excuses for avoiding all coming drafts.” His fellow juniors, though, he proudly declared, “have unanimously and solemnly resolved…to be soldiers…[and] Major Generals, also.” He then alluded touchingly to the general’s favorite son, stating, “You have come here, we know, to visit the halls where Willy studied, the groves where he played, and the boys who were his friends—a title we are proud to claim.” (3)

The general was deeply moved and assured the audience that the boys at Notre Dame were dear to him. Sherman declared that, under the circumstances, he would rather “fight a respectable battle in behalf of the nation’s rights, than make a speech now,” adding, “[b]ut it is clear that you expect me to say something and I don’t want to disappoint you.” He then delivered some unprepared remarks (his trademark), commenting on his own youth and the need for self-reliance and referring often to the great national struggle:

Let me not forget that I was once a young man like those who have appeared before the audience on this day and occasion. You should be grateful that you are under such good instruction and guidance. You now have a pilot on board to guide you, but the time will come, and soon, when you will have to go forth into the great, dark seas alone, under your own guidance…

You must see to it that the ship is strong, the pilot true and the compass unerring…No one can tell when the ship might be wanted, when it will be required to go into action and even to do fighting for America. God knows there has been enough of fighting for a long spell, but it is the highest wisdom and the best policy…to be ready for that encounter at any moment…

But I ask you to remember that, although I have no more than ordinary abilities such as any of you possess, I had not forgotten to take care of the ship and that I trusted in the pilot—in myself. I relied upon my own courage and foresight and in my devotion to the good old cause, to the Union, to truth, to liberty and, above all, to the God of battles…

So I call upon the young men here to be ready to at all times to perform bravely the battle of life…A young man should always stand in his armor, with his sword in hand and his buckler on.

The general concluded by promising the young men assembled that he would “always regard you and your pursuits with interest,” with confidence that “each of you will try to make your careers honorable as well as successful,” and then he then bade them farewell. (4)


(1) Chicago Evening Journal, June 16, 1865.
(2) Ibid
(3) Ibid.
(4) “General Sherman at Notre Dame” in Wilson D. Miscamble, ed., Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 46–47.

Note: Sherman's speech is the first of many in the wonderful book cited above: Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses by Fr. William D. Miscamble (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). It includes more than two dozen addresses from 1865 through 2001.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Man, Sherman had some great lines. It'd be cool to have shared a drink with him back in the day:)